Wednesday, 18 August 2010

On kindness

I wrote this piece about kindness for the School of Life column in the Observer magazine:

Does modern society suffer from a deficit of kindness? In a recent book on the subject, Adam Phillips and Barbara Taylor argue that kindness is an unfashionable, endangered virtue. They attribute this to the ascendancy of free market individualism and the lack of trust it engenders, which creates “a life of overwork, anxiety, and isolation”.

It is certainly true that kindness is rarely invoked in contemporary public rhetoric. The voguish word for our straitened times is not kindness but “fairness”. When everyone must bear their “fair share” of economic pain, kindness is likely to be regarded as a luxury we can ill afford, perhaps even as a form of sanctimony or concealed self-interest. Kindness now tends to be outsourced to specific groups, such as care workers delivering “care packages”, or reduced to the scripted concern of the customer-server relationship: “Is there anything else I can help you with today?”

But in our daily lives, there is no evidence that kindness is in decline. Each era creates its own types of kindness. Children, who consume more of their parents’ lives than ever before, generate networks of kindness as adults share chauffeuring, sleepover and cooking duties. And while the casual cruelty of internet comments pages might suggest that kindness requires face-to-face interaction, the internet’s interactivity also inspires random acts of kindness among strangers: the recent lovebombing of Keanu Reeves, after he was photographed looking fed up on a park bench, is an example.

Granted, it may be easier to be kind to glamorous film stars, but surely the point about kindness is that it is spontaneous and can’t be legislated for. If, as philosophers from the Greek Stoics to Rousseau have insisted, we have a natural empathy with our fellow human beings, then kindness will surely survive the temporary setback of hard times.


  1. Hi there! Kindness is an under-rated virtue in my book, but an absolutely essential component of a functioning society. Whether it is innate, or something that can be taught, we need more of it, for its lack is seen whenever bullying takes place.

  2. I can't remember who coined the phrase "random acts of kindness", but actually if one removes the 'cynical filter' occasionally, kindness soldiers on, in spite of there being every opportunity for it to fade into the background. And it's contagious. The important things is not to be put off when some ignorant bastard fails to acknowledge that you've held the door open or let them into your lane of traffic.

  3. Calling all random acts of kindness!

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    If you wouldn't mind taking two seconds to vote for me, go to my blog, or use the following link, which will take you right to my picture:

    Thanks a bunch!

  4. Kindness might seem to have dramatically waned to people such as Adam Phillips and Barbara Taylor - or perhaps they think it "fashionable" and lucrative to create a hypothesis that kindness is not practised or observed as much in our consumerist society - but in my life it is everywhere!

    I and many others I know practise overt as well as "secret" kindness, like leaving a pound coin in a shopping trolley, for example.

    Loved your "Therapy in a pencil case" piece for The Guardian today, beautiful.

  5. Thank you all for these kind words about kindness, which I've only just picked up.