What happened to kindness?

Leads | By Abby Ferla |

“People get a lot of praise,” Konrath says, “that isn’t warranted for the behavior,” adding, “Everyone gets a medal.” She says that while the practice might at least appear to be motivated by kindness, it likely contributes to a disconnect between individuals’ abilities and their perceptions of these abilities.

Schools and the media also encouraged children to express themselves. Campbell says that the flip side of self-expression is incivility. “Social rudeness,” she says, is part of the movement towards self-expression that started in 60s and 70s. We tell people ‘you gotta express yourself,’ ‘you gotta be honest,’ ‘you gotta be real.’ If you’re in a relationship with someone you have to say how you feel. You have to be yourself. You have to live out loud.” An unintended consequence of this is that people don’t restrain themselves from expressing angry, frustrated, selfish, or even malicious sentiments.


Social isolation and the decline of community

In his now famous work Bowling Alone, sociologist and political scientist Robert Putman argued that over the last few decades, Americans have been spending less and less time engaging in social activities. He ties this to a decline in community and civic engagement. With Putnam in mind, Campbell observes, “There is a shrinking sense of community…We have large [but] shallow networks like Facebook and fewer close networks.”

“There is a shrinking sense of community…We have large [but] shallow networks like Facebook and fewer close networks.” — Robert Putnam

Randy Lewis thinks that one reason for a loss of community is that, “We as a democratic culture began to lose faith in the institutions in our democracy,” he says.

Lewis traces this decrease in faith to the late 1960s and early 1970s, when survey data began to reveal that American’s trust in their government was eroding alongside events like the the release of the Pentagon papers. “We stopped believing what we were hearing from the elites in the media and politics,” he says.

Before that, according to Lewis, the system felt like a “real democracy,” where “people have real conversations and our elections result in something we have produced.” After that change, the system resembles a “formal” democracy — “more like something that lobbyists and special interests and billionaires have produced.”

He adds that this fact is not lost on the majority of Americans. “People who are average people, who might not have the language to articulate this the way that scholars do, they are fully aware of this phenomenon.”

Many say that the more that people view themselves as individuals and less as part of communities, the less likely it is that they will have empathy for each other and interact with kindness.

According to Lewis, an important element spurring this process over the last few decades has been the increasing dominance of neo-liberal ideology. This set of views, which he characterizes as emphasizing the need to compete to survive in an increasingly cutthroat globalized marketplace, encourages people to see themselves in isolation and needing to rely only on their own resources. 

Donald G. Davis agrees that there has been an increase in self-oriented behavior, and suggests that this has caused an erosion of the sense of community. Moreover, he says, greater materialism has yielded more harshness between people as they compete to show who has the most things: “We have to have a little better home and automobile than the next man…even if it takes stepping on our neighbor to do it.”


Tougher economic circumstances pushing people apart?

One critical factor that may be pushing people away from a sense of community is increasing economic stress. Remapping Debate has previously reported on how much more difficult it is to achieve or maintain a middle class lifestyle today as compared with 40 years ago.

Rudy Fenwick and Mark Tausig, professors of sociology at the University of Akron, have been researching changes in occupational structure in the United States and the effects that these changes have had on health and stress of individuals.

Randy Lewis says we have experienced a loss of “real democracy,” where “people have real conversations and our elections result in something we have produced.”

Along with increasing economic inequality, they find, more workers are being hired only on a part-time or temporary basis. These “contingent” workers are, by definition, in insecure financial situations; moreover, they generally don’t receive benefits such as health care or pensions.

Workers who still have regular and theoretically long-term jobs have seen their wages stagnate and, frequently, seen their pension and health care benefits cut or threatened.

Fenwick and Tausig say that the pervasive threat of layoffs in the current economic environment adds to an even greater sense of insecurity to all workers.

“Mentally, it creates a lot of stress,” says Fenwick. He argues that both employed and unemployed workers offer suffer from long-term chronic stress due to the instability of their financial situations. “We do know that some of these changes have resulted in increases in depression and just general distress,” Tausig adds.

Remapping Debate asked Heather Boushey, senior economist at the Center for American Progress, whether she believed that the existence of more challenging economic conditions might militate against the frequency and depth people’s expressions of kindness.

“Family income has been squeezed. You have seen [over the past few decades] more and more families having more workers in the workforce and putting in more hours and having a lot less time,” Boushey said.

“I think that is very consistent with themes you are getting at,” she added.

Davis also believes that having less time is a factor in declining compassion. “We are spreading ourselves so thin that we don’t have quality family time anymore.” He says that this means that parents do not have the resources to teach their children values such as compassion or kindness. “We lost the family somewhere in the midst of [these changes],” he says.

According to Campbell, having less time and more stress can decrease kindness for other reasons. “It’s easier to be rude than to be nice; being nice requires self-control. The more stress you put on people, the more likely it is that they will be unkind at the end of the day. We have a society right now where it takes more energy and makes it harder to be nice.”

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