When “be kind” is a toxic message
My mum was just six when World War Two broke out. She once told me of her huge fear of German invasion. Her young self imagined if the Nazis came, she would be excessively nice and polite to them and maybe they would be nice to her.
At least my mum understood why she had the urge to be nice to Nazis. There was no pretence that this was about compassion or building a kinder world or a rule to live by — treating people as you would like to be treated.
No, my mum wanted to suck up to the Nazis because she feared them. As adults we may not want to admit to such motivations, but people still fall over themselves to stay on the right side of bullies, abusers, tyrants and oppressors, finding subtle and unsubtle ways to distance themselves from anyone targeted. We make up all kinds of excuses for why we are doing it, including propagating a level of denial about the nature of whomever we are sucking up to.
This is where toxic “kindness” comes in.
Be kind to who, exactly?
As fascism gets an increasing hold on our world, the message we have to tolerate the intolerable is everywhere. Every time oppressed people shout “no”, or “stop”, or resist oppression they are told, “be kind”, they are told they are “not helping their cause”, they are urged to engage in a “dialogue” with their oppressors and often instructed to think about the motivations for oppressive behaviour with compassion and understanding, or told that their acts of resistance are “just as bad” as the fascism they are fighting.
This narrative is relentless — the viewpoints of oppressors must be talked about ad infinitum and oppressed people must show up for these discussions with endless patience and a smile on their faces. They are advised if they just act kindly enough and patient enough towards their oppressors, the oppression will stop. The overarching message labels itself as “be kind”, but there’s intolerance lurking under the surface, as marginalised folks are left bereft of empathy and blamed for their misfortune.
We want to believe being nice to bullies is an effective way to defeat them, because then our consciences can be clear about sucking up or failing to resist. In reality, the bullies, oppressors, abusers and tyrants of this world get the lion’s share of kindness, compassion and deference, while the targets and scapegoats of this world are constantly left in deficit and subject to exclusion, criticism, cruelty and betrayal, including from those most vocally calling for kindness.
Kindness is used to bludgeon victims over the head for their congruent reactions to behaviour that threatens their wellbeing and even survival.
My six-year-old mother did not have the wherewithal to examine the ethical implications of sucking up to Nazis, but as adults we absolutely do have a duty to reflect on who we’re centring and who we’re marginalising in our “be kind” rhetoric.
Reinforcing the imbalance of power
Any conversation that emphasises kindness to those in the less marginalised position in relation to oppression and focuses on their needs, feelings, wellbeing, etc is inherently oppressive. Equally so, any conversation that focuses on criticising or instructing marginalised folks in how they respond to oppression. Yes, even if in the example before us the marginalised person has behaved unskilfully!
Of course, our judgement of the behaviour of a victim, target, scapegoat or oppressed person is subjective. Our view is liable to be biased by the unconscious desire to distance ourself from them so we don’t get targeted by association.
We can pretend that these “be kind” directives we bestow on struggling minorities are intended to help. In reality, they distance us from the marginalised person, they further marginalise that person (or group) and they leave us more socially secure and on good terms with the oppressor. They shore up the oppressor’s power and entitlement to deferential treatment. They ingratiate us with the powerful whilst leaving their targets undefended and out in the cold.
It isn’t about right and wrong at all, it’s about pack dynamics and hierarchy.
If we can blame the victim for their oppression, then we don’t have to support them. If we can prevent conflict, we can remain on the fence. Characterising someone’s resistance to oppression as aggressive, problematic, unhelpful, oversensitive, disproportionate is how the bystander avoids the risk of taking a stand against oppression.
The paradox of tolerance
This speaks to the paradox of tolerance, written about post-WW2 precisely because it was such an observable phenomenon in the rise of fascism. And here we are again, fascism has well and truly risen (though it never really went away), and we are told, once again, that if we were only nicer to the fascists maybe this wouldn’t have happened.
“Let them speak and it will shine a light on the flaws in their ideas,” is the wrong-headed argument that allows us to not make a stand against hate groups and fascist movements. For example, when we gave Nigel Farage a huge platform, we made his rhetoric more acceptable by creating space in our culture for it. By offering our generosity towards hate, we said yes, we can tolerate this, yes, it’s acceptable discourse. We humanised monstrous ideas and behaviours with our invocation to “be kind”. We also characterised people uncomfortable with the huge platform he was getting as intolerant, oversensitive and even fascistic in their own right and even blamed them for his success.
In between WW1 and WW2 in Germany, social attitudes swung wildly around LGBT people, disability, ethnicity and race. Hitler himself said “words build bridges to unexplored regions” — he knew you could push discourse in a direction that created social scapegoats and in doing so he accrued power for himself.
Make it okay to scapegoat people, and folks will soon begin to fall over themselves to make sure it doesn’t happen to them. We can intellectualise our position of, say, criticising BLM and calling for “kinder” activism, but that doesn’t change the impact of our actions to reinforce the oppressive status quo.
Fascism relies on people maintaining polite relations with fascist discourse while severing their relationships with the marginalised. Every dose of toxic kindness helps fascism do what it does. The feature of toxic kindness is of course that it makes the oppressor the beneficiary of that kindness and subtly evades directing any kindness in the direction of the oppressed.
The paradox of tolerance was Popper’s 1945 warning to not let this happen again — don’t tolerate the intolerant, he urged, because if you do so tolerance will slowly disappear as intolerance is given all the available oxygen.
We didn’t learn, because Popper failed to identify the reason why we tolerate the intolerant. Because if there’s a chance we can make ourself socially safer by doing so, well then of course it makes sense to appease fascists and let someone else than us incur harm.
This is no different from my six-year-old mother telling herself, “if I’m just nice to the Nazis maybe they’ll be nice to me and go hurt other people instead”.
“Are we the baddies?”
There really aren’t that many actual fascists in the world. Fascism is maintained more by the people who just go along with it, appease it, or urge its opponents to “find common ground” with it than it is by actual fascists.
The emotionally reasonable response to oppression is anger. Anger is our messenger system that tells us our boundaries have been crossed. Anger and aggression are not the same thing — aggression might be a proportionate response to the systemic annihilation of a group’s rights and safety but what’s certain is when marginalised folks show even a hint of assertiveness or reasonable anger they will be labelled as aggressive and even painted as a threat.
We so rarely permit marginalised people a strong “no” and so often urge them to be patient, accepting, and ever more empathic towards their oppressors.
When we’re in the marginalised position, we see clearly what’s going on. We understand the manipulation inherent in the portrayal of the “aggressive feminist” the “oversensitive trans person” or the “angry black person”, we know the game being played when the actions of the marginalised become the focus for criticism and the oppressive behaviour gets quickly glossed over.
But when we are part of the oppressor group — which we all are in one way or another — it is too easy to perpetuate that marginalising process against others even as we plead for people not to do it to us.
When we focus on how we should treat oppressive people better we neglect the conversation about how we should treat marginalised people better and put our effort, empathy, patience, kindness and understanding into them.
When we show deference to oppressive people, they don’t become safer, but they might just hold us up as a glowing example of how people should behave towards them and claim respect as their due.
The need to preserve our place in the social hierarchy makes us weaponise beneficial ideas such as kindness, freedom of speech, empathy, unity and compassion, offering these in excess to those who hold power while finding ways to evade offering the same conditions to those being scapegoated. The bully gets the opening of “free speech” and “having a dialogue” while the scapegoat is subject to various forms of censorship and silencing. The bully’s anger and aggression are explained, understood, empathised with, the scapegoat’s reactions are caricatured, exaggerated, pathologised.
If our “kindness” or our advice to “be kind” benefits the status quo then it isn’t kind at all. It’s oppressive, and toxic and needs to stop. Ironically, while serving our short-term need for safety, we’re feeding fascism and making everyone including ourselves less safe.
How can we challenge this process in ourselves? First we need to accept our capacity to act unfairly, oppressively and have hidden bias. Our tendency to rein in our anger at those with power, to let it rip at those without, to be selective in our “be kind” messages in ways that ensure that our pack place is served more than other’s need for such kindness. To be challenging more to those without the structural power to exclude us.
Nothing is going to change until we catch ourselves in the act of doing this and have an honest word with ourselves about what we’re doing. It’s not in our interests to notice the unconscious motivations lying beneath the apparently benign “be kind” message. It’ll take work.
Next, we need to subvert the kind of relationships fascism relies on, where all roads lead to the powerful. We can do this by acts of solidarity whenever an oppressed group speaks or acts. Unqualified support, raising up their words, sanctioning their demands, legitimising their anger, showing compassion and unqualified support for behaviour we might privately feel is unskilful, backing their right to manage their liberation movement in their own way and assuming they know more about their oppression and liberation than we do ourselves.
We do not need to sit on the sidelines and assess other people’s liberation struggles, we need to roll up our sleeves and say, “what can I do to help you succeed?”.
The ability to stay with the anger of oppressed and abused people and meet it with unqualified empathy — yes, even when it spills over into aggression or violence — is essential. Including when that anger is directed at us because we acted oppressively.
The solution, ironically, is to be kind: Extend more understanding and compassion to victims and marginalised folks. Learn to hold and be in contact with their anger. Notice the harm being done to them. Learn to mindfully breathe through our instincts to criticise, judge, condemn their reactions. Resist distancing ourselves from the those with less power. Learn to be patient through a tirade or even a riot and say, “I hear your anger, I recognise your anger is just, what can I do to support you?”