Historian Barbara Taylor was frustrated with articles touting the benefits of kindness as if it was a new fad. Her friend psychoanalyst Adam Phillips had noticed his patients’ preoccupations with their own kindness, or lack thereof. The two decided to write collaboratively on the subject, and the result is On Kindness (Farrar, Straus and Giroux; $20). They argue that "magical kindness," the sentimental notion of a bloodless remedy for social problems and rocky relationships, has obscured true kindness–the recognition that we are all vulnerable, interdependent beings who find in sympathy and fellow feeling some of our greatest pleasure. –Christine Smallwood
In the book you speak of "the kindness instinct." What is it?
One of our fundamental predispositions is to care for other people. "The kindness instinct" is an attempt to formulate a phrase that could capture the way in which kindness might be as elemental as sex. There would be, as it were, profound biological reasons having to do with survival and reproduction that would mean it was intrinsic in our nature to be capable of kindness.
The development of the personality of the individual occurs in relation to other people. There’s really no such thing as a psychological isolate, or if there is, they really don’t prosper or possibly even become fully human at all. Right from the start, who we are and what we are is embedded in our relating to other people.
Why are people suspicious of kindness?
Since antiquity people have argued about whether or not human beings are kind or egotistical. But what seemed striking to us was that in modern times, there’s a sense that one side of that argument has swept the board, and one might call it the Hobbesian point of view. We’re not saying that people have stopped being kind but that kindness has been under a great deal of pressure. What is striking is that people have stopped thinking of human beings as kind. There’s a real suspicion about the human character which has never been, in Western society, as widespread as it is now.
Kindness is a casualty of a certain kind of capitalist, competitive culture. It’s quite clear that if you regard other people as an object for exploitation then kindness is a major problem.
Why draw on biology by using the word "instinct"?
We don’t need to speak biologically. But it seems to make sense that kindness would be part of the survival of the species. If you accept that one of the most fundamental things about all of us is our vulnerability, then it isn’t odd that we would have to find ways of adapting to this. One of the ways we adapt is to deny or attack something. A better way is to acknowledge it and live with it, as though it is the medium between us rather than a problem.
We are each other’s best resource and also our sole resource. The term "instinct" is being used, loosely, to refer to psychic survival.
What’s different about women’s relationship to kindness?
From the mid-eighteenth century onward, kindness becomes increasingly seen as a female prerogative. That clearly has to do with changes in the position of women vis-à-vis the working life and marketplace, and the idea that women’s exclusion from bourgeois economic relations was in some sense a prerequisite of happy family life. Emotions like kindness began to devolve onto women and became associated with ideas of self-sacrifice. Today, that notion has caused great difficulties for women because there is a massive collision between what’s required of women who become professional, especially in the world of business, and the pressures around parenting. For a woman, moving between home and work can be a schizoid experience. There’s a larger question, which is whether some sexual differences figure in the development of personality. Are there reasons why women might find responsiveness to other people perhaps easier than men?
How is kindness related to hate?
Insofar as we assume that there is an absolute split between hating and being kind, it’s as though we create an impossible internal regime. What Barbara and I are assuming is that it’s as natural to hate as it is to love. Anybody you need and love will frustrate you, and you will hate them. There’s always going to be ambivalence. A sentimentalized version of kindness is associated only with love and is bloodless. The kind of kindness we’re interested in is about engaging with other people and not managing them. It’s not that hatred is the opposite of kindness, it’s that kindness must include some aggression and some fundamental ambivalence. You’ll never get pure kindness.
As long as there’s a capacity for identification between human beings, then there will be a mixture of all sorts of feelings between people: sympathy, hostility, aggression, kindness. The real trouble starts when identification between two people breaks down completely.
What do you want people to get out of the book?
I’d be very happy if it was read as a self-help book. What we want to do is remind people of kindness and put it back on the table, so that it might be a genuine pleasure rather than a duty or willed act. Given that we are much happier when we are kinder, why is there not enough kindness around? And it’s not a question of trying harder–it’s a genuine pleasure. There’s a genuine desire to be kind. We’re not kind out of the fear of punishment. We actually want to be kind. I would want people to be allowed to be as kind as they feel themselves to be and to wonder what’s happened to kindness.