Wordkeys: On ‘Kindness’

by Gus Mitchell

‘Three things in human life are important: the first is to be kind. The second is to be kind. And the third is to be kind.’ Henry James apparently spoke these words to his nephew Billy James in 1902. TV personality Mr. Rogers later took it up – with an intriguing preface: ‘There are three ultimate ways to success: the first is to be kind. The second is to be kind. And the third is to be kind.’

There is something revealing about that reformulation, from the beginning, to the second half of the twentieth century, that least ‘kind’ of all centuries. It holds true today as well. Kindness has become one of the indispensable buzz-virtues (or, as I conceive them, ‘word-virtues’) of our moment – see also ‘creativity’, ‘community’, ‘care’, and so on. The ubiquity of these words often masks a troubling lack of useful definition or resonance, not to mention the kind of morality-washing used to justify a great deal of lazy thinking and acting. Words in the place of a meaning. This trend has been helped on its way by an enthusiastically hijacking and hollowing by corporate or political instigators, whose interests are opposed to any genuine realisation of these ideals.

In a (no doubt vain) attempt to not be judged by some as callous or psychotic in this essay, let me preface everything to follow: the inherent qualities, the real virtues enshrined in words such as these, are ones I cherish. I’m not attempting to persuade anyone not to ‘be kind’, as you commonly understand it. Instead, I hope that by illuminating the fuzzy blubber gathering around these word-virtues – a blubber enshrined in the mimetic mindlessness of the internet – might help one see more clearly that, by them, we are selling ourselves short.

In London, where I live, posters on public transport love cajoling us to ‘Be Kind’. Between the friendly fonts, prefab graphics and smiling cartoon commuters, the message seems a plastic front to mask the default suspicions – of TFL, of officialdoms the world over – that everyone on an overcrowded morning commute is just one friendly reminder away from bludgeoning each other with briefcases. In this formulation, the injunction to ‘be kind’ is a kind of pre-emptive scold: the Karen’s grimace of a smile behind the CCTV cameras.

The Oxford English Dictionary tells us that the usual sense of the word nowadays is what we would expect: ‘having or showing a benevolent, friendly, or warm-hearted nature or disposition; ready to assist, or show consideration for, others; sympathetic, obliging, considerate.’ To me this seems indistinguishable from what is usually dubbed ‘nice’. But ‘niceness’ is a word-virtue much more blatant in its wispiness, flimsiness and vapidity, and this lends it much more readily to mockery.

‘Kind’ is one of the most interesting words in English. Raymond Williams thought that ‘nature’ was the most complicated word in the language, and ‘kind’ turns out to be very close to it. In its earliest form, we have the late Old English ‘cynde’, which becomes the Middle English ‘kynde’. Both mean (with much room for variety and context) ‘nature’, ‘natural’, ‘inherent’, ‘inborn’, and so on. In its obsolete form, ‘kind’ as an adjective would mean ‘in accordance with the natural or normal course of things; naturally or predictably arising or resulting from the circumstances’. So Chaucer in the late 14th century writes of flowers ‘spreden on hire kynde cours’, and this sense was still in use, though rarer, into the 17th century.

Elsewhere, and surviving later into the language, ‘kind’ can connote what is fitting and appropriate (‘What hay is kindest for sheep?’); the inborn and innate both in terms of instinct (‘It’s kind of a kitten to kill a mouse’) and birth (i.e., nobility, legitimacy, lawful – kynde king, kynde speech); or ideas of nativity and belonging, being ‘kin’ to a native land, language, or people (‘Royal Ulysses, far from the embrace Of his kind country; in a land unknown’). We need only consider our use of ‘mankind’ or ‘humankind’ today to realise that a trace of this sense of belonging and interconnectedness still hovers around the edges of our understanding of ‘kind’. Poet e.e. cummings illuminates our limited, but still dualistic, understanding of it in one line: ‘Pity this Busy Monster Manunkind.’

The older sense of ‘kind’, implying ‘relation’ and ‘connection to’, is not entirely lost from us, but it has become more impersonal, more taxonomic. For instance: ‘I want to try every kind of ice cream’; ‘He’s that kind of person’; ‘I kinda like her’. The more familiar connotations of ‘kind’ today (good, beneficent, generous, considerate) were also present in Middle English and later English, though again with far freer variety. ‘Kind’ might imply a natural and normal affection (‘she is a kynde sister!’) for one’s close relations (or ‘kin’); a more romantic fondness and love, including the willingness (almost always from a ‘kind girl’) to be a lover or sexual partner. It might also mean pleasing – ‘a kinder distance’ – or soft or yielding: ‘It is so absolutely necessary for the good of the flax to preserve this oily kind nature in it, in order to keep it from rotting.’ Of the modern sense of ‘beneficent’ or ‘considerate’ the Middle English Dictionary throws up only two examples from before 1375. After that date, there is a steep rise in such usage, and by 1600, it is rare to find an adjectival use we would not more easily understand.

‘A little more than kin, and less than kind!’ says the resentful Hamlet, defining the relationship he considers himself to have with his new uncle/daddy Claudius. Shakespeare knew all about the depth and richness of ‘kind’, and here he shows at least three of its meanings in one pentameter line, meanings which, for the Elizabethans, were still shifting and unstable. Hamlet is forced to count Claudius as ‘more than kin’, as more than merely a ‘cousin’ – which in Renaissance English could mean any non-direct blood relative – because the new king of Denmark has become his stepfather. The prince, however, refuses to consider Claudius as any sort of natural ‘kindred’ to himself, or, crucially, to the throne – this again plays into the association of kind with ‘nobility’. Following this, Hamlet is repulsed by what he views as Claudius’s unnatural lust, his quasi-incestuous coupling with his brother’s widow. Here is ‘kind’ again coming to mean natural, naturally lawful, just. This third and final strand of meaning Shakespeare implies is the modern one: Hamlet considers it deeply insensitive for Claudius to have been so speedy in marrying Gertrude. Shakespeare here gives ‘kind’ a capsule history.

‘Kind’s’ evolution from the medieval to the modern encapsulates much social change. The emphasis which the feudal world placed on ‘kind’ – as emerging naturally from birth and social privilege – implied, in one sense, a monopoly on true virtue and goodness by the powerful and the wealthy, baked into the fabric of the language. Consider the power of ‘unnatural’ as a pejorative (‘It’s completely unnatural!’), as a mark of something’s wrongness or unsuitability. The ancient idea of ‘nobility’ implying ‘well-born’, and ‘well-born’ implying ‘favoured by nature’, and ‘favoured by nature’ implying ‘naturally superior’, and ‘naturally superior’ leading us back to ‘nobility’, is a privilege-ensconcing circle-dance of self-reinforcing meaning. The Century Dictionary puts it: ‘The exact notional relation of king with kin is undetermined, but the etymological relation is hardly to be doubted.’

It is good, then, that what is ‘kind’ – what might be called its highest ideal, an idea of deep personal goodness, or a nobility of heart – has become democratised, detached from notions of an inborn aristocracy, political, moral, or otherwise. It’s now one of those basic and intrinsic qualities that everyone can, should, strive for. But this is not really what passes for the dilution of an ancient entanglement of associations handed down to us from cynde. So, what do we really suggest or imbibe or, in my case, resentfully overhear, in those vague words: ‘Be Kind?’

Let’s return to ‘nice’ – so, imagine that the TFL poster bore the legend: ‘Be Nice’. Wouldn’t that sound a little lame, a little weak, a little – silly? If it would, there are infolded reasons for that. We can look to medieval origins once more: in the 13th century, say around 1230, to call someone ‘nice’ was in fact to call them stupid. A word derived from the Old French, itself derived from the Latin nescius (ignorant) from the verb nescire (to not know), ‘nice’ held many other shades of meaning including: careless, weak, foolish, frivolous, senseless, fussy, timid, faint-hearted. Over the following six centuries, these latter meanings began predominating, mutating positively into associations with delicacy, preciseness, carefulness – until, in the 18th century, ‘nice’ had become ‘agreeable, delightful’ (1749) and, by 1830, ‘kind or thoughtful’. Jane Austen, always ahead of her time, could not fail to notice this difference:

“I am sure,” cried Catherine, “I did not mean to say anything wrong; but it is a nice book, and why should I not call it so?” “Very true,” said Henry, “and this is a very nice day, and we are taking a very nice walk; and you are two very nice young ladies. Oh! It is a very nice word indeed! It does for everything.” (Northanger Abbey, 1803)

Put simply, the evolution of ‘nice’ between 1230 and 1830 is a capsule of the sort of linguistic refashioning necessitated by the long march into the increasingly marketised social structures established by the early 19th century. ‘Nice’ once contained deep connective tissues, which understood the connection between what should properly be seen as social failures: the compensation of politeness for curiosity; fussy, delicate surfaces for depth; careless frivolity and vapid smoothness over the risks of spontaneity or proximity. ‘Nice’ reformulated what once was well understood to be a dim and dim-witted approach to both self and social relations into the aspirational model. It charts a subtle, standardised, societal preference for a default of incurious fastidiousness, delicacy, distancing, over a sociality of substance. The fact that this change coincided with a flattening of social relations by market forces, and an estrangement of communities and selves, an instrumentalization wherein a smooth ‘agreeableness’ was a necessary attribute – this to me, is not an accident.

The common understanding of the word ‘kind’ or ‘kindness’ today, however, is virtually indistinguishable from ‘nice’. It has the same moral vagueness, the same unsatisfying wash of a general ‘good vibes’ attitude, dressed up as ethical code, the vague, inherent inoffensiveness which makes ‘nice’ strike us as more immediately silly. ‘It’s nice to be nice’, runs the ironic formula. And so, remember Mr. Rogers: kindness means ‘the way to success.’

D.H. Lawrence had some interesting things to say touching kindness. In 1924, Lawrence wrote an essay entitled, ‘On Being a Man: Reflections upon Man’s Inner-Life, and his Cowardice in Avoiding the Adventurous Crises of Thought’, published in Vanity Fair. In it, he bemoaned a ‘creed of harmlessness, of relentless kindness. A little less than kin, and more than kind.’ The contemporary creed of kindness for Lawrence is really a kind of front, a protective bulwark against having to brush up against others too closely, to know them too intimately – both in their otherness, but crucially also, in their kin-ness.

No sane person should wish to align himself with Lawrence without a healthy dose of self-awareness. In this same essay, as in much of his writing, fascinating and valuable nuggets lie alongside swaths of misogynistic, racist, or plain dumb excreta. I do feel, though, that Lawrence was onto something, something about the sinisterly hollow ring of the ‘kindness’ mantra. For Lawrence, the development of modern civilization has de-natured mankind, decoupled body and mind, made us ashamed, confused strangers towards our deepest, cosmic-chaotic selves and passions, caged us via obsessions with control of our outer and inner selves. And so, it has made us wary strangers to one other. We no longer seek to know others, to experience others. This has led to buried complexes, insecurities, anxieties, and the sense of an ever-possibly-erupting inner violence.

A word as inherent with ideas of the natural and the interconnected as ‘kind’ and its derivates, is not well-suited to moral exhortation.  Consider again the meaning of London Underground’s injunction. It is but a step away from the childishness of, say: ‘Be Nice!’, ‘Be Good!’, or – reductio ad absurdum – ‘Be Well!’. Exhortations such as these commit the oxymoronic sin of demanding that we perform a quality which is only genuine if it is done voluntarily – if it arises naturally, of itself. This mass-produced, vague contemporary take on morality not only fails on linguistic terms, but sets up an immediate threat of shame and disappointment should we fail to be what we should. Think of the absurdity of begging someone, even if only in thought: ‘Love Me!’ And yet who hasn’t committed this bitter infraction of sense? Who hasn’t tasted the absurd impossibility of such a request?

As with so much else in our civilisation – reflective of, defined by the aggressive/defensive, reactionary/reactive values of capitalism itself – this moral calculus, mass-administered to kids in schools in between standardised tests and plastered disapprovingly over what remains of our public spaces, turns the alienation which it has manufactured onto the backs of its subjects. It is a constantly cajoling, a pre-emptive assumption of guilt, a guilt which arises from the ephemeral and transactional nature of the social relationships and attitudes it tries to inculcate. Inoffensiveness and surface is the order of the day.

To Lawrence, the way we live now has crushed the impulse toward what he calls the ‘thought-adventure’: seeking, risking spontaneity, delighting in the simultaneous strangeness and familiarity of others and of ourselves. We have been bred not to trust ourselves, our own natures, our instincts, and, yes, to shun our endless inner obscurities and our darkness. Just so, other people, with their pitiable mysteries, their neuroses, ‘everyone fighting a hard battle you know nothing about’ (as everyone from Plato to Robin Williams is reported to have said) are unapproachable. We are delicately private battlegrounds unto ourselves, permanently foreign and different in kind, shielded in identities, unique in traumas and experiences which can (which should) be neither known nor imagined: best observed, best handled, from a distance of permanent nice kindness.

This isn’t a good recipe for solidarity, and if there’s any hope of getting through the 21st century in anything but a collection of silos deep underground or atomised metropolitan fiefdoms behind barbed wire fences, then solidarity is important. There are all sorts of kindnesses to be reclaimed. Though locked away, this mysteriously rich word harbours deep roots. Those roots remind that there is connection, an identity, of goodness with nature, of the natural with our innate human nature, of the ‘I’ with the ‘other’. They urge humility, curiosity, attentiveness – the ‘adventure’ of reaching out to others whom we do not know, others who, whether ‘good’ or ‘bad’, ‘similar’ or ‘different’, are all, likewise, kin.

‘Be Kind.’ Fine, but don’t stop there. ‘Be Kind.’ Something unnatural, unnecessary, is also taking place when those words are uttered, smothering kin with kind.