“Be excellent to each other.” – Bill and Ted (20th century philosophers)
From a commencement speech by George Saunders:
“What I regret most in my life are failures of kindness. Those moments when another human being was there, in front of me, suffering, and I responded…sensibly. Reservedly. Mildly.”
Saunders then describes a memory from the seventh grade, when he did not defend the new girl in school who was teased for being different. Forty-two years later, he still thinks of her occasionally, and even though he was not personally cruel toward her, he regrets not going out of his way to extend her kindness. He then questions why kindness is often lacking, and he looks for prescriptions to make it more common.
The speech is a good one, and it stirred up some personal memories of instances when I could have used some kindness from someone. Sometimes it came; others it didn’t. There were also situations that called for me to be the one to extend kindness to someone else who needed it. Sometimes I stepped up, although probably not as consistently as I should have. Fear can be a powerful deterrent. Like Saunders, I regret those missed opportunities.
Of course, the opposite of kindness is cruelty, and I’m often distressed by the latest story of human callousness, where someone is belittled for not conforming to another’s standards. For those of us who are not Rhodes Scholar Olympians (which is to say, nearly everyone), we all fall short of socially constructed ideals in some way. Either we’re not attractive enough, or not stylish, athletic, or smart enough (or too smart). Too red. Too blue. Too promiscuous or too chaste. Too tall. Too short. Too neurally atypical. Or, we’re the ‘wrong’ weight, gender, race, sexuality, ethnicity, social class, or speak the wrong dialect. We can be incredibly creative at finding the holes in the armor to bring someone down.
For such an intensely social species, we often seem to go out of our way to make each other want to leave the group.
Why do we do it? I’m not sure, but part of the reason seems to be a desire to climb the social ladder by stepping on the heads of others. Social status is a form of capital, and some people don’t seem to mind harming others to get it, even if it entails outright cruelty. In this regard, we’re not so different from some other primate species. The biologist Robert Sapolsky has compared us to baboons, since both species “can devote a large part of each day to making each other absolutely miserable with social stress.” There must be a better way to spend our very short time here than by creating misery.
A couple of points. First, there is evidence that social rejection literally hurts, even without physical bullying. For example, Kross et al (2011) found that similar parts of the brain were involved in people who experienced social rejection and physical pain. They suggested that the former developed in evolution “by coopting brain circuits that support the affective component of physical pain.” Teasing and bullying are not harmless ‘fun,’ as shown by the disturbing numbers of young people driven to depression and even suicide by social rejection.
Second, the stress caused by rejection, or more systemic forces like inequality, have real adverse effects on long-term health. As Sapolsky wrote in a frequently cited 2005 paper:
“in humans, there is a robust imperviousness of (socioeconomic status)–health associations to differences in social and economic systems… it is a testimony to the power of humans, after inventing material technology and the unequal distribution of its spoils, to corrosively subordinate its have-nots.”
These patterns have negative impacts on our bodies and even our brains. However, as Daniel Lende (2012) reminds us in his paper “Poverty Poisons the Brain,” we should avoid focusing solely on the bodily effects of inequality, and look at the big picture: “Referencing the brain as the central mediator of poverty hides the larger truths of inequality and distorts our understanding of what poverty really is. To take a more extreme example to illustrate the same point, it is like saying slavery is both harmful to people and morally wrong because it impacts brains.” Some things are just harmful in and of themselves.
We are sometimes told not to worry so much about what others think of us, that our bedrock ought to be being comfortable with ourselves. Since this essay takes me back to my youth, I remember one of my high school teachers had a Horace Greeley quote on her wall:
“Fame is a vapor, popularity an accident, and riches take wings. Only one thing endures and that is character.”
I really liked that quote, and it stuck with me, particularly as I was not a member of the ‘in’ crowd (too shy, too much acne, too thin, etc.). It also reminded me that character was an inner source of strength, and to try to separate the important things from the trivial ones. However, wanting to fit in is a powerful force. It seems like an uphill battle to ask a member of such an intensely social primate species to not care what others think about them. To some extent, we cannot help but see each other as yardsticks for comparison.
What are some solutions? One is to remember that no one can conform to every socially idealized trait. And our standards are often arbitrary and fluctuate with time. In 1912, the “most nearly perfect specimen of womanhood” (according to some) might not fit today’s standards. Nor should she – or anyone – have to. Nature thrives on variation. As John Hawks wrote recently about the ‘natural’ parenting style, there is no single way to raise a child: “That’s the lesson of evolution: we should tolerate variability.” The same goes for physical features as well.
There are other ways to climb the social ladder besides tearing others down. We can pull them up too. Altruism isn’t completely selfless. It’s also practical. How much better would things be for ourselves if we were surrounded by happier, healthier people who felt included? Misery begets misery, and we can’t wall ourselves off from it completely, no matter how high the gates are.
One of the nice side effects of doing the right thing is that we can gain status through kindness as well. Our brains often process cooperation as a reward (Rilling et al 2002). So, it can literally feel good to be kind, which is a welcome bonus. It certainly feels better than cruelty, guilt, or shame.
To return to Saunders, I often try to imagine my 80 year-old self (should I be that lucky) and wonder what I will remember and regret years from now. I’m not completely sure, but it won’t be my bank account, or how many publications I had. I think it will be how I treated people, and when I fell short and when I lived up to my own standards.
I remember being in the 9th grade in a situation similar to the one Saunders described. We were freshman in a big public high school, waiting at the door for the bell to ring near the end of art class. High school was new to us all, and we were all learning how to swim in that big fish bowl, especially for me since I came from a small parochial school and knew almost nobody. One of the boys started teasing a small, quiet girl with glasses for being unattractive (according to his arbitrary standards). And she just tucked her books tighter to her chest and looked down at the floor. That time, I did step up and told him to stop, though it made me afraid to do it. I didn’t do that every time, however, and looking back I wish I had.
But we shouldn’t have to be put in that position in the first place. A better idea would be for people to stop acting like baboons.
Kross E, Berman MG, Mischel W, Smith EE, Wagerd TD. 2011. Social rejection shares somatosensory representations with physical pain. PNAS 108(15): 6270–5. Link
Lende D. 2012. Poverty poisons the brain. Annals of Anthropological Practice 36(1): 183–201. Link
Rilling J, Gutman D, Zeh T, Pagnoni G, Berns G, Kilts C. 2002. A neural basis for social cooperation. Neuron 35: 395-405. Link
Sapolsky RM. 2005. The influence of social hierarchy on primate health. Science 29(308):648–652. Link