What I hope we’re fighting for when we call our senators and take to the streets isn’t ‘kindness.’ It’s not a lack of conflict or an abundance of hugs. It’s equality, justice, and liberation – and none of this is won by simply being nice.
I jokingly posted on Facebook the other day, “When they go low, you have a great opportunity to knee them in the face.” A friend and fellow progressive asked, “But don’t you want this country to be one of kindness and love?” My immediate “no” was reflexive and mostly facetious, but the more I thought about it, the more I realized that it’s true.
I don’t know exactly when the American center-left adopted “kindness” as a unifying ethos. On the surface, it seems to be the logical extension of identity politics: Beyond fighting for the liberation of women, black people, queer people, immigrants, Muslims, etc., we strive toward an ideal of universal love and inclusivity. If we cherish and empathize with each other, the thought process goes, we won’t oppress each other.
As a starting point it’s not bad. The problem comes when we use it as our only filter, simplistically judging every action based on whether it was “kind” or “unkind” without going any deeper.
This is how we end up in conversations about whether it’s okay to be “intolerant of intolerance.” Whether it’s “just as bad” to be called a racist is as it is to be a victim of racism. Whether it’s morally acceptable to punch a Nazi.
When we only care whether behavior is either nice or mean, the moral complexity of the world is flattened and decontextualized. Political discourse becomes a question of “disagreement” or “alternative viewpoints,” where every perspective matters just as much as any other — and being pleasant is the highest virtue.
What I hope we’re fighting for when we call our senators and take to the streets isn’t ‘kindness.’ It’s not a lack of conflict or an abundance of hugs. It’s equality, justice, and liberation – none of which are won by simply being nice.
I don’t need everybody to love me, or each other. Affection is nice, but it’s more or less irrelevant to progressive politics. I can think you’re an asshole and still fight for your rights. You can find me unbearable and still fight for mine. And when we simplify oppression into mere unkindness, we provide cover for friendly people who support oppressive policies.
“I respect you as a person,” a family friend said to me while explaining why she voted for Trump, as though the fact that she enjoys my company somehow made it OK for her to support for a politician who is systematically tearing everything I believe in apart.
In Washington, the reification of kindness and understanding has Democrats bending over backward to show their willingness to work with the Trump administration, despite the unambiguously disastrous trajectory of its policies. And this comes after eight years of compromise that left Democratic voters disappointed and disillusioned, led to a hotly contested primary — and ultimately cost the left the election. As long as Democrats continue to fetishize unity and prioritize reaching across the aisle, the left will continue to forfeit the battle for our country’s future.
There are some truths the mainstream American left needs to get comfortable with; principles we need to embrace, say out loud, and live by. For instance, we need to accept that morality is not relative. Opinions can be right or wrong. Just because two people have extremely different points of view does not mean the truth lies somewhere in the middle. If that were the case, we could transform reality by simply lying with enough enthusiasm – and despite Donald Trump’s best efforts, I don’t believe that’s actually possible.
Morality must be measured by actual harm done, not hurt feelings. Calling a racist a racist might make him sad, but it doesn’t oppress him in any way. It can’t be compared to the centuries of enslavement, segregation, criminalization, poverty, and violence that this country has perpetrated on the bodies of its black inhabitants. To describe them as equal, using words like “intolerance” or “hatred,” is to deliberately (and cruelly) lie about history and context.
Too many of us on the left have allowed “tolerance” to replace “liberation” in our political rhetoric. Asking people to ‘be tolerant of each other even if we disagree’ assumes life has a level playing field. It presupposes a world where there are no oppressors, where no one is oppressed and everyone’s opinion has equal weight. Nothing could be farther from our current political reality.
My goal is not to create a country where everyone tolerates each other, agrees to disagree, and goes about their business. I cannot agree to disagree on whether poor people deserve medical care, whether black people deserve safety from police brutality, whether my queer family deserves equal legal protections.
These are matters of right and wrong, not questions of opinion. If you disagree with me, I have a moral responsibility to resist you. This doesn’t mean I reject compassion. What I reject is the idea that compassion has to be comfortable. It’s a brave and beautiful thing to look the person who is hurting you in the eye and recognize their humanity. But you aren’t required to sacrifice your own autonomy for the sake of their tranquility.
If America’s progressives are to lead – and we absolutely must – the left has to get our act together. We have to get over our aversion to conflict and get used to standing up for what’s right. We must loudly, persistently denounce opinions and actions that are wrong. And we can’t do that until we decide to stop being nice.
Lindsay King-Miller is a queer femme who does not have an indoor voice. Her writing has appeared in Bitch Magazine, Cosmopolitan.com, Buzzfeed, The Hairpin, and numerous other publications. She lives in Denver with her partner, a really cute baby, and two very spoiled cats. She is the author of Ask A Queer Chick (Plume, 2016).