Kindness and Structure

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One of the questions we ask people most often is “What do you think a better society would look like?” or some variant thereof. One of the most frequent answers is “more kindness”, “people being nicer to each other”, or something similar. Last year, when people gave this answer I was thrilled. It’s completely true that we make the world a better place every time we treat someone with a bit more compassion or friendliness. If everyone did so, consistently, we would have a much better world.

But now, every time someone gives that answer I feel like there’s more going on, and it’s not enough to just agree and leave it there. I can’t ignore that there are limits to the way our individual attitudes toward one another shape our lives, or that these individual attitudes (kindness, indifference, snarkiness, whatever) are in significant part products of the society we live in. And the forces in society that shape how we act have a very large structural component.

By the way, this is not meant as an indictment of the people giving off the cuff, positive answers to questions some strangers with backpacks are asking. I think this is worth blogging about because it reflects a broad trend in our society that goes mostly unnoticed. People propose solutions based on independent, individual choices to problems that have significant systemic components.

Being nicer to one another in our day-to-day capitalist, hierarchical interactions is not going to provide an education for single mothers stuck in the projects or 2,000 calories a day for the malnourished in Malawi. Additionally, even treating people more like humans and expressing genuine care for one another is hampered by a society based upon competition, one that views each other as instruments rather than ends, and can’t tell the difference between worth and wealth. The CEO who really puts people over profits doesn’t change the world. He gets fired and replaced by someone willing to follow the logic of unmitigated pursuit of profit. That’s structure. It includes laws made for capitalism and enforced by the power of the state.

So what do we do?

If we accept that significant structural or systemic change is necessary, both to change the things that kindness can’t and to create a society whose basic values help promote individual kindness and solidarity, we need to act in ways that change the structure of our society. I might be missing something, but it seems to me that the most likely way we’ll effect this change is through organized, collective action. People doing good individually makes someone’s day. People doing good together changes the world. Remember, the American Revolution wasn’t a bunch of people taking individual, uncoordinated action against British domination. That puts you in prison, not in power. Likewise, the civil rights movement wasn’t a bunch of individuals choosing to defy segregation and pressure the government on their own. It certainly didn’t hope to end segregation by convincing the owners of lunch counters that segregation wasn’t nice. It was people acting collectively, giving each other strength and knowledge and actively challenging the oppressive structures in place.

I’m sure we’ll write a whole lot of words about how we think organizing to build collective power can or should happen, but I’ll leave it here for now. I disagree with the me of a year ago. I still strive to become a kinder person every single day, and I think that’s an incredibly valuable thing for individuals to work on, but isolated individual acts alone will not build or alter structures in order to end poverty, protect the environment, or build a society whose logic is based on cooperation instead of competition. For that, we’ve got to be kinder AND we’ve got to work together, build organizations, and take collective action.

¡El pueblo unido jamás será vencido!

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– Adam
from Indialantic, FL (with great people in a great place for splashing, running, and thinking)

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Life on the Outside

After an epic set of days in the capital, it’s hard to resist the urge to elaborate on our experience here. But in an effort to remain chronological while giving time to process before immediate reflection, we’ll pick up where we left off in the last entry.

New Jersey warranted little worth mentioning beyond its fabled stank-lore that pretty much everyone is already aware of. Worthy of note, still, is the remarkable landscape of cookie-cutter corporate chains amidst a vast swath of concrete and industrial monstrosities shat out upon a landscape once known for its agricultural richness. Ah well. We’ve all seen the tele. Strip malls, like fake tans, remain the fresh standard for beauty in our misguided culture.

On the border with our evening’s destination state, we stopped off in Frenchtown- a quaint and quirky breath of fresh air along the Delaware River and home to What’s Brewing at Maria’s. Seeing we hadn’t earned any money yet on the trip, we thought it time to propose bartering something unconventional in exchange for a coffee, indoor warmth, and wifi.

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Adam did the brave work of ad-libbing his way through a sheepish request. “Soo- we don’t have any money. But we were wondering if we could trade you a book or two for some coffee?”

“You can just have some coffee,” replied the lady behind the counter matter-of-factly before turning to her left to continue a conversation in Italian. We were taken aback. We gushed our thanks, learning through a brief chat that she was Maria, as in the Maria; yet another example of a business owner not bound to notions of dog-eat-dog, compassionless capitalism.

After taking in the nifty European-looking architecture and the river, we set forth to Grantville, where our friend Romeeka left us the keys to her place for the night. As the next 24 hours drizzled along cold, damp, and gray outside, we laid low indoors and made some dinner for our host to come home to.

Jesse met Romeeka through Couchsurfing and she epitomizes the CS ethos. When she’s not playing music or working for her solar energy consulting company, she spends a lot of her time writing letters to prisoners. She writes to men and women either serving short sentences or life sentences; she doesn’t check what the lifers are in for because it “doesn’t really matter now anyway.” She discovered that people in jail are often more interested in talking about her life than their own and she says most people write back and stay in touch quite diligently until, for whatever reasons, they tend to stop writing once they are released.

These pen pal relationships help the prisoners feel like they’re still worth a damn to the outside world, the importance of which we probably have trouble grasping as free people. Romeeka told us of many things that never occurred to her to even consider until her letter exchanges. One woman, in prison for life, has a husband she can only see for occasional conjugal visits. They never had a wedding and will never have a date in the outside world. They’ll never pose for a cute smooch to nauseate their friends with on Facebook. So the woman had her husband take a photo of himself with his arm out to one side, and she asked ‘Meeka to photoshop it with a relatively recent photo she had from her previous life, so that she could hang a picture of them as a happy couple on the wall of her cell.

These exchanges can do wonders for those inside, and certainly benefit the writer on the outside as well. What better way to drive home our common humanity than to share it with people shunned and removed from our society, routinely belittled and regarded as horrible? So many awful things happen in the world because of the facile classification of people into worthy and unworthy, good and bad. As with terrorism, it’s easy to ignore our own role in creating the social contexts that foster these problems when we regard these people as naturally evil and inherently different from us. Convincing ourselves that everyone in prison is a “bad person,” solely responsible for their condition, is about the only way to ignore the pressing contradiction of a “land of the free” that has the world’s highest incarceration rate. Tack onto that an astonishingly high recidivism rate and it seems clear that our societal problems aren’t being solved by our penal system.

Simply developing a written relationship with a prisoner seems like a relatively easy way to better our understanding as well as their situation. As Adam’s grandmother D-D pointed out, “There is no one so good that there is no bad in them, and no one so bad as to lack goodness.” As we continue to wander aimlessly, it’s humbling to remember this. Not long ago, we’d have been wrangled up for vagrancy and put to task for a year or so of slave labor. Maybe we’d be the ones you see picking up garbage on the side of the highway. In fact, that’s how some of the highways we’re driving on now may have been built in the first place.

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After some epic billiards, we spent the night singing songs about Romeeka’s cat, Theo.