I’ve been developing A Proposal: The Politics of Kindness in recent weeks, as well as communicating with others from across the political spectrum on matters of policy, ideology, and personal style, and the sheer lunacy and pettiness of popular discourse raises the question of whether reason and goodwill are powerful enough forces to cut through it, or whether those who are advocates for reason and goodwill have simply failed to present it in a transparent and compelling enough manner.
Here’s what should be completely non-controversial: We should govern ourselves by using sound reason applied to reliable information in service to all legitimate values and goals, including the protection and augmentation of individual liberty, the recognition of mutual interdependence, and a commitment to kindness and compassion. And yet, it is controversial, the simplicity of it buried beneath various idolatries and ideological rationalizations.
One former supporter wrote me and said that my use of jargon turns him off, and that I would attract more people to my ideas by avoiding it. I wrote back thanking him, telling him that I thought that he was absolutely right, that I would work on it, but that my writing style is really just my writing style, and it probably wasn’t going to change dramatically, in part due to my own lack of skill and my own unwillingness to invest the amount of time and energy necessary. I asked him to “bear with me.” He replied that I had chosen not to take his suggestion, but rather to rationalize continuing to do what he suggested I stop doing, so he wasn’t going to bear with me. I responded: “Fair enough. Different people have different ways of thinking, speaking, writing, and behaving. Some of those differences shouldn’t be tolerated, and some should. It’s up to each of us to decide for ourselves where we draw that line. No hard feelings.”
How much should it matter to any of us if another person’s writing style is annoying? Should it matter any more than if another has a tic, or a stutter, or a physical defect? How much does it matter whether the offending trait is seen as more or less an artifact of volition, or amenable to voluntary modification? Should gay rights really hinge on the argument over whether it is a life-style choice, or an inherent characteristic?
The defects of some ideologies (not just some conservative ones) have more to do with attitude than with substance. They are characterized by intolerance, absolutism, and other attributes that are inherently centrifugal in nature, tearing people apart rather than binding us together. Progressives should not see themselves as being in a battle against external foes called “conservatives,” but rather against both internal and external foes called “intolerance, irrationality, ignorance, anger, hostility, cruelty” and so on.
It’s time for all reasonable people of goodwill to dedicate ourselves to The Politics of Kindness. Yes, well-reasoned and well-informed kindness; well-communicated kindness; kindness that seeks the kindest outcomes and not just the kindest intentions; kindness that is disciplined and channeled and cautious in its certainties; kindness that is courageous and assertive and even at times combative in its advocacy; but, ultimately, kindness.
We exhaust ourselves in futile opposition to irrelevancies, and fortify ourselves within shallow but passionately held dogmas. What if we simply all tried to do better? Or, more realistically, what if those of us who read this message, or receive it from some other source, or independently think of it, consider the possibility of doing better? What if all those who care about participating productively in the creation of our future dedicate themselves to doing better? And what if all those so inclined began to more consistently and frequently encourage others to do better as well, in the kindest and most endearing of ways?
I’ve learned a lot from my seven-year-old daughter. One of the things I’ve learned is that love is far more powerful than anger. And, in the same vein, tolerance is far more powerful than intolerance. Kindness is far more powerful than hatred or indifference. Reason is far more powerful than irrationality, and knowledge is far more powerful than ignorance. And yet, these more powerful forces seem forever on the defensive. Anger, intolerance, hatred, mutual indifference, irrationality, and ignorance are forever on the march, while love, tolerance, kindness, reason, and knowledge seem forever (or at least too frequently) in retreat. It’s not because the latter set is weaker, but rather because those of us who would be its advocates are weaker in our commitment to it, which demands more of its adherents than do hatred, intolerance, anger, indifference, irrationality, and ignorance.
Those who want reason and kindness to prevail in the political sphere have to work harder in promoting it within ourselves, within our families and communities, within our thoughts and our actions. We will continue to lose to weaker forces more easily served unless and until we do.