A recent New York Times article on Ghanaian refugees in Canada contains one of the most callous quotes I’ve read in recent months. The article focuses on two men who, after a long and punishing journey by way of Brazil, lost nearly all of their fingers to frostbite while crossing the U.S.-Canadian border on foot during the middle of winter. Their case has become a disturbing illustration of what some refugees undergo on their way to new homes. But a lack of fingers didn’t impress the aid worker who runs the refugee house where the men ended up. Quoted in the Times, she implied that the men deserved little sympathy for their “ignorant” decision to become so cold that portions of their extremities had to be removed:
“They haven’t had to flee over the bodies of their relatives or undergo torture… They should have checked the Weather Channel.” [She noted that] they were woefully underdressed for the frigid prairie temperatures. “They were damaged by their own ignorance. They are suffering the consequence of that.”
These men have no fingers. And yet the person who runs the “Hospitality House Refugee Ministry,” rather than giving the newspaper a kind and sympathetic quote, decided to declare that it was the men’s own damned fault, and to point out that the men did not deserve to be ranked especially highly on the competitive Refugee Misery Scale. This, despite being a person who should know (1) that people from Ghana might not appreciate what a Canadian winter is before actually experiencing one and (2) that impoverished refugees on the move might not have a cable package that includes The Weather Channel.
I’m sure working at a refugee ministry is a psychologically exhausting job. I’m sure that being exposed so constantly to the most extreme forms of human suffering can dull your capacity to react to other, “lesser” forms of suffering. I am sure that it’s easy to be bitter about certain things, to wish the public would be sympathetic to the other refugees in your care, the ones who had suffered from rape, torture, and abuse. Nevertheless: the day you find yourself blaming someone who has no fingers for having no fingers, you are probably suffering from a deficit of kindness and empathy. There is no context in which “maybe check the TV news next time” is an appropriate thing to say about a person who is currently learning to feed themselves using only their thumb.
The Times quote interested me precisely because it came from someone who has devoted themselves to doing good work. The refugee center director is likely to be a person with a comparatively high amount of moral decency and compassion for the suffering of others. But, as anyone who has spent time around them knows, even people who do morally decent things with their lives can turn out to be real assholes sometimes.
Some people will happily admit that they couldn’t care less about other people’s troubles. Kevin Williamson, a writer for the National Review who infamously wrote that America’s decaying small towns “deserved to die,” once penned a column relating his experience going to court to evict an old lady from a house he owned. According to Williamson, the woman’s daughter pleaded with him, “Why are you doing this to us?” But instead of being moved to reconsider his effort to make a woman homeless, Williamson saw grist for a column on personal responsibility: “People love their sad stories,” he jeered, arguing that a “passivity and subjectlessness” infects the way the way poor people talk about themselves. Things like “CPS” and “diabetic amputation” just “happen,” framed by their victims as the result of mysterious nefarious forces rather than bad decisions. (Amputees, it seems, get no sympathy from conservative pundits and refugee workers alike.)
This is a shockingly cruel and brutal way to think about other people. If, when you are in the midst of throwing someone out of their house and onto the street, your main thought is: “I wonder why she seems to think I am somehow responsible for this” rather than “I wonder if she has someplace to go tonight,” you are self-absorbed to the point of solipsism. Somewhat less importantly, it’s also an empirically ignorant way to think: if you wonder why people don’t take responsibility for their own actions, yet you are unwilling to empathize with them in order to understand their motivations (a.k.a. why they don’t take responsibility for their own actions), then you’re failing to take the most obvious opportunity to answer your own question. It’s almost as if you’re far more concerned with finding a way not to feel bad about other people’s pain than with actually coming up with a factually correct account of how that pain came about.
But when a National Review writer exhibits this kind of nastiness, we expect it. The philosophical underpinnings of contemporary conservatism are just elaborate rephrasings of the same core sentiment: “Screw you, buddy, I’ve got mine.” There’s almost an honesty here we can respect, in the same way we could respect Ayn Rand for wearing a dollar-sign around her neck and being unpardonably rude to everyone she ever met. At least she practiced what she preached, which was that everyone should be a selfish pile of human garbage.
It’s a little different when someone is on the left, and ostensibly cares about what happens to other people. That’s why it was so appalling when Mother Jones recently ran an article entitled “Are People Disgusted By the Homeless?” by Kevin Drum. Reporting on research purporting to show that people are “disgusted by the homeless,” Drum wrote that this was “a perfectly understandable reflex,” since large percentages of homeless people suffer from alcoholism and mental illness, and “you’d be crazy not to have a reflexive disgust of a population like that.” Of course, because Drum is a liberal and Mother Jones is a liberal publication, he insisted that this position came out of sympathy for the homeless population. Kevin Drum isn’t like Kevin Williamson, he doesn’t actually embrace the philosophy that everything that happens to a person is their own fault and that only crybaby losers whine about the limbs they don’t have rather than giving thanks to American capitalism for the limbs they do have. Drum believes that “decent human beings” must have empathy for the homeless.
Drum’s column exemplifies the way that having compassion baked into your political principles can allow you to rationalize not being very compassionate personally. He believes that the statement “I am disgusted by homeless people” becomes acceptable if you follow it with “which I am just saying because I care about their well-being, and until people understand why people like me are disgusted, we will not solve homelessness, thus I actually care more about homeless people than those who criticize me for saying I am disgusted.” But what he’s actually doing is rationalizing people’s worst prejudices as being natural and understandable, and thereby giving them a means for excusing themselves for indulging their worst impulses. (One of the researchers who conducted the study Drum cited, by the way, was appalled that Drum thought it meant “disgust” was an “understandable” reaction to homelessness, saying this misinterpretation “perpetuated the very problem we are trying to solve.”)
The hypocritical social reformer, who combines public sanctimony with private selfishness, is an ancient character. Phil Ochs captured the type fifty years ago in “Love Me, I’m a Liberal”:
“The people of old Mississippi, Should all hang their heads in shame […]
But if you ask me to bus my children, I hope the cops take down your name”
Hypocrisy itself is timeless and spans all ages and political persuasions. Yet it’s also true that there are certain elements in left-wing politics specifically that provide ready justifications for not being a terribly nice person. After all, if you’re on the right side of history, you’re automatically among the good people, which can allow one to feel as if interpersonal goodness is somewhat extraneous. I hear countless stories from friends who work at nonprofits, where the worthy mission of the organization is directly contradicted by its toxic workplace culture. (In fact, bosses at nonprofits can be some of the worst of all, because an employee who doesn’t give themselves over completely to the organization’s mission can be seen as insufficiently committed to the cause.) It can be extraordinary to witness the degree to which people dedicated to making the world a better place don’t seem to follow Gandhi’s exhortation to actually be the change you wish to see.
A lot of activists seem to experience insular cultures of vicious shaming. In a recent essay entitled “Excommunicate Me From The Church of Social Justice,” activist Frances Lee says that certain tendencies within social justice movements are aggressive, antagonistic, and downright mean. Lee compares the experience of being an activist with the experience of being in a particularly dogmatic religious sect, with demands for purity and constant personal chastisement for one’s various moral failings.
A lot of that seems to happen partially because people get caught up in the idea of advancing justice, and forget that everyone’s first duty on this earth is to behave decently and charitably towards the planet’s other inhabitants. It’s even easy to come up with actual political arguments against kindness and generosity; the old socialist argument that charity only allows capitalism to appear more humane than it actually is could be adapted to justify any amount of rancid personal behavior.
Instead, perhaps we should all take a cue from the great Chelsea Manning, whose Twitter feed is full of relentless good cheer. Despite her years of solitary confinement and torture, Manning seems to be the least bitter person on the entire internet, inundating even her most hostile critics with a stream of joyful emojis. If Manning can be so pleasant after all she’s been through, what excuse do the rest of us have? (We could also learn from Eugene Debs, who used to astonish Leon Trotsky with his personal warmth, showering Trotsky with hugs and kisses every time he met him.)
Please don’t mistake me: I am not saying that there is no place for rudeness. Being rude and vulgar can be extremely important. But the rule to follow is the gentleman’s rule: “a gentleman is one who is never rude except on purpose.” The norm is perfect decency; rudeness is a selectively deployed weapon used against those who are themselves cruel or destructive.
I’ve heard plenty of arguments against niceness. Being nice is a lie, like Southern hospitality. It always masks some dark cruelty beneath. Niceness swiftly turns to passive aggression, and besides, being nice is not a politics, and someone whose politics are “being nice” will inevitably end up complicit in some atrocity or other. And I buy parts of those arguments. But nothing actually justifies a person in being mean. You can have morally upstanding political beliefs and treat people well in your personal life. It’s not terribly hard.
It is even more important to be nice in a time of people’s widespread alienation from their political institutions. The less people can depend on their schools and workplaces for meaningful support, the more we rely on one another. Arguments against private charity ring hollow in a time where the state fails to meaningfully assist people in their suffering; charity isn’t just justified, it’s a duty.
Do I manage to be nice? I sure hope so. I am sure some people don’t think so. But I’m always trying to improve, to remember that other people are flesh-creatures just like I am, experiencing the mystery of consciousness each day just as I do, and that it would probably be best if encountering me made somebody’s day better rather than worse. Of course, it should be easy for me to be nice, because I’m in a comparatively comfortable position in the world. Perhaps the refugee worker who scoffed at the amputees was simply exhausted after dealing with some exceptionally painful cases. Still, whoever you are and whatever you do, you can never really go wrong following the philosophy of “Don’t Be a Dick.”
Niceness isn’t enough, of course. It’s necessary, but not sufficient. It won’t fix the world. But it sure might make it a little more bearable for those who suffer on their journey through it. Next time you feel the instinct to guilt a fellow activist, evict a retiree, justify disliking homeless people, or trivialize a refugee’s frostbite wound, perhaps remember Kurt Vonnegut’s speech to the newborn babies upon their arrival on earth:
“There’s only one rule that I know of, babies: God damn it, you’ve got to be kind.”