No Ideology to Save Us, But Kindness Will
By Scot Noel
Did you know that there are Buddhist extremists in Myanmar? In recent years, terrorist acts as vicious as hacking bound captives to death before tossing the bodies into a mass grave have been recorded. A Buddhist monk named Wirathu has been accused of supporting the persecution of Muslims in incendiary speeches.
Take away the names of Southeast Asian countries and unfamiliar ethnic groups like the Rohingya, and many of Wirathu’s ultranationalist, secure border, anti-immigrant sentiments would be familiar to Americans. At least in the U.S., things haven’t gotten to the point of slaughtering border crossers… yet.
Buddhism, of course is famous for its core tenants of loving kindness and compassion, not only toward humans but for all sentient beings and for the natural world itself.
If Buddhism can be the faith of hate mongers, what chance does any religion have? Though Christianity’s “Love each other as I have loved you” and “do everything in love” seem in synch with Islam’s “Allah is kind, and he loves kindness in all matters,” and “Kind speech and forgiveness are better than charity,” still there is suspicion, tribalism, and the danger of violence between adherents of these major faiths.
Political and economic movements defined by words like Republican, Democrat, Communist, and Capitalist are little different, except they often make no pretense of loving acceptance as a primary virtue.
It’s clear that all beliefs and ideologies can be perverted to incite our worst instincts. These populist corruptions benefit those with a will to power and the desire to validate themselves by oppressing others. Such people have always been with us, and perhaps in today’s world, their star is temporarily on the rise.
The Evolution of Kindness
But kindness does not depend on philosophy, ideology, or religion. It is evolutionary, and over the long, immemorial struggle of human existence, kindness is winning out.
Considering just the atrocity mentioned in the first paragraph, that sounds naïve or perhaps a symptom of a deep cognitive dissonance. But as far as can be gleaned from historical records, homicides per 100,000
people have been on the decline since the 1300s.
A recent study by mathematicians at the University of York, using publicly available data, looked at global deaths in battle since the Napoleonic wars. While Eurocentric by nature, the study showed that rising populations, global organization, and increased collaboration and cooperation between nations has shifted humanity toward a greater level of peace and security.
“Examining armed conflict empirically over a decades-long perspective, we find that violence has decreased. Interstate war has become a rare event, and intrastate conflict has lessened in frequency and magnitude.” This from a study by the Rand Corporation.
Another population-based study shows that only 1% of the population is accountable for 63% of all violent crime from the 1970s through the end of the century.
Of course, these trends are far from a smooth line moving upward with the grace of an unblemished mathematical curve. A better image is probably the jagged charting of Dow Jones activity. There are constant ups and downs, as well as crashes and major depressions. But the trajectory is always toward peace, cooperation, and the recognition of more and more human groups as kin. Kinship for all. One world of “kyndnes,” the Old English word for nation or to produce and increase.
The Kindest Primate
Studies in psychology show that kindness beats out physical attractiveness, good financial prospects, humor, chastity, religiosity, the desire for children, and creativity in selecting a lifetime mate.
As a species, humans appear to be more willing than other primates to help strangers and outsiders, and we exhibit less conflict within our groups compared to other animals. We are evolving greater kindness all the time.
It all started hundreds of thousands of years ago, with kindness proving its worth in helping groups maintain access to territory, clean water, and other natural resources by collaborating across family, tribal, and finally national boundaries.
Of course, war and violence are part of the human tool kit too. Yet history shows violence is diminishing, and war becoming increasingly rare. Considering the current conflict in Ukraine and terrorism around the globe, that can sound ludicrous out of context.
Because media now has the capability to hype every instance of conflict on an instantaneous and world-wide basis does not mean actual levels of conflict and violence are historically high.
Over the course of civilization, humans have come to recognize themselves as members of tribes, then cities…. states, nations, empires, and super-powers, each bigger than the last. Certainly, the lines have often been drawn in blood, but today the world cooperates to deliver over $160 billion in aid annually to countries in need. Nations meet to combat climate change, prevent the spread of diseases, provide vaccines, battle hunger, decrease childhood mortality, and increase global literacy.
Increasingly, we see ourselves as a species, and one global humankind more than ever before. The reason is simple: it’s a cultural adaptation the self-evident benefits of which are impossible to ignore.
The benefits of violence are most often short, shallow, and narcissistic. The victories of fools. Kindness and cooperation build, sustain, and distribute (not always equitably) a panoply of incredible and ever-growing riches. (Look around you, we used to live on the tundra in houses made of bone.)
High Expectations, but a Long Timeline
Today, we have high expectations. Our standards are higher than they’ve ever been, and that leads to a distortion in perspective and increased dissatisfaction with what seems to us a crumbling world.
In response to the existential fear of change, we too often expect some tradition, ideology, political view, or dear leader to set things right. Often, these once stabilizing forces abandon their own tenets, becoming both voices of division and a reactionary force against the idea (expressed over two thousand years ago by the stoic Seneca) that “wherever there is a human being, there is an opportunity for a kindness.”
The reactionary voices cannot hold their center.
How far along will we be in another two thousand years? Ten thousand? A hundred thousand?
After all these millennia, when we finally look ahead to our destiny amid the vast and unyielding grandeur of the universe, it’s likely kindness that will keep us whole and help us find our place among the stars.