Kindness is complicated, especially when we begin to consider how kindness might be institutionalized amid a politically polarized culture, how it might be taught, harnessed and wielded on behalf of justice, in service of the betterment of society at large.
Kindness is also simple, personal, quiet and rooted in the commonality of the human experience, the human need for love and support, our shared experiences of suffering and mortality.
Kindness resides in the micro and macro, and should be embraced and interrogated in both those spaces. That was the consensus from an eclectic group of scholars, medical professionals, artists, journalists, educators, activists and community builders who gathered to discuss kindness during an Atlantic Roundtable Dinner on Feb. 20 in Los Angeles, which was made possible by UCLA.
The event was produced by AtlanticLIVE, a division of The Atlantic magazine that crisscrosses the country with more than 100 events annually, from topical summits to festivals, bringing together creative thinkers from the arts, academia, health, entertainment, media and more.
Participants at the dinner cut a broad swath across Los Angeles institutions, including from UCLA, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, the Los Angeles Public Library, the American Red Cross, Reddit, the Crete Academy in South Los Angeles, the Educating Young Minds after-school program, activist-gardener Ron Finley, Hollywood watchdog group The Blacklist, the Islamic Center of Southern California and more.
It’s important to gather in this way, said UCLA Chancellor Gene Block.
“As diverse as we are as a campus community, we do still live in a bit of an echo chamber,” he said. “We talk to ourselves very well, but I can’t overemphasize how important it is to listen to other voices and to listen more broadly to the community around us.”
Darnell Hunt, dean of the division of social sciences in the UCLA College, started the conversation by talking about the recently launched UCLA Bedari Kindness Institute. Hunt shared an “operationalized definition” of kindness that social scientists affiliated with the first-of-its-kind research center will use in their work. Their research will include examining the roots of kindness in human evolution, the ways kindness is or is not institutionalized in other cultures, and the means and likelihood of perpetuating more widespread kindness.
“Our working basic description of kindness is ‘actions and associated thoughts and/or feelings that are intended to benefit others or society at large, where other’s welfare is an end in itself and not a means to an end,’” Hunt said.
Other UCLA participants were Michelle Craske, who sits on the executive committee of UCLA’s Depression Grand Challenge, and Linda Sarna, dean of the UCLA School of Nursing.
Ronald Brownstein, senior editor at The Atlantic, moderated the discussion, inviting multiple perspectives to chime in on the topic, which he said seems more relevant than ever amid another fractious election cycle.
“We do not seem to be surrounded by an excess of kindness,” Brownstein observed.
Topics ranged from social media to social justice, health care to education, food insecurity to childhood trauma, and also included poverty, Hollywood and storytelling at large. Among the questions and ideas the panelists considered:
- How do we perpetuate kindness in a culture that seems to reward cruelty?
- How do people grapple with the pervasive racial undertones of cruelty in America?
- Does the kindness of an oppressed person toward their oppressor actually result more-humane action?
- Can social media and the internet be a home for kind words and deeds as well as vitriol?
- Can kindness be taught?
- Can kindness be measured?
- How can children who live in unkind home situations learn and experience kindness?
- How can kindness help stop cycles of pain and trauma, especially in children?
- What is the role of the media and Hollywood storytellers in generating empathy and potentially kindness toward people of different races?
- How can medical professionals like nurses, physicians and palliative care doctors continue to embrace not only operationalized kindness toward their patients, but also in service of self-care?
- Can loving kindness as a meditation practice be used to treat depression?
Inspiring a community of kindness is about building positive environments, and supporting systems that inspire people from a young age to value each other more than the hottest gadget or pair of shoes, or other materialistic trappings, said Finley, who has seen it all through his urban gardening project in South Los Angeles.
“It’s real simple,” he said. “Good in, good out … in anything. If you have good soil and good seeds, you’re going to get a good plant. If somebody takes care of you and gives you these things that’s what’s going to come out.”
The complexity of questions from a diversity of voices and experiences yielded a few simple examples of kindness, like making sure a kid who makes a mistake gets a chance to learn about a fellow student’s struggle and a second chance to be kind, and how a single person speaking up for a marginalized group against an oppressor can be construed an act of kindness even if the message is not delivered kindly.
Overall the discussion was permeated by an awareness that while a simple act of kindness might be powerful, the powerful act of committing an entire culture to embrace kindness is far from simple.