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“I am a liberal, and liberalism is the politics of kindness,” wrote Garrison Keillor in his 2004 Homegrown Democrat, a book that, according to one reviewer, is Keillor’s “celebration of the values mean-spirited Republicans…have attacked.” In a 2013 speech, President Obama made a similar statement. “Kindness covers all of my political beliefs. When I think about what I’m fighting for, what gets me up every single day, that captures it just about as much as anything.” According to a recent Republican initiative called Challenging the Caricature, “The notion of a caring left and a mean-spirited right has long caused many voters to reflexively oppose conservative candidates on the ground that they are less decent than their liberal opponents.” This is the basic premise of every political battle currently being waged in America: Kind liberals want to help X, but mean conservatives don’t.

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In “The Case Against Liberal Compassion,” William Voegeli quotes a New York Times essay by Paul Krugman to demonstrate this basic idea. In the column, Krugman accused conservatives of being “infected by an almost pathological meanspiritedness.” Those on the right, he said, not only don’t want to help those who are down, “they want to give you an extra kick.” The word Krugman used was pathological, meaning compulsive or obsessive. Perhaps that word applies to meanness, but one might also apply it to kindness, as Voegeli does. Citing a paper by Barbara Oakley, professor of Engineering at Oakland University, titled “Concepts and Implications of Altruism Bias and Pathological Altruism,” Voegeli makes the case that liberals care about helping much less than they care about seeming like they care.

“Our empathetic feelings for others,” writes Oakley, “coupled with a desire to be liked, parochial feelings for our own in-group, emotional contagion, motivated reasoning, selective exposure”—and, we might add, the desire to win an election—“can lead us into powerful and often irrational illusions of helping.” Pathological altruism, she concludes, “is the situation in which intended outcomes and actual outcomes…do not mesh.”

Voegeli applies Oakley’s findings to liberal kindness, arguing that it is “pathological” not because it always fails what it sets out to achieve, but because it is indifferent “to the fact and consequences of those failures.” What’s important to note about this sort of empathy is that it doesn’t really matter what happens to the object of one’s empathy. What matters most, argues Voegeli, is that “the empathizer is accruing compassion points that he and others will admire.” In this view, the main point of political kindness has nothing to do with anyone other than the person being kind.

One example Voegeli uses is the welfare state, which the right always thinks is too big and which the left thinks can never be big enough. According to Voegeli, between 1977 and 2013, per capita welfare state spending increased 254 percent. And yet, he notes, this happened “without a correspondingly dramatic reduction in poverty.” Pathologically altruistic liberals will look at this math and conclude that the project failed because of its insufficient generosity. On the other hand, he suggests, perhaps various welfare state projects continue to fail because the funds are inefficiently allocated. But those offering such proposals are in a bind: to even consider reallocating these monies is unkind.

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There’s an ABC television series called What Would You Do? in which an unwitting public is forced into a situation designed to demonstrate what kind of people they are. For example, one segment showed a group of teenagers—all of them actors—forcing a homeless man to beg for the money he wanted. If he wanted to eat, he’d have to say, “I’m a loser who can’t find a job.” It’s basically a game show. You “win” by stepping in to condemn the actors behaving like animals, at which point the game show host reveals himself, and asks you a series of questions designed to drive home the point of the experiment: that our world, which is full of mean people, could use more kindness.

Daniel Weiss rightly points out in the Columbia Journalism Review that What Would You Do? is “the flip side of the reality-TV coin: Rather than show how people act in manufactured situations when they know they’re being watched, they show us how people act when they don’t.” On one hand, as with all reality television, this program is painstakingly fabricated, edited, massaged to produce a desired result. On the other hand, it’s not entirely misguided to think well of the unwitting public who jump in to save the day and, for example, yell at those mistreating the homeless. These heroes don’t know they’re being recorded.  For that reason, even though it’s not impossible, it’s not too tough to see the televised kindness as something else.

A slightly different version of an ethical Candid Camera is the film Borat, created by the comedian Sacha Baron Cohen, in which the title character catches unsuspecting real-life people acting like even worse jerks than those who remain silent on WWYD? Borat confronts his subjects with a moral litmus test. As Randolph Lewis explains, Borat offers two options:

Do you agree with Borat or confront his noxious views? Do you smile nervously when he asks for the best SUV for “killing Gypsies” or do you denounce him? Those interviewees who seem to endorse his point of view, like those who remain silent for whatever reason, are lumped into the seemingly coterminous categories of bigot and dupe. Not surprisingly, almost no one in the film passes the test…

Those who fail Cohen’s test seem to lean primarily in one political direction. “Borat ridicules Pentecostals, gun owners, car dealers, hicks, humorless feminists, the Southern gentry, Southern frat boys, and rodeo cowboys,” writes David Brooks. In other words, most of them skew right.

The humor of the film, like the drama of WWYD?, relies upon its audience knowing The Kind Thing to Do. Were I to ever be in that situation, we tell ourselves, I’d definitely show kindness and win the game! Although most of us will never make it onto one of these reality shows, we participate in a similar program every day on social media. But in this version, every contestant knows they’re being watched. In such an environment, one wins by either out-kinding everyone else or publicly congratulating those who are kind (or condemning those who are not).

James Bartholomew invented a name for our strategies for winning this type of game show: virtue signaling, which is the very public, very loud social media indication of one’s own kindness and decency. It can be done positively—“Proud member of PETA!”—but often, virtue signaling “consists of saying you hate things,” Bartholomew argues. Of course, the hate is merely a camouflage, he says, a sleight of hand designed to distract your audience from what you really intend to communicate. “The emphasis on hate distracts from the fact you are really saying how good you are.”

Dan Sanchez, building on Bartholomew, drives home the connection between social media “audience voting” and our desire to win the kindness game. Most of what passes for political discourse on the Internet does not consist of actual attempts to persuade. Rather, the opiners are like preening birds, chirping for anyone within earshot to signal that, “I am a decent, virtuous person…unlike the troglodyte rightwingers or degenerate leftists I’m denouncing.” In other words, we share our opinions on Facebook not to persuade someone to change his or her mind, but to signal both the kind of people we want to be seen as and the kind of people we never want to be seen as. These signals are socially profitable (get enough likes and your kindness can go viral!) and, as Sanchez notes, can often lead to personal, professional, or even romantic opportunities. On the other hand, signal the wrong kind of virtue and you might lose a friendship, or your social standing, or even your job.

This is the medium in which the majority of contemporary politics plays out, as Nicholas Carr notes at Politico. “Our political discourse is shrinking to fit our smartphone screens,“ he says. If, as Marshall MacLuhan has argued, the medium is the message, then political talk communicated on Facebook, Twitter, and Snapchat become just another voice in a sea of virtue signalers.

“Much of our political debate,” writes Sanchez, “consists of our abused inner children basically calling out, ‘Teacher, teacher, look at me. I followed the rules, but Johnny didn’t. Johnny is a bad boy, and he said a mean word, too.”

Social media has essentially turned everyone — including (especially?) our politicians — into the third-grade toady, showing kindness to the teacher in the hopes of getting complimented for being the kind of student who behaves that way. But that kindness isn’t actually kind. It’s the kindness of game shows, of ethical pranks, of politics.

To modify G.K. Chesterton’s criticism of George Bernard Shaw, social media has given us a big heart…but not a heart in the right place—a heart, in fact, right there—to the bottom left of a Facebook status.

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“Kindness” is a slippery word, with a dual definition: It denotes both generosity and kinship. There’s a tension at the heart of kindness between uncalculated charity and a desire to shore up the strength of one’s own group. Shakespeare exploits this tension in The Merchant of Venice: In one of the play’s memorable lines, as Shylock’s fate becomes more obvious, Antonio says, “The Hebrew will turn Christian; he grows kind.” That is, his conversion will make the Jew both nicer and more familiar. In reality, it does neither.

The challenge put to us by The Merchant of Venice—and What Would You Do? And Borat and the entirety of social media—is to re-hear the word “kindness,” to reconsider whether a particular act of kindness is actually kind.

To be clear, kindness matters. It is often better to behave kindly for the wrong reasons than to behave unkindly for whatever reason. It’s just that public kindness often has its own reasons, its own justifications, its own why’s, and we would do well to notice and interrogate those.

Ethicists have at times argued true kindness is without why. It is instinctual, as Emmanuel Levinas notes in his 1984 essay collection In the Time of Nations. Quoting a character from Vasily Grossman’s Life and Fate, Levinas praises the “human kindness in everyday life,” which is “instinctive and blind.”

It is the kindness of an old lady who gives a piece of bread to a convict along the roadside. It is the kindness of a soldier who holds his canteen out to a wounded enemy. The kindness of youth taking pity on old age, the kindness of a peasant who hides an old Jew in his barn. … That private goodness of an individual for another individual is a goodness without witness, a little goodness without ideology. It could be called goodness without thought. The goodness of men outside the religious or social good.

Perhaps it could also be called a virtue without signaling; a kindness that transcends the manipulative baggage of partisan politics.


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Counterpoints, Vol. 314, Flags in the Window: Dispatches from the American War Zone (2007), pp. 59-65
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Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, Vol. 110, In the Light of Evolution VII: The Human Mental Machinery (June 18, 2013), pp. 10408-10415
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