Deconstructing kindness in relation to social justice issues
Brandeis University celebrated Kindness Week from Nov. 8 to 13. The purpose of this week-long event is to encourage and celebrate the kindness that exists within the community. No matter where you are on campus, their message is clear and pervasive. You will be continually prompted to love yourself and to treat others kindly, whether it is through one of their many events, posters and even reminders chalked onto the pavement.
In a sense, Kindness Week has a uniquely Brandeisian character to it. It is spiritually tied to Brandeis’ own brand of social justice: it purports its actualization through developing harmonious and positive relationships within ourselves and towards one another, through the ideals of kindness and self-love. To question these ideals then, would almost seem like a sacrilegious act. It would, after all, take either an insane person or someone who is too far gone (I don’t deny that I may be either of the two things) to challenge the values of kindness. I ask you to hear me out. I would like to use this opportunity to demonstrate why kindness may be an insufficient, or, at times, harmful ideal in and of itself, especially when translated socially and politically.
On the surface level, I am skeptical whether kindness is a virtue that we should even accept. Given that we live in a deeply unjust and unequal social world, we have clear and legitimate reasons to be upset. As such, I question the effectiveness of self-love as an antidote.
But on a deeper or perhaps a more cynical level, I would even question whether the ideals of kindness and self-love serve a more nefarious function. The rhetoric of such values, to me, seems to be a powerful tool of sustaining existing systems of power by disciplining the behaviors of citizens to conform to said systems. In this sense then, the ideals of kindness and self-love may even be a form of false consciousness that legitimizes existing unjust distributions of power.
Some may think I am being overly cynical, but I suspect many of us would feel the same way when listening to politicians or media pundits professing similar superficial ideals of “love,” “peace” and “freedom,” as substitutes for delivering substantive solutions towards existing social injustices. I think, fundamentally, the rhetoric of kindness or self-love actually masks a hyper-individualistic ideology about self-governance and social interactions. It treats conflicts and antagonism within oneself and between each other as a defect in individual psychology and mindsets in need of correction, rather than a symptom of an incredibly unjust and unequal society. It implicates antagonism as inherently destructive, both towards ourselves and any form of social and political discourse. And consequently, it obfuscates any positive roles antagonism plays, both toward our own identity will-formation and towards redressing or challenging unequal systems of power.
I can’t stress this enough: this opinion piece is neither a critique against Kindness Week in general nor to their organizers, who deserved all the support. If anything, I would like to thank them for bringing kindness back into the conversation. Nor is this to deny or discourage the positive role kindness may play in our social interactions and our mental health. The ideal of a kind society is certainly one we should all strive for. All I am suggesting is that its actualization requires more than being kind to ourselves and each other. In an age where we are faced with deep systematic racial and other social injustice, we should not let the lofty ideals of kindness blind us from our deeper purposes of challenging institutional oppression and the struggle for achieving mutual recognition.