Kindness – I’ve long been a fan, even though its public image tended to be rather wet and doormatty.
Kindness is being considerate; it’s selfless generosity; it’s going out of your way to help another without expecting reward; it’s putting yourself in another’s shoes.
But the way I feel about the word kindness has changed. It started when kindness got a PR makeover, became the cool kid on the block, and started carrying a baseball bat.
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Cool Kid on the Block
Kindness has become the word that launched a thousand memes:
In a world where you can be anything, be kind.
Just be kind and brave – it’s all you need to be.
Everyone you meet is fighting a battle you know nothing about. Be kind. Always.
‘What do you want to be when you grow up?’ ‘Kind’ said the boy.
No longer is kindness the virtue too diffident to speak its name. It has become a universal imperative, from kittenish social media memes to the halls of academia.
Professor Robin Banerjee is Head of the School of Psychology at the University of Sussex in Brighton, home to the Sussex Centre for Research on Kindness. He oversaw the world’s largest study on kindness for BBC Radio 4, The Kindness Test, in 2021.
Banerjee surveyed papers on kindness published in academic journals. In journals from the 1980s, he found 35. In journals from the past decade, he found more than 1,000.
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The Rise of Kindness
Two episodes stand out in the reinvention of kindness from worthy-but-dull, to cool and compulsory.
One was the Covid pandemic. During Covid people become more aware of their own fragility, and started to value small acts of kindness from friends and neighbours; they rethought their values and what matters most in life.
Another was the rise of identity politics. Traditional politics was driven by class and economics. The left fought for the betterment of working-class communities and equality; the right defended tradition, meritocracy and the right to ownership without redistribution. Political questions usually had economic answers.
By contrast, the new identity politics focuses on personal identities such as gender. It sees society through a lens of privilege and oppression, pointing out the ways some groups have been historically privileged (spoiler: it’s a straight white male thing).
A priority in identity politics is personal safety, which explains its sensitivity to so-called micro-aggressions. The right to be safe from others’ hate-speech is seen as all-important. Here is where kindness takes centre-stage. But so does a corresponding impulse to shut down or ‘cancel’ anybody considered unkind or hateful.
A 2019 poll of UK students asked if feminist author Germaine Greer should be allowed to speak at Cardiff University, after some students accused her of being transphobic. Nearly half the students polled agreed she should be prevented from speaking (a).
‘Just be kind’ has become a motto for our times.
But what if it’s more complicated than that? What if being kind to one person or group means being unkind to another?
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In March 2022 I attended a meeting of feminist group Woman’s Place UK (WPUK) in central Manchester. I was keen to hear why WPUK believe some spaces and activities should remain single-sex, including rape crisis centres, prisons and sports.
One of the main speakers was an African asylum-seeker, who told a harrowing story of her own abuse and her work with abused women in Manchester. Many in the meeting had been victims of abuse, including the woman sitting next to me.
During the evening speakers were drowned out by around 150 young activists outside the building with megaphones. Many wore balaclavas to hide their faces. They shouted violently abusive slogans, saying their existence was threatened by the 'hate' meeting inside – because it was about biological sex, rather than self-identified gender. Attendees were called ‘TERFs’ (Trans-Exclusionary Radical Feminists), intent on trans genocide.
The police had to prevent the protesters storming the meeting, and stayed to protect us as we left.
I can’t say how many of the protesters were trans, and how many were trans allies. I suspect more were allies – rarely are people so fired up as when they feel they’re protecting others.
I later jotted down: ‘Note to trans activists and allies: abuse of vulnerable women, to the point where they need police protection, and shouting down women's voices and right to organise for their own safety, isn't a great look. It feels strangely like old-fashioned, violent misogyny.’
In the days after the event, I determined to find out more about the protesters who had tried to storm our meeting, and about their concerns.
I found moving stories about trans identity. I also found a whole world of hyperviolent imagery, including a blizzard of death, choking and rape threats aimed at TERFs.
Lesbian women who excluded male-bodied transwomen from their dating pool came in for particular vitriol.
The self-proclaimed motivation of these online posts? Kindness. Their preferred image to represent this kindness? The baseball bat.
There is something odd going on in the world of kindness.
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Kindness as Violence
Kindness has been redefined as violence.
The trans people I’ve met and worked with have been gentle, thoughtful people. In daily life, the activists who tried to storm the Manchester meeting may have been too. But their actions that night showed something else: they believed violence is justified in the name of kindness.
This belief has an emotional logic: A bigoted, intolerant group threatens my safety and the safety of people like me. They threaten our very existence. This can only be answered with force.
The popular trans YouTuber known as Jessie Gender recently posted a video saying women who want single-sex spaces are ‘Nazis’ and ‘fascists’, planning ‘literal genocide’. In the same video, Gender cheers on activists who assaulted a feminist speaker in Australia.
The idea that violence can bring about kind outcomes has a long history:
1) It is the narrative of utopian movements down the ages. We have a glorious vision of paradise-on-earth, but an enemy within is blocking progress. Marxist historian Eric Hobsbawm was asked if the 20 million deaths of the Soviet era would have been worth it, had it become the secular utopia it claimed to be. He said yes.
2) It is the narrative of redemptive violence – where order conquers chaos, and peace triumphs over lawlessness, through ‘a guilt-free orgy of aggression’ (b). When society feels out of control, we love a shoot-‘em-up hero who finishes off the bad guys.
3) It is the narrative of the witch-hunt. Some people in our community are in league with literal evil. The witches need to be burned for the common good.
Kindness slips into violence with surprising ease when it thinks it’s on the side of goodness, and the right side of history.
In 2020 an equalities officer for the Scottish National Party, Cameron Downing (23), posted on social media that he wanted to ‘beat the f*** out of some TERFs’. It was accompanied by a smiley emoji.
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Kindness as Silencing Free Speech and Free Inquiry
Similarly, kindness has been redefined as the silencing of free speech and free inquiry.
This has an emotional logic too. Fascists and bigots abuse their freedom of speech to whip up hatred and demonise minority identities. It’s a moral duty to silence them.
Put another way, The only thing that can’t be tolerated is intolerance.
A politics of identity quickly morphs into a culture of cancellation, in which people deemed problematic are denied a platform. Academics are forced out of teaching posts, feminist events attacked, artists banned from galleries. A particularly brutal example of an academic forced out of her job after a campaign of intimidation was Kathleen Stock, Philosophy Professor at Sussex University. The same Sussex University that is home to a Centre for Research on Kindness.
Usually the effect of cancel culture is subtler than crude deplatforming. More often it takes the form of self-censorship.
I recently spoke to a lecturer at a London university. She told me she routinely hides books during seminars, anxious that a student might see one they deem hateful and whip up a campaign to have her cancelled. She lives in fear that being seen with a particular book (even one she disagrees with) could open her to accusations of hate-speech.
Other colleagues, she said, feel the same fear. They hide books from students as from watchful Stasi, and self-censor in their writing and speaking.
One of the phrases beloved of identity politics is ‘No debate’. Free speech and free inquiry are no longer seen as hallmarks of an open, generous society; they are a pretext for hate-speech and power-play. Curtailing them is seen as a virtue.
There is a famous saying attributed to the 18th-century French writer Voltaire: ‘I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.’ The no-debate principle is closer to: ‘I disapprove of what you say, so I will defend my right to threaten your death if you say it.’
How to respond to this shift?
By starting with kindness itself, perhaps. One reason free speech matters is because cancel culture tends to prejudge what a kind outcome will be, by its own criteria. Ironically, this can have the effect of shutting down options that might prove kinder in the long run.
Take the astonishing rise in adolescent girls being referred to gender clinics (c).
Ten years ago, around 250 teens each year were referred to the UK’s Gender Identity Development Service (GIDS), mostly boys. By 2021 that had risen to over 5,000 a year, and they were now overwhelmingly girls – an increase of nearly 2,000% in a decade, with a huge shift from boys to girls. Clearly, something happened. But what?
• You could say that through history there have always been girls with a male gender identity, but social pressures left them powerless to do much about it. What changed in a decade was widespread acceptance of gender theory, so troubled teens are now free to transition. On this scenario hormones, puberty blockers and reassignment surgery bring authenticity. A transition story has a happy narrative arc. It is a ‘sacred journey of becoming whole’ (d).
• Or you could say what happened in a decade was social contagion. Troubled adolescent girls, many with autism, hate their own bodies. They hear a popular, if scientifically questionable (e), narrative of gender identity, and this becomes their framework for understanding a distress that may have other roots. The growing number of detransitioners suggests authenticity and wholeness are more likely to come from making peace with their own body, without surgery.
These are deeply personal and complex matters, and there is no one-size-fits-all solution. But there should at least be a proper, open conversation with each individual about where their distress might have come from, and about compassionate, wise ways forward. The role of a good therapist is to help a person explore the range of reasons why they might be struggling, and open up a range of options.
In practice, many activists will label the second option transphobic, because it doesn’t fit their definition of kindness: it fails to affirm unquestioningly the young person’s current feelings about their gender identity.
Gender theory tends to assume in advance that the teen’s problem is lack of affirmation in their chosen identity by an unaccepting culture, and medical intervention must be the right course. This denies the troubled adolescent the opportunity to explore whether their root problem might not be gender dysphoria at all.
Some will add that the second option amounts to conversion therapy, because it leaves space for a girl currently identifying as a boy to begin to feel at home in their own female body.
A kindness agenda defined by activists who know the answer in advance of hearing the question might well turn out in the long run to be unkind, or worse.
Free speech and free inquiry are vital for all sorts of reasons. We are here focusing on just one: you can’t prejudge what the kindest option is until you’ve listened intently to a person’s story and begun to untangle the experiences, pressures and cultural narratives that have contributed to their troubled state of mind.
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We are all fragile.
The trans youth who hates their body; the migrant woman carrying the emotional scars of rape; the lecturer hiding a book; the white male blamed for a power and privilege he has never felt; the feminist at the other end of the baseball bat.
Weaponised kindness assaults those who inhabit another story, those who look through other eyes. It silences difference.
Shut up, or I shall resort to violence to protect myself from you and those who think like you.
Shut up, because there is no debate to be had. I already know what the kind option is, and I already know you are motivated by hate. You have no right to speak.
Maybe I should have told the woman sitting next to me everything was fine. That sound of masked people with loud-hailers trying to storm the room was how people round these parts express kindness.
But everything wasn’t fine, and we both knew it.
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(a) Matthew D’Ancona, Identity, Ignorance, Innovation (Hodder & Stoughton 2021), p56
(b) ‘The Myth of Redemptive Violence’ by Walter Wink. The Bible in Transmission, Spring 1999
(c) ‘An explosion’: what is behind the rise in girls questioning their gender identity? Amelia Gentleman, The Guardian, 24/11/2022
(d) Letter from Rowan Williams, Steve Chalke and other church leaders, April 2022
(e) For example, biologist Richard Dawkins and geneticist Robert Winston think gender theory is untrue
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© Mike Starkey 2023
Pic: JP Valery, under licence from Burst