Not random but radical? Beyond bumper sticker versions of kindness

October 3, 2018

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Julie Brownlie is Senior Lecturer in sociology at Edinburgh University where she researches sociological approaches to emotions and relationships.

Simon Anderson, who co-authored this guest blog, is an independent social research consultant and Honorary Fellow in the School of Social and Political Science at Edinburgh University.


Anyone over the age of 40 will remember the ‘Love is…’ cartoons that once festooned mugs, bumper stickers and greetings cards. Mushy and ubiquitous, they somehow cheapened the concept they set out to depict. Recently, we’ve seen a growing interest in the notion of kindness and its potential to counter some of the problems of loneliness, community breakdown and austerity. But is there a danger that here, too, we fail to move beyond the anecdotal or sentimental and that the concept dissolves into a nice-to-be-nice nothingness?

That would be a pity. We think that kindness has much to offer public policy and practice, and we welcome its inclusion as one of the core values at the centre of the new National Performance Framework for Scotland – but we believe, too, that it is a concept that needs critical examination and a social and radical framing. With that in mind, we offer the following comments about some of its often-unarticulated features.

  1. Kindness is unobligated

Kindness may not always be completely unexpected, but it can’t be demanded or mandated. If that happens, it tips into something else – into obligation, duty, care, and so on. Put another way, it can’t be legislated for. We may be able to create the conditions for kindness, or at the very least avoid damaging them, but we can’t force it into existence without undermining its essentially voluntaristic character. (The political theorist, Joan Tronto, makes a similar point about care: that it often seems to consist of something ‘extra’). That is the basis of the challenge that kindness poses for institutions, policymakers and public service professionals.

  1. Kindness is infrastructural

We may not always be aware of it, but kindness matters. Like the roads we walk on and the electricity we use, small acts and relationships of everyday kindness are fundamental: they make possible other things. But while it has a taken-for-granted, background quality, like other infrastructures, the infrastructure of kindness needs to be sustained and maintained. If it is not, there are consequences for all of us – individually and collectively.

  1. Kindness is social

Despite the cultural trope of randomness, and the tendency to view kindness as a matter of individual choice, psychology or morality, kindness is deeply social. Our capacity to help and be helped in unobligated ways is enabled and constrained by the places, spaces and communities we live in, by our life stage and biographies and by our social networks, relationships and other resources. Generalised exhortations to ‘be kind’, or campaigns designed to encourage random acts of kindness, are inevitably limited in their effect because they ignore these realities. By contrast, approaches which recognise and aim to work with the grain of particular communities – reflecting the experiences, circumstances and preferences of those within them – are more likely to succeed.

  1. Kindness is relational

Kindness is embedded in social context, but it also has to be worked out between particular people, in particular contexts and at particular moments in time. Indeed it is often mediated through ‘things’ such as food, or activities such as walking. That can make it problematic to think in terms of kind policies or organisations. They may help to foster kindness, but kindness itself has an inescapably relational quality. There are, then, important questions to be asked about if and how kindness can be ‘scaled up’ to organisational or national level.

  1. Kindness is risky

Not necessarily in the sense we usually think about risk, but because it is revealing of how others see us or how we see ourselves. In negotiating acts and relationships of kindness – either offering or receiving them – we have to manage complex emotions relating to our anxieties about being perceived as weak or dependent; being a ‘martyr’ or a ‘taker’; getting over-involved or obligated; being presumptuous or ‘overstepping the mark’; taking advantage or being taken advantage of; setting up expectations, and so on. We need to take seriously this emotional and relational complexity – not assume that ‘small acts’ are also simple or easy ones – and work through how and why people might feel as they do about the prospect of connecting with, or helping, each other in specific circumstances, communities and contexts.

This links to another risk around kindness, not of the affective but of the political variety: that the pursuit or ideal of kindness comes to take the place of – or is not thought about alongside – other important collective values, such as fairness, justice or equality.

  1. Kindness has its own narratives, and these matter too

People love to tell stories about kindness (and perhaps almost as much about unkindness). Like any narratives, though, such stories about the places we live and the people we are (or claim to be), are more than just stories: they can constrain or enable particular kinds of behaviour at the level of the individual, the community or society as a whole. For example, regardless of the reality of life in different places, there is a permissive or restrictive quality to narratives of Glasgow being the ‘friendly city’, or other areas as ‘snooty’ or ‘lacking in community’. The emerging narrative of Scotland as a ‘kind nation’, too, will have effects. Narratives of (un)kindness at all these different levels matter and deserve our attention, then, because the stories we choose to tell – or hear – can have powerful consequences.

  1. Kindness is contingent

In other words, kindness may happen or not, and it grows out of other things, in often unpredictable ways. What we do know is that it is fostered by social interaction, even of an apparently banal kind, such as small acts of acknowledgement and greeting. While there may be a place for initiatives that actively seek to promote such interaction (for example, the ‘Happy to Chat’ campaign growing out of the work of the Jo Cox Commission), it is equally if not more important to address the ways in which financial, architectural and planning decisions shape our built and social environment. They profoundly affect the opportunities we have for unstructured, incidental and possibly fleeting social interaction, as well as more sustained encounters in ‘third places’ such as libraries, community centres, pubs and cafés. If we want to address loneliness through kindness – and to have a kinder society more generally – we need to be thinking about the social consequences of all these decisions, from the implications of new-build housing estates in which people travel mainly by car, to the closure of leisure centre cafés at the weekends and the movement of department stores from town centres to out-of-town malls.

  1. Kindness has an animating or atmospheric quality

Perhaps because it is unobligated, an act of kindness can have an animating quality: it can ‘spill over’ and achieve more than the act itself, altering the way we feel about ourselves or about others. This almost atmospheric character, which is likely to prove resistant to quantification and key performance indicators, means that kindness can shape not just the relationship within which it is embedded but our wider social sensibility. That makes it a potentially very powerful social force.

  1. Kindness is radical

The word kindness is derived from kin. ‘Kinned-ness’ is, then, about recognising what we share. However fleetingly, it turns ‘others’ into kin (or ‘kin-like’) and is the antithesis of the harsh discourses of othering that have come to dominate popular and political debate. There is a brilliantly-named charity in Glasgow called Refuweegee. In its own words, it welcomes refugees with Tunnock’s Teacakes and apologies about the weather. And it defines a refuweegee as someone who upon arrival in Glasgow is embraced by the people of the city, to become a person considered to be local.

That is kindness (kinned-ness) in action, and is an undeniably radical endeavour. But it also reminds us that the reference in the National Performance Framework to treating ‘all our people’ with kindness has potential limits around it. Who exactly are ‘our people’ and how far are we willing, individually and collectively, to expand the boundaries of those we are willing to treat as kin? Do we include refugees and asylum seekers, prisoners, the poorest and the most marginalised? Do we really practise radical or difficult kindness and ensure that it is not disembedded from the realm of the social and the political?

We are used to thinking about kindness as a disposition, as a characteristic that some people just have. But actually it is a practice that involves relational and, ultimately, social and political choices about which and whose needs we decide to notice and respond to. And in turn, by treating kindness as a political issue, we challenge our understanding of what politics is and should be about.

If the inclusion of kindness in the Framework is to be more than warm words – the policy equivalent of a bumper sticker – the Scottish Government and the rest of us need to talk more about these questions. We need, in other words, to continue the difficult conversation about what ‘Kindness (actually) is…’.

Between 2013 and 2015, Julie and Simon carried out a large-scale study of everyday help and support for the Joseph Rowntree Foundation (the Liveable Lives project) and have subsequently published an article outlining the case for a sociological engagement with kindness (’Thinking Sociologically About Kindness’, Sociology, 2018). They have been closely involved with the Carnegie UK Trust’s work in this area and are members of KIN.