As we face a dire future of climate change, mass extinction, political corruption, a worsening culture war, and frightening whispers of a nuclear threat, many people seem unhealthily wed to the idea that simple acts of kindness can turn the tide.
Being nice or kind isn’t a bad thing, but it’s certainly distracting, and can easily be faked or kept at a superficial level.
True kindness is what we call compassion: it’s the difference between holding a door for someone and helping someone who’s struggling with bags to take them to their car. It also involves consent: if someone doesn’t want help to their car, you’re not being kind if you insist.
Moreover, people insist that if we simply elevate levels of kindness, the world’s problems will somehow be counteracted. Often, the same people bemoan the lack of trust and neighborliness, mistaking that for the source of our problems. Fact is, violence happens because of power struggles, not lack of neighborliness. Environmental disaster happens because of devastating industrial activity, not because people don’t care. Political corruption happens because the system favors it, not because of simple meanness.
I understand the desperation to have kindness be a cure-all. Being kind seems like the least you can do in a horrible world to make someone’s day brighter. But that’s just it: it’s the least you can do. And let’s face it: being nice to strangers is something that makes you feel better than it makes them feel better. Don’t mistake empty acts of kindness for real compassionate action. It’s all too easy to check off “Be nice” on your daily checklist and go on with your easy life. It’s far more challenging — yet more rewarding — to go out of your way to help someone. To change your behavior and routines to promote healthy communities. To dismantle institutionalized violence or bigotry.
Deep down, we know this. We know that kindness and world-saving don’t go hand in hand. The popularity of vigilante movies and TV shows hints at our shared appreciation for the “antiheroes” — those who maybe aren’t sugar sweet or Captain America-clean cut, but who still do good works, even with gruff voices and a devil-may-care attitude. By the same token, we’re suspicious of people who are too nice — and rightly so. “Niceness” is a convenient mask for abusers and bullies to wear. It allows them to lure in and gaslight victims, all while putting on a good appearance for third parties.
And yet, we’re stuck on certain forced niceness: holding doors for people, asking each other how we are, saying “please.” It’s an impulse we’ve all been socialized to do in order to feel like polite members of society, yet it does very little to change the world for better. Moreover, it can actually cause harm or discomfort, especially when it’s used as performance art to make someone feel like a Good Person.
As you might be aware, door-holding is a common practice in the U.S., but has immense potential for awkwardness. Moreover, it has a particular gendered dimension: while men and women are both taught to hold doors for the other, many men are raised to “always hold the door for ladies.” This leads to awkward and potentially dangerous situations in which men dive in front of women to hold the door for them. I’ve been smacked in the head by doors that men eagerly yanked open “for” me. Even more annoying, they often stand inside the doorway, forcing me to squeeze past them (I’m suuuuurree that’s not intentional). Half the time, I pretend I forgot something so that I can just walk in the opposite direction.
When I posted on Facebook about these observations, I immediately was beset with commenters insisting that it wasn’t a gendered situation, that I was complaining for no reason, that the world — you guessed it — “needs more kindness.” Everyone missed the part where I felt uncomfortable with, you know, being whacked in the head by a door or tripping over some man who dove in front of me because he was desperate to prove his chivalry. (Or he just wanted to look at my ass.)
When we deviate or ask others to deviate from social norms, we cause offense. These commenters felt that holding doors made them kind, and how dare I not appreciate that? I’m such an ungrateful bitch. Yet how much better would the world be if we directed our energy toward compassionate action to change the true sources of destruction and despair?
True kindness — compassion — doesn’t look like artificial niceness that means nothing and can even cause discomfort. It looks like respectful, consenting interactions with strangers. It looks like cleaning up after ourselves and making sure that others are comfortable. It looks like challenging systems and beliefs that cause harm to others. It looks like going the extra mile to help those in need. Make no mistake — it’s a lot of work, much more work than smiling at someone on the street or holding a door for them. But it’s what the world needs to be better.
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Rachel Wayne is a writer and artist based in Orlando, FL. She earned her master’s in visual anthropology from the University of Florida and runs the production company DreamQuilt. She is an avid aerial dancer and performance artist, and also dabbles in mixed-media. She writes nonfiction stories about herself and other awesome people, as well as essays on feminism, societal violence, mental health, politics, entrepreneurship, and whatever cultural topic strikes her fancy.
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