‘Common-sense kindness works through the golden rule—do as you would be done by. Wokeness replaces this delicate reciprocal balance with a sort of moral socialism—a blank cheque for whoever shouts loudest’
It is no surprise that the greatest expression of kindness in Western culture was delivered in a comedy. Cruelty is always serious, while one funny line can snap straight through the artificial divide between victim and tormentor. The novelist Milan Kundera, who had an eye for the humourlessness of totalitarian cruelty, stole a word from Rabelais and named agélastes—those who never laugh—as the true enemies of human freedom, in art and life.
Kundera himself always refused to reduce his art to political propaganda, an attitude that would be decried as absurdly problematical by today’s new generation of agélastes, the woke. Everything, it seems, must be political now, doing its part to promote equality and social justice. Laughter for its own sake is a kind of theft, stealing attention from the stern task of revolution. That’s not to deny the reality of injustice. It will, of course, always need to be fought, sometimes with grim insistence. But the apostles of the “Great Awokening” are in the grip of something else: a colossal, collective sense of humour failure. Unsurprisingly, their assaults also lack any trace of kindness.
The satirical barbs of Titania McGrath on Twitter hit home because they catch the shocking reality of campaigners who talk about caring and building a better world, while going after their opponents with gleeful savagery. Or as Titania once put it, “In our struggle for peace, tolerance and common humanity, we must call out vile cis scumbags like J.K. Rowling who deserve to be boiled alive.”
What explains this apparent contradiction? It’s simple. Wokeness has rejected common-sense kindness, not realising how that unfashionable virtue makes civil society possible.
Kindness sounds soft. It lacks the ring of a manly virtue such as fortitude. Yet in 2018, the punk singer-songwriter Frank Turner—no one’s idea of a softie—released an album named for its title song: Be More Kind. Turner was borrowing from the late Clive James, who lamented in his poem “Leçons De Ténèbres”:
I should have been more kind. It is my fate
To find this out, but find it out too late.
Turner’s lyrics are more hopeful than James’s, for whom kindness is a lesson received when the day is already over. Be More Kind tells its listeners that kindness is a light that might yet drive back the darkness.
In a world that has decided
That it’s going to lose its mind
Be more kind, my friends, try to be more kind.
That idea has a long heritage. Michel de Montaigne might have found Turner’s approach too on-the-nose, but the great essayist would have appreciated its celebration of kindness. Montaigne reminded himself how much kindness mattered by keeping its classic Roman expression in his peripheral vision. The line carved on a beam in his library has helped define kindness for more than two thousand years. It comes from Terence’s comic play The Self-Tormentor:
Homo sum: humani nihil a me alienum puto
“I am a human being: nothing human is alien to me.” Montaigne, all too aware of the follies of human behaviour, must have read this sentiment with a certain wryness. Yet across the centuries these eight words have inspired serious intellects as diverse as St Augustine and Cicero, Karl Marx and Maya Angelou. And as the work of a slave from Africa who won his freedom with his talent, it might seem that Terence’s Latin should still speak even to today’s identity-obsessed, Marx-reading radicals. But there’s a problem with that.
The trouble with kindness is that it relies on common sense . This explains its affinity with humour, for kindness embraces the laughter of mutual recognition. Such common-sense connection is vital to human society, but it’s also easy to dismiss. The woke opponents of common sense deride it as nothing more than a defence of conventional wisdom. And yet without common sense we quickly find ourselves in unexpected danger.
In the case of kindness, common sense works to coordinate our moral behaviour, setting mutually acceptable standards for how we should treat one another in society. Without this hidden mechanism, civil order starts to fray.
Common-sense kindness works through the golden rule—do as you would be done by. Universal across cultures and traditions, the golden rule long pre-dates Terence but shares his insight: we know what it is like to be a human being from our own experience. This common-sense realisation underpins a flexible, reciprocal ethic that encourages peaceful co-existence.
Wokeness replaces this delicate reciprocal balance with a sort of moral socialism—a blank cheque for whoever shouts loudest. The golden rule becomes the platinum rule: treat people as they tell you to. With common sense rejected, unbridgeable divides of identity multiply. No one gets to identify as a human being, and anyone who dares to challenge these new rules risks cancellation. J.K. Rowling, the most famous author in the world, has endured far worse than Titania’s fictional jibes for expressing her point of view on trans issues.
But even a successful cancellation brings little peace. The journalist Gavin Haynes studied how the woke frenzy kept escalating in the online subcultures of knitting and YA fiction. He called it a “purity spiral”. With no reciprocal, common-sense limits, more and more victims are sacrificed until, like the Terror of the French Revolution, even the most enthusiastic revolutionaries find themselves on the chopping block. The founder of the #Diversknitty movement was pushed into a nervous breakdown by the cruelty of his own followers. A YA sensitivity reader was forced to withdraw his own novel to appease the zealots.
There are many who support the intentions of the social justice warriors but are shocked by the harsh reality of their tactics. It all seems like some grotesque mistake. But without common sense , the very opposite of kindness inevitably gains ground. Kundera argued that the agélastes could commit horrors because they imagined all men thought just like them. But as we are discovering, casual cruelty also comes naturally to a movement that fails to understand how much we all have in common.