Practical Praxis: The Terrible Bargain of Kindness

“Above all else, babies, you’ve got to be kind.” As a writer, a person with an English degree, and a lover of books, I feel somewhat beholden to Kurt Vonnegut’s invectives of wisdom for the young. “You’ve got to be kind,” he implores, pointing out that kindness is a major part of what makes life bearable, that makes progress possible, and love so great.

But in practical application of feminist and Christian praxis, “kindness” can often take on new and different meanings. It becomes a burden, a means of silencing, a way of keeping and controlling power. Kindness, absent of an awareness of the power dynamics in play, becomes the terrible bargain of our lives. In calling the oppressed and the marginalized to be kind, those with privilege (myself included) can re-inscribe those power dynamics that cause oppression in the first place.

There's this thing that happens. Someone from a marginalized group objects to something someone not from that group said, and as a response to criticism, tone and civility get invoked. We have long posts and discussions in the blogging world about how "uncivil" the internet is - and the discussion is sufficiently distracted away from the original criticism. Kindness has become a method of policing whose voices get heard and when.

But revolution does not discriminate with regards to kindness. All too often, “kindness” is used as shorthand for nice, polite, and inoffensive. And all too often, a lack of this politeness is used as a method of dismissal for very valid critiques – it is often invoked as a reason for banning, blocking, or ignoring. And this perpetuates a world in which only those people of the marginalized group who are willing to fit into the ideals of their oppressors, who are willing to act whatever way is most non-threatening, are the ones who are listened to.

This doesn’t mean those who are interpreted as kind cannot have more radical politics or more radical ideas. Kindness does work as a strategy to an extent – for some, making that sacrifice is necessary to pushing people further on into radical advocacy. But there is a point beyond which kindness becomes a detriment rather than a virtue. In a world where black children are gunned down in the street for the supposed crime of being insufficiently deferential to white authority, where transwomen are assaulted in a McDonald’s bathroom for the crime of simply existing, where disabled children are charged with crimes for acting out in school – this is a world in which kindness has a limit to how well it can solve conflicts.

Like everything within praxis, kindness is a thing that must be weighed in conjunction with the power dynamics at play. If you are a person of privilege in a situation, demanding kindness of the person you are debating against can very quickly become a tool of oppression. In the hands of the oppressed, a lack of kindness can be a radical reclamation of existence under an unfair system of power.

And again, this unkindness has a limit – it is bound by the morality of a just world, in which case terrorism, murder, and physical harm are never justified. And unkindness in service to radicalism must still fall under the auspice of loving one’s neighbor – in doing what is perceived as unkindness, we must be careful not to misrepresent, lie, or malign via personal attacks.

My friend h00die_R (Rod) wrote in a fantastic article last week:

Of course there’s a time and place for everything, as the author of Ecclesiastes contends. My good friend Tyler Tully has a good reflection on expanding public theology to cover online behavior. As a Liberation theologian, I understand that all theological statements that are made have political ramifications. The practical is always the theoretical, the abstract really isn’t that far from the concrete. The thing is about a lot of people’s notions of civility or what it means to be “grace-filled” online in the Christian blogosphere is that, as Elizabeth Stoker Bruenig suggests, it is “squishy”: Bruenig: “Anyway, one of the chief defects of demands for civility is that they rarely elaborate as to what they mean by civility.” Not only this, but the rules for civility keep changing, and one right after another, they just keep getting added. We hear from one side, well, yes, I know I needed to be called out, but you could have been a little bit nicer, and then the same civilized party admits later, I needed to be called out to persons who give them similar feedback, but its nicer because their interlocutor may look like them. The civilized party postures as if they believe that all ideas are equal, but in reality their practice reveals something quite different.

The balance must be struck. A kindness praxis – in combination with humble listening, careful action, consensual discussion, and carefully chosen battles – can create a better world. But it must always be done with an awareness of the spaces we’re entering into, who we are and what privileges we bring to these spaces, and what “kindness” looks like within those spaces. We must absolutely be aware of what we are asking when we ask that others be “kind.”