Ames, IA. Two or three times over the past few years, I’ve noticed a bumper sticker that says “Be Kind.” Recently I discovered online that you can buy a lot of different stickers with that message, or with variations on the basic sentiment. Mine wasn’t a rare, incidental sighting. A host of our fellow motorists are urging us to be kind, and they aren’t just talking about the way we drive. Kindness, for many, fulfills the urgent need of our time. It’s the cure for what ails us, the thing that everyone should be doing right now. As one sticker declares, “It’s cool to be kind.”
I realize that calling a bumper sticker shallow is like criticizing “Happy Birthday to You” for not being a Bach chorale. But what does it mean when someone uses his or her car to proclaim “In the end, only kindness matters”? According to this statement, being kind isn’t merely an advisable practice like looking both ways or getting regular dental checkups. Kindness is prescribed here as the ultimate measure of the good or moral life. It’s this bumper-sticker belief that I can’t help but question.
“Be kind” is an infantilizing directive, something kindergarten teachers tell unruly five-year-olds. You can insist that that’s the beauty of it, that being kind epitomizes the simplicity of right conduct—but sometimes “simple” amounts to “meager.” Being kind is okay, but what about being noble or good? Kindness feels thin and insubstantial beside, say, the rich catalog of virtues in Aristotle, or the stern reasoning of Kant’s categorical imperative, or Jesus’ invitation to have life abundantly. There are in fact a good many things besides kindness that matter. Will being kind help me use my talents to the fullest? Can kindness help me navigate every ethical dilemma?
The kindness vogue isn’t just simplistic. It’s also a bleakly despairing response to our times. “Make America Kind Again” one bumper sticker pleads, ensuring we get the current urgency of being kind. Here kindness feels like a fall-back position, our best hope when cruelty is rampant and no alternative seems viable. (“Just Be Kind!” “Be Kind Anyway.”) A belief system more rigorous and specific than being kind could exclude someone, after all, and anyway it would be too hard, so we throw up our hands and settle for kindness. One sticker casts our predicament in bald if wordy terms: “We don’t have to agree on anything to be kind to one another.” Amid the ruins of consensus and understanding, kindness will have to do.
Well…is that so bad? As they say about getting old, it beats the alternative. Better to be kind than to cage little children, or to ridicule the weak, or to punch someone at a political rally. Kindness has a long, legitimate standing as praiseworthy conduct. Injunctions to be kind appear throughout the Old and New Testaments. Luther writes of the “godly and kind” ministers through whom God chooses to work (“On the Councils and the Church,” 1539). Anyone who isn’t a sociopath tries to be kind, and desires kindness from others. Just being kind, however, is a more recent standard. And there are reasons to doubt whether just being kind is enough.
When Blanche Dubois said she’d “always depended on the kindness of strangers,” she made it sound like a risky, surprising thing to do. In fact, we almost always practice our everyday “kindness” toward people we hardly know, or don’t know at all. I’m being kind when I hold the door for a mom pushing a stroller, or fetch down a jar of preserves for a little old lady in the grocery store, or drop a dollar in the coffee shop tip jar. If you compliment the writer of an engaging post, what do you hear back? “Thank you for your kind words,” of course. If I give a ride home from a party to a couple I just met, they thank me for my kindness as they get out of the car. I probably won’t be called “kind,” though, if I drive across town to pick up my wife who’s caught in a rainstorm, or if I help one of my children move into a new apartment, or if I water my neighbor’s plants while she’s away on vacation. These people are more to me than objects of kindness. I’m obliged to them by bonds of love and friendship, so I get no pat on the head for being kind.
Being kind is pleasantly anonymous, an effective way to hold people at arm’s length. I’m delighted to be kind to you—but please let’s leave it at that. If after a week or two I see the couple from the party on the street, chances are we’ll pass without recognizing each other. We might even pretend we don’t recognize each other, so preferable is it to confine our relations to kindness.
In the strained atmosphere that produced a bumper crop of “Be Kind” stickers, kindness is the evasive tactic we crave. If I’m just kind to you, I don’t need to find out what you think or reveal what I think. We don’t need to know each other in any meaningful way. We can remain bitter foes, exchanging compliments and smiles, locked silently in our endless cold war. Where does being kind leave off, and cowardice begin?
If it keeps us from flying at each other’s throats, I’ll take kindness every time. But if we seek more than survival, something more like reconciliation and healing—if we hope to rediscover a common endeavor—kindness barely takes the first step. It’s the “Hi, how are ya” of life together. “In the end, only kindness matters.” On the contrary: kindness is just the beginning.