Radical Acts of Kindness

The phrase “random acts of kindness” is most commonly attributed to author Anne Herbert. In 1982, in Sausalito, California, Herbert wrote on a placemat:

Practice random kindness and senseless acts of beauty

The phrase was then popularly refined to “practice random acts of kindness.” Growing up in California in the 1980s, this phrase was everywhere.

I never really liked it.

I appreciate the sentiment – kindness towards others is generally a good thing – but random acts of kindness? Here’s what I imagine:

I am out in the world. I see a person in distress. I have the ability, with little cost or effort, to provide help or support. I flip a coin.

Randomly, I decide whether or not to be kind.

Surely, this is not what Herbert intended, but nevertheless, the phrase seems inappropriate. Random kindness removes intentionality, agency, context. Random kindness is predictable, perhaps, on average but generally no better than fumbling around in the dark. A random choice between kindness and inaction.

I propose a different phrase: radical acts of kindness.

Perhaps kindness seems so passé as to be the opposite of radical. As a social norm, kindness is generally accepted to be good.

Sort of.

Consider the work of philosopher Peter Singer. In his 2002 book One World, he shares a example he conducts with his class. He starts by quoting Victorian philosopher Henry Sidgwick:

We should all agree that each of us in bound to show kindness to his parents and spouse and children, and to other kinsmen in a less degree: and to those who have rendered services to him, and any others whom he may have admitted to his intimacy and called friends: and to neighbors and to fellow-countrymen more than others…

Singer writes, “When I read this list to my students, they nod their heads in agreement at the various circles of moral concern Sidgwick mentions.” And this all does seem more or less reasonable: you care most for your closest family, and then for your closest friends, and then more generally for your acquaintances and connections. Every person in the world can be mapped to your various circles of concern, indicating, approximately, how much kindness you ought to show to them.

But Sidgwick is not through. He did, after all, write more than a century ago. His quote continues:

…and perhaps we may say [we are bound to show kindness] to those of our own race more than to black or yellow men, and generally to human beings in proportion to their affinity to ourselves.

Well, that got awkward. Singer shares that at this point, his students “sit up in shock.”

And it is shocking. To go from caring more for your immediate family to being an racist seems like quite a leap. It hardly seems immoral if I prefer to donate a kidney to a loved one rather than a stranger, yet, as Singer points out, there is something troubling to these circles of concern.

This element is particularly troubling in conjunction with the numerous studies which show that people tend to self-segregate into “like” groups. Again, it doesn’t seem intrinsically immoral to want to spend time with people you can easily relate to – yet if we grow closest to those most like us, and we care most for those we are close to…the ultimate result is a self-fulfilling loop of power and supremacy.

Singer argues that we need to reset our sense of “like”, seeing all humanity as part of our global community. Our neighbors are suffering, and it makes no different whether they are 10 blocks away or 10 thousand miles away. He proposes a specific policy solution – donating a minimum of 1% of your income to those most in need. But even with this practical implementation, he provides little guidance on how to shift one’s thinking and feeling.

This is where we get to radical acts of kindness.

Perhaps there are circles of concern – even Singer concedes that it’s reasonable to care for your family more than strangers. I’m inclined to agree with Singer that, especially among strangers, we need to shift who we see as “like” ourselves, but this shift doesn’t address the fact that there’s a basic inequity to the circle of concern model.

Singer’s plan would address global poverty while doing little to confront the deep racial and social injustice experienced in our own country.

A radical act of kindness is being kinder than social norm would generally dictate. Showing true care for someone you hardly know, regardless of their distance from you, regardless of their likeness to you.

Radical kindness is pushing the boundaries of those circles, changing the norms of how much kindness is proper to show. Radical kindness seeks to go beyond social obligations.

Such radical acts of kindness are not easy, and those circles of concern will never – and perhaps should not – go away. But we can each push the boundary of what it means to care for our fellow man, each seek to make the word a little better – not randomly, but radically.


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