A Politics of Kindness (Fiction Ethics #6)

It’s pretty, but there’s a lot going on there
(Image by Henrique Ferreira, via Unsplash)

Yeah, I know I said I was done. So sue me. Think of it as an encore.

We went to our friends’ house last night for dinner, and to watch a webcast of the political historian Heather Cox Richardson interviewing the writer Rebecca Solnit about her new book Orwell’s Roses. In it, she contrasts Orwell’s clearly political writing with his love of flower gardening, and demonstrates how 1984 in particular was filled with the idea of the private power of pleasure—the ways in which totalitarianism tries fundamentally to control our language and thought, and the importance of reclaiming our own time and our own privacy and our own joys.

That evening followed on a message yesterday afternoon from Unitarian minister and political activist John Pavlovitz, describing what he called “cruelty sickness.”

“I sense a corporate emotional weariness in kind people these days, the accumulated scar tissue created when you’ve absorbed more bad news, predatory behavior, and  attacks on decency than your reserves can manage. Sustained cruelty will do that to the human soul… Eventually, we succumb to the numerous wounds of their boundless hatred, the suffering of those they victimize, and a steady stream of the unanswerable questions about how and why human beings can be this perpetually cruel.”

Pavlovitz’ solution is community. The ability to carry our injured until they’re well enough to re-enter the work, to offer sustenance and support to those who’ve been beaten. “We surround ourselves with people who value us not only for the work we do and the causes we support, but for the inherently vulnerable beings with finite resources that we are; those who demand that we rest and encourage us to play and give us space to pause—so that we are not consumed by the brutality of the day.”

The professional polymath Yi-Fu Tuan wrote a slim book in the late 1990s called Escapism, in which he counters the critics of “escapist” entertainments by arguing that almost all of human culture—the collective products of imagination—has been escapism in one form or another, has been intended to lift us at least for a minute above the brute facts of survival. His argument was launched by attending an academic conference that had been held at Disneyland, and finding himself surprised that he enjoyed it so much, having been trained by elite culture that such amusements are “escapist fantasies suitable only for the immature.” He follows on from that:

Suppose I move down the ladder. What comes after theme park? Shopping mall? It has been attacked as an escapist Eden for mindless consumers. Suburb? Academic detractors have not hesitated to dismiss it as a dull, middle-class playground. They prefer the city. But the city is escapist par excellence, for a city is a city—a real city!—to the degree that it has distanced itself (escaped) from nature and its rhythms. Is farm life, being so close to nature, the ultimately real? Urban sophisticates in a nostalgic mood seem to think so. Yet farmers have obviously striven to create their own world, and in any proud farmhouse, pictures hang on the wall, artificial light drives out darkness. Hunter-gatherers? They have barely modified their natural environment. They don’t have the tools. But they do have the tool of language, and with it they, like all humans, have woven an alternative or complementary reality to which they can resort for support in times of stress and in which they can take delight.

In 1912, the textile workers of Lawrence Massachusetts went on a strike that has come to be known as the “Bread and Roses” movement: the idea that dignity is as important as sustenance, that a life merely of bread is not as human as a life that encompasses both bread and roses, a life that climbs up Maslow’s hierarchy from safety to belonging to the continual growth of imagination.

That, in the end, is what I’m trying to do with my little stories of hope. Things will be hard, and they will get harder, but in the end, my characters find within themselves the power to be brave, to be kind, to be greater than they had been. And my hope is that through them, readers themselves may find moments of delight and strength that allow them to imagine that they, too, might be brave and kind and greater than they had been.

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