Subverting Politics: Doing a Kind Thing

The aim of this exercise was to confront negative stereotypes immediately, but to do it in a way that wouldn’t kill the conversation before it started.  If each side was asked to name the top four stereotypes about the other side, then it would feel like an attack and the walls would go up. But by naming the stereotypes of their own side, and both pushing back against them and acknowledging there may be some truth there, the attendees were able to show self-awareness, restraint, humility, intelligence, and good faith.  The Power of Strangers:  the Benefits of Connecting in a Suspicious World,

Joe Keohane

This is a description of an exercise by one of many groups in the U.S. which seek to help people on the red and blue sides talk with, and be comfortable with, each other.  This book describes the benefits and methods of speaking with strangers deliberately, not with an agenda, but with the desire to benefit from that exchange of stories.  It is an encouraging book, written during the first year of the pandemic, but, of course, based upon experiences earlier.  The lessons in it would be good to remember and imitate once we get out of the current pandemic.  (At this writing there have been a million COVID deaths in the U.S., far fewer in Canada.  Canada still has some mask requirements, and many who continue to wear them even when not required.  The U.S. is much less encumbered, but there are warnings that the next variants will return and the country will not be prepared.)  It is not clear when that will really happen.

I have also just finished reading William P. Barr’s One Damn Thing after Another: Memoir of an Attorney General.  I admire much in this book, particularly Barr’s ability to describe the unsuitable qualities in Trump and the things he did wrong, even while Barr explains that he supports that president’s policies.  I would probably enjoy chatting with Barr over a coffee, and doing so often.  Barr is much less precise about his negative attitude toward liberals, and identifies the same negative qualities in them which liberals often use to describe Republicans and conservatives generally.  He doesn’t go into detail to explain his opinion of liberals.  It’s just there.  He believes liberalism will lead toward totalitarianism and a lack of law and order, and asserts that Trump was certainly the lesser of the two evils in comparison with Hillary Clinton.  This is a perceptive, highly intellectual man, whose wife and two daughters (lawyers also) agree with him broadly.  I wonder how it is that he can so misperceive liberals, and not see the log in his own eye (to quote a well-known New Testament metaphor).  For that matter, how can we liberals miss the logs in our own eyes, if Barr’s perceptions be accurate?

That’s the question, isn’t it?  Is it really that both sides hold within ourselves the same horrible political evils, but do not recognize them?  In earlier posts I described many of the ways in which people deceive ourselves about ourselves, the ways in which we really do not know why we do the things or don’t do them, and so on.  Is that’s what is going on – we just don’t know ourselves?  Or are we overwhelmed by social media and newscasting echo chambers, brain-washed into believing these stereotypes?  I doubt that Barr cannot think for himself.  I know that I think for myself (see the previous post).  But if the two sides are right about each other, how is it that our democracies are able to forge ahead?  Surely we would have come to a dead stop.  Maybe our desire to have one side win and one side lose is what enables us to creep along, but the downside to this way of living and conducting public policy are obvious to all.  What if neither of us is right, and all that we see before us is a delusion?  I pose these questions for Canadians as well as Americans.

I am convinced that politics as it is today will not solve our problems, because it seeks only to win, and to cause the other side to lose.  If we are to continue, we must find a value that inspires us all and which, therefore, may point us in the same general direction and demand that we head that way at somewhat the same pace.  Something whose presence will subvert current politics.

To be that value, I nominate doing kind things.  I’m not going to define “kindness” in this essay – almost every “great speech” I have read in books about rhetoric depends upon citing some key terms, defining them through some authoritative dictionary, and then using them as springboards to discuss a huge array of other values and courses of action.  I don’t believe that remembering those key terms and definitions, would summon to my mind everything else that was discussed, and cause me to act accordingly.

I assume, instead, that everyone has a concept of what it means to do kind things.  Even in this age of fake news and big lies, I assume that everyone wants to think well of themselves as humans, and would like to feel a tug away from the everyday drive to succeed, get ahead, or even just to survive; that the thought of doing a kind thing makes everyone feel a lessening of tension in the stomach, a “third space” where they can delve into themselves for their best motives and intentions toward other people and things; and that they will feel they are permitted to put aside all other pressure and dedicate this moment toward treating someone else kindly, without any expectation of gratitude or praise, and without this being remarked on by anyone else.  To do a kind thing can call up our best selves, declare our independence of other pressures for a while, and dedicate this time to the act.

Instead of telling you what I think kindness is, I’ll tell you a story.  I always worked hard on preparing the children’s sermon or story for Sunday services (I am a retired clergy).  I made a point of involving the 20 or 30 children of all ages, getting them to contribute a much as possible (I did not have them speak directly into the microphone, because kids will sometime reveal pretty embarrassing things about their families.  I would have them speak to me, and I would reiterate it into the microphone, editing if necessary).  I have always maintained that if you can’t explain to a fourth grader what it is that you believe, you don’t know what you believe.  So, to keep it simple, I avoided nouns and vague concepts, used action verbs as much as possible, and with the help of local librarians, regularly read popular contemporary children’s stories so I could allude to characters and stories familiar to them.  When done, I would have a short prayer with the kids, and they would leave while the organist prepared the congregation to sing a hymn.

Once, a boy remained seated and told me he still had some questions.  So I remained seated, too, and listened. My instinct was that this was the time, and telling him we would talk after the service just wouldn’t do. The organist quickly perceived what was happening, and moved into some general filler music rather than the hymn, the congregation remained seated and quiet, and the boy and I spoke very quietly (he had his back to the congregation) until he declared himself satisfied, stood up, and headed out of the sanctuary.  The organist switched to the hymn, I rose and gestured to the congregation to rise, and we sang.  You see the kindness:  I was giving the boy his due time and space, but so were the 150 or so members of the congregation who remained quiet and did not break the mood of the service by talking or whispering among themselves (the acoustics picked up whispers very well).  The organist was doing a kindness by being aware of the situation and cooperating in giving him time and space.  A lot of people interrupted ourselves for the sake of a boy.  A simple act, but very meaningful to everyone.

Now, I suspect that when reading this story, you intuit what I mean by doing a kind thing, and that you can instantly translate this into something meaningful you have done in your own life, or which was done to you, or which you plan to do. You know you must step off the path you were on, pause, and focus your attention and your emotions on a particular person, need, or situation. It won’t take long, and you are not doing it for the sake of doing a kind thing but because doing a kind thing is the most helpful and appropriate possible response to the person or situation.  You probably will not then look for another kindness to do, but rather will step back onto the path and continue. But now you have permission to look for those situations where doing a kind thing is the most helpful and appropriate possible response*.  Maybe you will be able to do a kind thing while staying on your path, but probably not.  Doing a kind thing can be expensive – it may slow you down, or cause you to question whether this is the right path for you.  It may mess up things for you quite significantly.

We all know how much pressure there is to get on with things, to meet our schedules and our obligations.  We are all familiar with the need to distinguish between what it merely urgent and what is truly important.  We may worry that doing a kind thing might divert us too much from these.  I acknowledge that this concern must be taken seriously.  But if doing a kind thing causes us to look back at our path and question whether it is the right path for us, it is a boon for us, even if we conclude the path is right.  Taking the time and the effort to ask the question, is beneficial, protecting us against ruts, and lemming-like behaviour.

You may think that people who do good for a living, such as aid workers, first responders, medical professionals, and clergy, are on paths from which we don’t have to turn aside to do a kind thing.  But all professions have their institutional expectations which may or may not foster the ability to do kind things.  As well, the more complex the institutions and professions that serve in them, the more their demands may interfere with actually doing good.  So we, too, need the opportunities to step off our paths.  Sometimes, I found, the excessive effort needed to keep the machinery going was ‘way out of proportion to the effort available to do kind things.  When you realize that your work inhibits making the most helpful and appropriate possible response, it is time to step off even that path.

The great thing about doing a kind thing is that the impulse comes from our emotions and/or subconscious (see my several previous posts about whether we understand how we make decisions) but needs the cooperation of our conscious to discern the most helpful and appropriate means. Doing a kind thing involves the whole person, and, moreover, requires explicit intention because you know you are stepping off the path. This sometimes requires courage because it challenges the rightness of the path.

Upon Reconsidering is primarily about exercising informed consent and dissent.  Doing a kind thing may be the ultimate act of informed consent because you really must know and understand intuitively and consciously what you are doing and why, and what the desired outcome is, along with the possible downsides.

This is much better than arguing about an issue and staying opposed to someone.  It is much better for you and for society than politics.

*Keeping in mind the teaching that we should be as concerned with others as much as ourselves, neither more nor less (a paraphrase of one of the two Great Commandments in Hebrew and Christian scriptures).  This is the core ethic for me.