Community pantries

[OPINION] The sociology of kindness

Jayeel Cornelio
[OPINION] The sociology of kindness

Illustration by DR Castuciano

'[Now] we are beginning to see that kindness is indeed timeless, and even bound to outlast vileness'

In graduate school, the most meaningful conversations I had with my mentor were not at all related to my project. Over coffee, she once opened up that it was only after reaching a certain age that she had finally resolved that kindness was her most important lesson in life. 

Coming from a well-respected sociologist, nothing perhaps could be far more simple and profound at the same time. How is it that a virtue taught in nursery takes a while before it becomes a convincing life principle?

For many of us, this is a question we might need to ask ourselves as well. 

Too often, as experience tells us, it’s too late once we finally realize that we have not been kind enough, compassionate enough, and loving enough.

Sign of weakness

In everyday life, we expect kindness from one another. 

Whenever we meet people we know in the street, we greet them. In public transportation, we give way to the elderly.

But somehow, we can’t expect kindness to be the organizing principle of collective life. 

In organizations, rules (and not kindness) make things run. In the marketplace, profit-making is the logic at work. Taken to a certain extreme, that means taking advantage of other people before they take advantage of you.

In other words, the assumption in collective life is that we can’t expect kindness from one another. 

This is why kindness has to be mandated by the manager (“Clap! Clap! Happy to serve!”). Or legislated by the state (place your palm over your chest as a sign of respect). 

And we know that all of it is fake. Why?

This is because what organizes our collective life, in an ironic manner, is self-interest. This is the result of meritocracy and competition, ideas that tell us that being kind is a sign of weakness.

Work of Satan

It is for the same reason that many are surprised — even shocked in disbelief — whenever kindness works. 

For many of us deeply entrenched in systems that bank on selfishness, kindness does not make sense.

Take, for example, the community pantries that have mushroomed around the country. It baffles many of us because we are not used to the idea that people can give what they can and take what they need. 

At the same time, it’s perplexing that those who give are ordinary people themselves, farmers and vendors included. 

And because the state cannot understand this, they treat it with suspicion. No less than NTF-ELCAC’s Antonio Parlade has called these community pantries the work of Satan. PCOO’s Lorraine Badoy, who I believe only wastes the airtime she is given, has nothing new to say.

To be sure, the likes of Parlade and Badoy would readily link these pantries with the communists because they are paid to do so. Wearing nothing but the lens of war, they see threat where none exists.

And so they fail to see that kindness can be far more compelling than the fear they peddle before the media.

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Solidarities of kindness

In my discipline, there is a (small) subfield called the sociology of kindness. It’s not as fashionable as the sociology of inequality or political sociology, but its lessons are far-reaching.

In many ways, kindness manifests in low-key but practical acts that meet people’s needs. Often they are unobligated and at the same time most convincing if done for strangers. 

It might be low-key, but the impact of kindness can go beyond small acts. 

For sociologists Julie Brownlie and Simon Anderson, “the work of kindness may often be easiest with our ‘kin’ but, however fleetingly, it is also constitutive in that it turns other kinds into kin.” 

Kindness, in other words, can build solidarities and turn them into social movements. Peacebuilders, faith-based actors, and many community organizers know that they can rely on people’s kindness to bring about positive change. (READ: Ana Patricia Non and a street that turned into a movement)

Kindness therefore is not a virtue for the weak. Nothing could be further from the truth. In reality, kindness is a virtue through which people find the willpower to go beyond themselves and challenge the status quo.

And these solidarities of kindness become much stronger because the people that forge them know that what they do goes against the grain.

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Kindness as a statement

This is why kindness is a statement. 

At one level, it speaks against “greed and hoarding” and insists that “there is enough for all,” as Ian de Ocampo puts it in his theological reflections.

But on another level, kindness is a statement against vileness.

The coarseness that inaugurated Duterte’s presidency is now beginning to unravel. It may have been convincing at one point, especially relative to the “disente” crowd that preceded this administration.

But the public is now beginning to realize that all of it is nothing but illusion. 

The “tapang at malasakit” that Duterte peddled before us have proven to be inutile before Chinese aggressors in the West Philippine Sea and the unmerciful curse that is COVID-19. 

At the end of his administration, Duterte’s rude language has become dull and even unimaginative. 

And now we are beginning to see that kindness is indeed timeless, and even bound to outlast vileness. Ordinary people around the country are showing the rest of us what authentic leadership is all about.

It is in this sense that kindness speaks truth to power. And as it echoes around, it can only inspire even more kindness. –

Jayeel Cornelio, PhD is a sociologist at the Ateneo de Manila University. Follow him on Twitter @jayeel_cornelio.

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