November 18, 2020

The Pity Party On The Left

On the face of it, combinations of attitudes currently popular among self-styled progressives look pretty incoherent. It’s deemed important to recognise that multiple oppressive structures intersect, producing inequality holistically – but this is not seen as particularly pressing, say, for any white males at the intersections of being young, working-class, and poor. It’s imperative to tackle rape culture, but watching pornographic films documenting the brutalization of women is unremarkable. Gender stereotypes are oppressive, but trans identities must be affirmed in every context and at all costs. And so on.

What could explain this appearance of partiality – or even hypocrisy? One factor not talked about enough is a performative turn towards kindness. Recently, the UK Left has made “be kind” a political mantra. The perverse effect is that many are now smugger, meaner, and – perhaps most importantly – less politically effective.

If the Guardian is anything to go by, being kind has been on the agenda of progressive lefties for a while now. In 2013, it ran an op-ed, “Have we forgotten how to be kind?”, in which its author Daisy Buchanan quoted Kurt Vonnegut – “There's only one rule that I know of, babies—God damn it, you've got to be kind” - and argued that “you can never be right if you can't be compassionate, or considerate, or tender-hearted”. Since then, Guardian think pieces on kindness have flowed thick and fast, with titles such as: “Random acts of kindness can make the world a better place”; “Without the power of kindness, our society will fall apart”; “After Christchurch, kindness is the only way to live each day”; “What Love Island tells us about the value of kindness”; “Tell us about your experiences of celebrity acts of kindness”; “The kindest thing I ever saw…”; and “Kindness can work wonders, especially for the vulnerable”. Meanwhile kindness research has exploded in universities, hypothesising that being kind makes us happier, that teaching kids kindness gives them a competitive edge over others in future, and that inculcating a culture of kindness at work pays dividends for companies. Charities have sprung up, dedicated to teaching the world to be kind, or explaining how to carry out random acts of kindness in daily life, or “to inspire kindness as a way of being”; or to “make kindness a part of our daily lives”. There is a “World Kindness Day” (November 13th) and a “Random Acts of Kindness Day” (February 17th). As I write this, exhortations to kindness seem to be everywhere. Wigan Council are running a “Be Kind” campaign, and Pembroke County Council a “Connect to Kindness” campaign. ITV programme This Morning is distributing a “Be Kind” teachers’ pack.  Kindness was the theme of this year’s Mental Health Awareness week. And in an advertising campaign currently mounted by the Royal Parks in London, park users are being encouraged to upload “photos of yourselves showing kindness while you enjoy the parks”.

It’s probably unsurprising, then, that progressive politicians have sought to catch the kindness wave. In his first speech to the Labour Party conference in 2015, Jeremy Corbyn announced “a change in the way we do politics”. From now on, he said, the Labour Party would represent a “politics that’s kinder, more inclusive”. In another speech in the same year, he said: “Not everybody is always going to agree with everything, that’s fine, but we can agree on having a more decent, kind society.”

Yes, I suppose we can – but only up to a point. At the beginning of his essay “Of the Standard of Taste” David Hume points out that there are “certain terms in every language, which import blame, and others praise; and all men, who use the same tongue, must agree in their application of them.” In that sense, Corbyn is right: everyone can agree that a more decent, kind society would be a good thing. Equally, says Hume, everyone agrees that things like “justice, humanity, magnanimity, prudence” are great. But this isn’t because we’re all morally marvellous. The reason is much more banal: it’s that the meanings of these concepts have a measure of approval built in. To understand, at least roughly, what “justice” or “prudence” are, is already to know they are supposed to be positive things. Still, as Hume also observes, it remains very difficult to agree what concrete course of actions actually count, in practice, as just or prudent – or, for that matter, kind. At this point, consensus ceases and arguments tend to break out. Should I prioritise your immediate feelings and desires, or prioritise your ultimate well-being even if it makes you unhappy now? What’s the kind decision to make, where two people have strongly clashing interests? There’s little agreement about that. As Eva Wiseman writes - one of the few Guardian writers to sound a note of caution about her employer’s enthusiasm for kindness - to “urge our own concept of kindness on a disparate group of strangers is to invite disappointment”. Relatedly, it’s a caricature to think that only those on the Left are ever concerned with being kind, whereas those on the Right must be explicitly motivated by greed and selfishness. Rather, as Roger Scruton has pointed out, they simply differ on what counts as kind.

The capacity to attract superficial agreement is why exhortations like “be kind” are useful to politicians; as, of course, are their negative counterparts (“don’t be unkind!”), when talking about the sort of world we don’t want.  You get to say something with which no-one could reasonably disagree, appearing to occupy the moral high ground in the process. For the same reason, bland virtue-extolling is attractive to institutions and companies looking for a competitive edge.  Starbucks has brought out a “Cups of Kindness” collection, and companies such as Pret A Manger and Lush officially permit employees to give out one free product per day in a “random act of kindness”. There’s a cereal bar called Kind. And Instagram influencers have found the hashtag #BeKind a great way to advertise their impeccable moral credentials in a way that no-one, they assume, could possibly argue with.

When companies or individuals ostentatiously promote the value of kindness like this, they aren’t interested in helping people navigate the complex work of how to manifest kindness in everyday interactions. What they mostly mean is: feel kindly towards others. Demonstrating kindness essentially involves definite action. In contrast, kindliness seems to involve only emitting a vague feeling of warmth towards other humans. Yet promoting something so vague and underspecified as a political value carries with it certain risks. In practice, kindly feelings can quickly transmute into the dangerously sentimental emotion of pity, or else into a passivity which daren’t risk saying or thinking anything critical at all.

In her brilliant essay “The Social Question”, Hannah Arendt makes clear that pity isn’t the same as compassion. Compassion, unlike pity, is directed towards recognition of, and mental engagement, with someone’s individual and highly particular circumstances. Strictly speaking, compassion is suffering with someone – which requires you to know concrete detail about the plight of the person who is suffering. This isn’t a practical goal when directing warm feelings towards whole groups of people unknown to you, as is urged by progressives. Pity, on the other hand, requires no such detailed information. According to Arendt, pity “depersonalizes” and “lumps” people together “into an aggregate: the people toujours malheureux, the suffering masses, et cetera.” It’s generic. This lack of interest in specifics is presumably why pity always feels the same, regardless of context. And this sameness is reflected in the language of pity, which flattens out differences between situations and makes them all “tragic”, “heartbreaking” and “devastating”. Only hyperbole can adequately express the intense, short-lived, and homogenous feelings that are pity’s source.

Arendt also reminds us that during the French Revolution, at the very time during which the modern notions of Left and Right were starting to form, so too was an association between this new Left and the promotion of explicitly pitying feelings for the poor.  Such feelings haven’t always been a given. Part of the background story here was the general cult of Romanticism and sentimentality swirling around France at the time, saturating the public sphere with tears, sighs, and Greuze paintings of children weeping over dead pets. But fostering a culture of pity was also politically expedient. As Arendt points out, the elite leaders of the French Revolution had little in common with the poverty-stricken masses in whose name they grandstanded. Adopting the language of pity for the poor camouflaged material differences between the poor and the ruling classes, generating the impression of a shared political goal – at least for a while.

In our times too, extolling a culture of kindly – i.e. pitying – feelings towards other economically or socially vulnerable groups can be politically useful. For here too, it can handily distract from the fact that, as in 18th Century France, the main actors on the Left are mostly drawn from elites. As one insider told Tatler Magazine in 2019, under Corbyn the party was “posher than at any time in the 20 years I’ve worked there”. Corbyn himself spent part of his childhood living in a 17th Century Manor House and attending a prep school. Many of the Guardian writers keen to preach the virtues of kindness to readers are similarly drawn from inherited wealth and elite education. In this context, the confidence with which they promote the value of kindly feelings towards complete strangers makes more sense. Where resources are scarce, showing kindness to unknown others can involve a degree of self-denial rarely experienced by the financially insulated.

As well as giving a cosmetic impression of solidarity, kindly and pitying feelings towards others have another personal benefit: they can make you feel good. But this fact makes it more likely the feelings will be politically ineffective: for why try to fix what’s enjoyably broken? Once again, we return to Arendt: “without the presence of misfortune, pity could not exist, and it therefore has just as much vested interest in the existence of the unhappy as thirst for power has a vested interest in the existence of the weak.” For this reason, feeling pity for the homeless person in the TV news report is easier than for the one you encounter on your daily commute, for the latter veers dangerously close to developing into concrete practical action. Pity flies most volubly towards those we don’t really know and can’t really help; the relatively blank screens upon which we can project fantasies without cost.

Presumably, kindly feelings towards others are pleasant partly because they allow their possessor to bask in a sense of being a good person. Needless to say, this impression is often wrong. In fact, as Nietzsche emphasised, feelings of pity in particular can turn you into a sadist, enjoying your feeling of power and superiority over the pitied. It also seems likely that self-consciously trying to be kind to others produces the phenomenon known as moral self-licensing: the more you think of yourself as a good person, the more you let yourself get away with. The fact that chat show host Ellen De Generes markets “Be Kind” hoodies on her website looks suggestive when placed against recent allegations of racism and sexual misconduct behind the scenes of her show.  There were reports emerging of toxicity and bullying within Labour HQ even as Corbyn was pleading for a kinder, gentler politics on the podium. And we know how the French Revolution ended.

It’s also worth remembering that the stated goal for progressives is not just to be kind, but also – and perhaps more importantly – to get others to be kind too. It’s one thing to try, unobtrusively, to model kindness in your own life, and quite another to start telling other people to do it. In the latter case, you’ve moved squarely into the missionary zone; and from there it seems but a short step for some to zealously policing others’ attitudes and speech more generally. In particular, it’s seems a short step to policing the attitudes and speech of women.  As feminists have long pointed out, women are stereotypically expected to be kinder, more compassionate, and more self-abnegating than men. This makes the bar for public perception of women’s “unkindness” far lower than for men. It takes a blatant act of cruelty for a male public figure to seem unkind – think of Donald Trump mockingly mimicking a reporter with a disability. In contrast, women, whether in the public eye or not, can easily seem hard and pitiless for doing very little. They are subject to disproportionate criticism simply for articulating their own boundaries or speaking up in their own interests. Being understandably keen to escape this criticism, women are therefore less likely to speak out in a way that looks unkind, even when their own interests are being harmed. Telling everyone to be kind makes women in particular passive and muted.

A more general downside to feelings of kindliness and pity, contributing to their political ineffectiveness, is the way they struggle with complication. The best medium for generating pity is the personal anecdote, reporting an archetypally simple tale of suffering, with no accompanying ambiguity or complexity. This story is then taken to stand for a whole group’s experience. Where such stories aren’t easily generated, there tends to be public indifference. (Compare, for instance, the outpouring of pity for the exploited victims of Harvey Weinstein, versus the relative indifference to the plights of those thousands of women exploited every day in the pornographic industry.)

Equally, the logic of pity requires that where there’s a hero, there has to be a villain.  That is, there’s an economy of pity: pity for one group tends to produce blame for another. Quite perversely, the call to kindness on the Left seems to be fuelling the culture wars, encouraging simplistic psychological splitting between “good” groups and “bad” groups on a rampant scale. It’s presumably why articles sympathetically conveying the experience of alienated working-class Brexit voters are relatively rare in the left-wing press. Once immigrants are identified as the primary group to be pitied, white voters objecting to their presence – no matter what their reasoning - are demoted to a malevolent caricature. A similar phenomenon accompanies the relative failure of the Left to fairly represent any viewpoints critical of trans activist organisations, such as those held by feminists (like me) or detransitioned people. Thanks to a litany of heart-rending anecdotes and dodgy statistics supplied by mainstream LGBT organisations, trans people have become synonymous in many minds with people automatically deserving of pity. It swiftly follows that those who criticise trans activist organisations, or even particular trans people – again, for whatever reason – are automatically seen as badly motivated and “anti-trans”.

I’ve insisted that pity is relatively cost-free to the pitier, but there’s one obvious exception. It’s well-recognised that habitual self-pity can extract a hefty price on its possessor, reducing the chances of future achievement and happiness. On the internet at least, it’s not hard to find people who apparently see themselves as pitiable, and who seek to manipulate this response from others. Incels are the most egregious example, but the phenomenon seems widespread. Though (for their sakes) we shouldn’t pity habitual self-pitiers, nor should we blame them. Compassion, or “suffering-with” - in the Arendtian sense of getting to know and care about the particular details of another person’s individualised situation, in depth - is in short supply these days, especially for young people who arguably need it most. Working parents are distracted and exhausted; teaching is standardised and depersonalised; interaction with friends is via apps. Emotional connection is outsourced to paid caregivers and therapists, or to self-help books and online gurus. For lots of young men in particular, sex means pornography and not intimacy, communication, touch, or affection. In a culture where generic pity is so easily distributed, no wonder some people seek it from others, or try to feel it for themselves. It may be a pale substitute for true compassion, but it’s quite possibly all they can get.

There are many virtues, both moral and epistemic, which the current Left could publicly endorse, if it wished. Fairness is an obvious substitute for kindness, requiring more thought and less feeling to hit the mark. Equally, the Left could try to foster courage, in order to face moral complexity; or self-discipline, in order to have civil, open conversations with ideological opponents. In an age apparently rife with narcissists, it could even aim for a bit of selflessness and modesty. Kindness isn’t one of the virtues it should explicitly aim at, however. And pity – kindness’s self-indulgent, lazy child – should be left out of politics completely.