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One rainy evening, a young woman stood crying in a crowded Tube carriage. She had broken up with someone she thought would be “her first and only love”. There was not much room between passengers but she didn’t care that everyone could see her weep. A man moved towards the doors and, before he alighted, gave the woman a folded piece of paper. Inside was a drawing of a duck saying “smile”. The woman kept crying, but obliged. She still keeps the picture on her wall.
Her story is one of dozens collected by Michael Landy, an artist whose project celebrates “Acts of Kindness” on the London Underground. These brief episodes of compassion make for a joyous read. They also subvert a falsehood that many people hold as true – we are not as nice to each other as we once were.
The recent spate of Twitter “trolling” has been taken by some commentators as a further sign that civility is only a veneer on top of humanity’s crooked timber. The violent and misogynistic threats made in the past month against feminist campaigners are horrific. Twitter has exuded a shameful insouciance. The threats are at the end of a broad spectrum that includes the angry ramblings of many a leaver of online comments. It is little wonder some people think the internet simply reflects the way we have become harsher towards one another offline.
Then there are the racist footballers, squabbling parliamentarians, uncouth guests on daytime television, sweary swaggering yoofs in the shopping centres, tabloids squealing of a nation in moral decline, and so on. Only four out of 10 people agree with the statement that in Britain “people generally treat each other with respect and consideration”, according to the British Social Attitudes Survey (2009), an annual poll of the nation’s views on various topics.
For some scholars of rudeness (they do exist), incivility might not be such a bad thing. It can reflect how societies are changing in “a world in which categories, terminologies, expectations and norms are in constant flux”, argues Emrys Westacott in his 2011 book The Virtues of Our Vices. William Irvine says in A Slap in the Face (2013) that insults are simply our ways of asserting our place in hierarchies, such as the workplace. To which I could say that this is fine if you work in the genteel confines of a second-rate liberal arts college. But that wouldn’t be very nice of me.
More importantly, there is no evidence that we are less civil than 10, 20, probably even 50 years ago. A 2011 report by the Young Foundation, a think-tank, found no signs of declining civility in areas where it researched residents’ experiences. For example, one might expect Newham, a poor, ethnically diverse borough in east London with a lot of population movement, to be an uncivil place. Quite the opposite, concluded the 2011 report. A culture of civility was also true for the other areas where the foundation conducted research. “For the most part, people experienced regular acts of politeness and small gestures of kindness,” it says.
Why then does only a minority regard Britain as a place of “respect and consideration”? I think part of the answer lies in our inclination towards nostalgia; a
belief that there was a golden age of doffed caps and neighbourly greetings. Communities were certainly more tightly knit a generation or two back but the flipside was a stifling nosiness and distrust of outsiders. Britain is extraordinarily more socially liberal than it was 60 years ago. This may have brought a cultural looseness but this is all for the good and has made us more open to difference.
The other part of the answer might be more subtle. What seems to be happening is an almost secretive kindness movement. There is just as much of it, but we see less.
Take the same British Social Attitudes Survey mentioned earlier. It suggests that most of us think the country is uncivil, but it also reports that nearly eight in 10 people agreed that, in their day-to-day lives, people generally treated each other “with respect and consideration”. There is usually a local bias in such surveys but perhaps it shows how kindness is a quality rarely rewarded at a national level, compared with talent, chutzpah, hard work, wealth or beauty. In an age where individual values are celebrated, it might be that displays of kindness are seen as weakness, civility for losers.
There is, of course, something about acts of kindness and civility that should mean we expect no acclaim. It is what we should all do. It also feels good. But, if we are all being nicer to one another than we realise, shouldn’t that be something worth celebrating? Especially when we are so often reminded of our darker sides. Leaving the celebration of kindness to a guerrilla movement of duck-picture-wielding gents may lead to cool art, but not a better society.
John McDermott is an FT commentator; firstname.lastname@example.org
Simon Kuper is on holiday