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From God’s lips to your ear: Kindness in fraught times

<h6>Courtesy of Alfredo Borba / commons.wikimedia.org</h6>
Courtesy of Alfredo Borba / commons.wikimedia.org

In a recent 45,000-word booklet, His Holiness Pope Francis delivered a critique of modern culture, economics, and politics. The encyclical letter, titled “Fratelli Tutti,” or “All Brothers,” is founded on a call for fraternity in all aspects of life, which the Pope uses to denounce individualism and market capitalism while encouraging global empathy.

As much as I wish to give His Holiness credit for dissecting modern problems with a holy accuracy, his calls for fraternity are not new. The picturesque ideals of the letter have been championed by writers and philosophers from the 20th century who foresaw the intense fracturing that has come to dominate our society. Their solutions to the problem return to a core value that is fundamental for creating bridges. I am compelled, like a broken record, to advocate for the biggest cliché in human history: kindness.

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Fracturing has occurred in our community. Why is it that, once a month, I see a massive email chain of students condemning one another? Screaming someone down never helps, as tempting as it may be to do so, and as easy as it is to do so. It ignores the problem presented and leaves it to fester. It is a grave symptom of cynicism, the belief that "the opponent" will never change, so all that's left to do is eliminate them. Everything I write here applies acutely to us as students of Princeton in turbulent times, who find ourselves in near constant dialogue about values and beliefs.

Before I continue, it should be noted that I am anything but a Catholic. My interest in the Pope’s letter came from an intellectual curiosity. Yet, Pope Francis is more than just a Catholic leader. Although his relatively liberal posture has caused him much backlash among conservative Catholics (especially in America), and the rise of nationalism has demurred his voice, he is one of the last remaining moral leaders of the secular age. This is not a sermon about religion or about morality, but about being aware enough to respect one another. 

Why is it that moral leaders like the Pope have fallen out of the public eye in the recent years? Anger, which is the default rhetorical stance on Twitter and other social media outlets, could be the reason. Anger spreads much faster on the internet than most other emotions. Social media even incentivizes the spread of these messages because of how much attention they get. Idealistic claims from saintly leaders create feelings of joy, but it is easy for negativity to quickly quash these sentiments, especially when a whole wall of anger is tumbling towards you. Posting on social media should have the same thoughtfulness that should exist in speaking. 

Hateful rhetoric is something all parties are guilty of. When the sitting President of the United States fell ill with COVID-19, for example, there was an abundance of tweets wishing him death. These tweets were ultimately banned, yet thousands of others face death threats nearly every day without action. Regardless of ideological differences, celebrating the death of a human being due to a virus that has killed 1 million others is simply unjust. So too, is threatening death for Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and other progressives in Congress.

Pope Francis asks what can be done about this  in his letter, questioning how, “… amid the fray of conflicting interests, where victory consists in eliminating one’s opponents … is it possible to raise our sights to recognize our neighbours or to help those who have fallen along the way?" 

He first acknowledges our society’s current failures come from our lack of “common horizons that unite us”; that we no longer believe in a shared common world. At the University, we also face this problem. We assume that others share our values, and, if they do not, we refuse to learn from them. Without shared fact and openness to values, society, and especially democracy, fragments into insular groups who can no longer work together. As the Pope writes, we come to think “that we are all-powerful, while failing to realize that we are all in the same boat. This illusion, unmindful of the great fraternal values, leads to a sort of cynicism.”

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Philosophers Charles Taylor and Hannah Arendt, whose terms the Pope evoked in his letter (common horizons and political cynicism, respectively), warned about the destruction of democracy through cynicism and fracturing. Without having a consensus on what is real, dialogue is not about exchanging and encountering other beliefs, but instead about ideological crusading that is deafened by the attacker's own battle cries.

In a time when the University community is going through an upheaval of values, this message is important to keep in mind. When values clash, being gracious to your opponent while still demanding change pushes the needle in your direction. As we continue to discuss, debate, and deliberate, I hope we as students use honey and not vinegar to make people change their minds to keep our community connected. This requires action and not platitudes about debunking or disproving. It is far more effective to win a debate smiling rather than smirking.

One solution to the problem of fracturing, which the Pope writes in his letter, has been immortalized, repeated, and preached to hundreds of generations in the simplest, one-sentence formula: love your neighbor as yourself. From Confucius, to Scripture, to Hobbes, Spinoza, and Kant, and to kindergarten classrooms, the golden rule is the keystone to human interactions. Somehow, however, it seems the hardest to follow.

To be clear, I am not advocating for another 70s-esque “Summer of Love” or claiming that all we need is love. I’m not trying to be an arbiter of morality, either, as I know that what I say will never square the circle and tackle every issue correctly. Nor would it be fair of me to expect a renaissance of activism, charity, and fraternity to explode from a simple call for it, when the author himself has far too often missed the bar.

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What I offer here is instead the simple golden rule, that tells in equally simple terms one way of living among each other as students and as people. This way of living offers a way out of the rat race and a way out of the mindset of individualism that asks only 'what can this do for me'; an individualism “that finds expression in xenophobia and in contempt for the vulnerable.” It offers a way to treat your classmates and strangers with kindness by knowing that you can only understand others by sharing the world with them, that you can only really come to love the world if you love all of those in it, and revive the sense that we are a global community. It is not a moral mandate, but instead an option we can accept or deny.

Expecting that you will be kind all the time ignores reality. It takes conscious thinking about others’ life experiences, experiences you know nothing about, and showing them value in your worldview. That is unimaginably hard, but it can be done. In a pandemic, it is remembering that those you are dealing with may be stressed by being stuck at home or may be grieving the death of a family member or close friend. Even if those experiences are unlikely, they are not impossible. Remember the golden rule, and seething political debates may become talks about reimagining values.

Even reminding people of the golden rule these days feels pretentious, as if clamoring for age-old ideas of virtue is just another front to get ahead of another person. It also seems pretentious, when the world is bursting at the seams, in its lack of pragmatism. Yet it is one of the strongest ways to counter cynicism, to create shared horizons, and encourage simple kindness. How else, after all, can we expect to create unity unless we are all neighbors?

“How important it is to dream together … By [ourselves, we] risk seeing mirages, seeing things that are not there. Dreams [on the other hand], are built together.”

Ethan Magistro is a sophomore from Morristown, N.J. He can be contacted at magistro@princeton.edu.

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