The Kindness Checkmate

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The interwebs are atwitter with volatile reactions to Ellen DeGeneres defending her friendship with former president George W. Bush.

“When I say be kind to one another,” said DeGeneres, “I don’t mean be kind to the people who think the same way you do. I mean be kind to everyone.”

The responses I’ve seen have ranged from “isn’t that nice” to “Ellen betrayed us.”

Ellen and W are ultimately caricatures of America. The reactions to their friendship illuminate deep contradictions at the heart of ‘American values.’

Is it better to be right, or to be happy?

Is it better to act from a place of judgment or mercy?

Is it more important to defend the tribe/clan/squad, or to affirm our shared humanity?

Is kindness political?

It’s amazing to me how many of the ‘love wins’ folks on my feed are most adamant that Ellen should have nothing to do with someone who is a war criminal who actively worked against LGBT rights. Now, what if W had been convicted of these alleged crimes, served his time, would it be okay for Ellen to be friends with him then?

What if, instead of “friendship,” Ellen said she was “showing compassion’ to W? Would that be better? Would that have the right quality of condescension and separateness? Those who would prefer that phrasing don’t understand compassion.

Does being kind to someone equate to agreeing with them? Condoning their actions? If so, how should you treat someone you don’t agree with? Sneer at them? Spit on them? Pretend they don’t exist?

Does this imply that there can no longer be reconciliation? Change of heart? Personal growth? Are we now in an era of intractable typecasting?

Is it mutually exclusive to hold someone accountable for their actions and to show them kindness?

Ellen and W are friends. Or at least friendly. That’s the reality. Folks can claim it shouldn’t be, but obviously it should, because they are.

So what rules, what beliefs are causing people to protest that reality? Are those rules universal, or do they just apply to celebrities & politicans? What are the rules for being unkind anyway? Do they include violence, ugliness, or just WASP-y cold shoulders?

And if it is, in fact, a requirement to withhold kindness from those with whom we have serious disagreements or opposing world views, then is it okay if they treat us by those same standards?

If W had demanded to be seated somewhere else because Ellen was a hopeless liberal lesbian, would that have been okay? Was he betraying his beliefs by sitting next to her?

Judgment is capitalistic. It ascribes worth, rank, and value. It assigns class, privilege, and opportunity. Some religious types like to sidestep the no-no ‘judgment’ word with terms like ‘discernment’ (eg., I don’t know how god is going to judge you, but I’m going to keep my distance).

Kindness is democratic. Every person is included, represented. Citizenship is universal. Humanity is shared.

For those who profess to follow Jesus, he famously said “love your enemies.” Kindness is much lower stakes than love.

Politics have become intensely personal. Left, right, blue, red now indicate personal qualities rather than political characteristics. There no longer seems to be room for nuance, complexity, and certainly not compromise.

And it is in this world that kindness is now controversial.

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