The entertainer Garry Moore used to end his weekly television show asking his audience to “be a little kinder to each other this week.” In the wake of the tragic killings in Connecticut a week ago, it might be worthwhile to consider this old word ‘kind’ and what it means, in a full sense, to be kinder to each other. For surely, what is needed most of all to change a violent society is not to ban weapons or station guards in schools and other places, but to rediscover the reasons why we should act kindly towards each other. And since one of the barriers to deeper insight into kindness is to surround it with a sentimental haze, I propose to examine this word as objectively and dispassionately as I can; for we all know by now, if we didn’t before the 14thDecember, how strongly we feel about it.
The Merriam-Webster Dictionary has this to say about the origin of the word kind:
Middle English kinde, from Old English cynd; akin to Old English cynn kin
First Known Use: before 12th century
If someone was your kin, you owed certain moral obligations towards him or her. The two of you were akin, of one kind. The notion of extending this consideration to people outside the family grew slowly. In ancient China, we find the philosopher Mo Ti advising people to love all others equally. Confucius, a more conservative thinker, taught that our consideration towards others should admit of degrees, with more being shown the sovereign and one’s parents and elder brother, less towards neighbors, and so on, ending in a general benevolence toward humanity in general. In other words, he felt that we should prefer the welfare of those who are closely related to us over that of people more distantly related, or not related at all, so far as we can tell. This was still an improvement over the usual ancient practice, still observable among indigenous peoples 150 years ago, of seeing their own tribe or nation as human beings, while those outside it as simply ‘enemies.’ The idea of ethical obligations towards humanity in general developed slowly in the West, through the Stoics and Cicero and others. The concept of the world as one community gave rise anciently to the word ‘cosmopolis,’ world-city, from which we derive our word ‘cosmopolitan.’
Here and now in the 21st century, we still have a tendency to huddle together in a group and regard those outside it as ‘them.’ Bloody conflicts between different religious sects are still going on daily in the Middle East and other regions. Just the other day a Ukrainian politician was criticized for referring to the actress Mila Kunis as a ‘Jewess.’ When we objectify someone with a label, we reduce them to a puppet following certain instincts, as though controlled by the class we are labeling. Whether or not Ms. Kunis identifies with Judaism, or to what extent, she is first and foremost a person, an individual. She does not go through her days “acting like a Jewess,” whatever that might be. She freely chooses her own course in all her acts, as indeed we all do.
There is an irony here. In America we tend to regard ourselves as different from everybody else. This is a cultural trait common to most of us. We see it in its most extreme form in the mind of a deranged killer like Adam Lanza, who wouldn’t even make eye contact with other people, according to his barber. By separating himself from humanity, he went crazy from his isolation and eventually became capable of killing other people for no apparent reason.
Not all societies inculcate a sense of separation and difference from others. I am living in retirement in Norway, where the customary way of life reinforces a sense of solidarity with others, a fact which made the killing rampage of Anders Breivik in 2011 all the more painful and incomprehensible to Norwegians. Instead of avoiding the topics, ethics and a number of religions are taught in the schools. Adolescents are either confirmed in the state Lutheran church or else go through a secular ceremony, after taking courses in humanistic subjects. Yearly surveys of happy countries select Scandinavian societies again and again. People are happy here because they have a sense of belonging with each other: they are one kind.
We are also one kind, could we but see it. The road away from the Newtown massacre lies before us, and we can take it if we take it together, if we walk together with other people who may look different or believe or disbelieve differently from us, vote differently, or speak with a different accent, or love one another differently. We can walk it together because, in the long run, these things do not matter; what matters is we are all ‘me,’ all persons, all one kind. And being one kind, we can be a little kinder to each other, as Garry Moore asked us to do years ago.