The Many Uses of Kindness

Philip Martin article from the Arkansas Democrat Gazette 2/28/17

In his more autobiographical than it might first appear novel Slaughterhouse-Five, Kurt Vonnegut writes:

“I went to the University of Chicago for awhile after the Second World War. I was a student in the Department of Anthropology. At that time they were teaching that there was absolutely no difference between anybody. They may be teaching that still.

“Another thing they taught was that no one was ridiculous or bad or disgusting. Shortly before my father died, he said to me, ‘You know —you never wrote a story with a villain in it.’ I told him that was one of the things I learned in college after the war.”

A lot of us think stories with villains in them are vulgar and crude because they tend to let readers off the hook. Because no one is in their own heart a villain. Everyone has motives and can justify their actions. People are profoundly influenced by the circumstances they grow up in, by their parents, caretakers and friends, and by the ways early requisites are frustrated or met. Brain chemistry plays a role. We are all individuals with unique personalities, each of us invested with certain potentialities and limitations.

But none of us are born bad; I don’t believe a God would seed any soul with evil.

Though we might resist them in our fiction, we understand that in real life villains abound. Or at least they seem to until you allow yourself to recognize the wounded child within the fury and the heedless bluster, the neediness that compels acquisition and ostentatiousness. A monster is only a monster until you discover the source of its sorrow. Then it becomes an explicable human being, worthy of pity if not forgiveness.

So I wish that Hitler might have passed his audition for the Vienna Academy of Fine Arts, or that his severe architectural watercolors had found favor beyond the Jewish dealers who championed his work—Josef Neumann, Jakob Altenberg and Samuel Morgenstern. Things would surely have been different for the world had his interest in human beings matched his technical prowess.

Had Timothy McVeigh found a good girlfriend he might not have felt the need to bomb America; had Charles Foster Kane not been ripped from his childhood he might have had a chance at happiness. Had Richard Nixon received a hug at the right time, who knows how much history might have been ameliorated by kindness?

But these days we don’t talk much of kindness—for some of us it presents as weakness. At best, it’s seen as sort of a compensatory virtue. (If you can’t be the biggest, the best, the most impressive, maybe you can at least be kind.) It has little currency in our present moment when our elected representatives stand ready to do real damage to real people, especially the most vulnerable and marginalized among us.

Yet I want to understand these people who beg us for our dollars and votes, who yearn for high office and honorifics. Most of them probably started out with ideals, with at least the notion that they might help make the world a better place. Of course they were corrupted by the easy money that was offered them. Most of us would be too. Most of us would take the checks then reverse-engineer a theory to sell our constituents, the little people too dense to understand the president’s tax returns, who need a state-sponsored monument to the Ten Commandments to expand their moral education. But then most of us don’t hold ourselves out as would-be leaders willing to sacrifice our private ambitions for the public good.

How does one reconcile one’s conscience to the things one must do to stay in office—to avoid the wrath of the corporate players who, far more than the American people, are the ones who call the shots in the marbled halls of this country’s legislatures? How does one inure oneself to the heartbreak and suffering of people to the point that one makes common cause with bigots, misogynists, and sexual predators?

It used to be that Americans insisted on a base line of public decorumthat to achieve anything of substance in life one had to at least pretend to be a decent person.

It’s not that bad people didn’t succeed, or that ruthlessness was rewarded, only that a certain level of hypocrisy was generally maintained. In general, people who behaved badly sought to deny their bad behavior, and if that wasn’t possible, to explain how it wasn’t so bad as it appeared. Bad people who depended on the support of the public were especially concerned with making it possible for those inclined to defend them to be able to credibly do so.

Now some people can grab other people by their body parts. Or shoot people in the middle of Fifth Avenue.

That’s probably always been the case, so maybe our new age is more honest. It’s certainly more raw—more people have screamed at me on the phone in the past year than in the rest of my career combined. And I’ve never been more inclined to scream back. I’ve never felt less amused by the petty dissimulations and transparent spinlies—emanating from our lawgivers. I’ve never been closer to adopting the Howard Beale position in Network (“I’m mad as hell and I’m not going to take this any more!”)

But I’m going to try to be kind.

I would urge you to do the same. Ask your questions, for despite what they will try to tell you, you have a right to ask questions and they have a duty to answer. They are the ones who held themselves out for this work, they were not drafted or forced, and if they find the heat too much they can find their way out of the kitchen, probably into a sinecure provided by their corporate clients.

If you keep asking, they will have to answer. Insist nicely, but insist. For they are not bad people; maybe they just weren’t raised right.


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