Not My Kind
It is no accident that the words “kin” and “kind” are related — quite apart from the fact that Hamlet’s first words, “A little more than kin, a little less than kind,” refer to his ambiguous relationship with the man who has murdered his father and taken his place. Even today, there is understood to be a broad commonality, or kinship, among all humans, which makes us essentially one family, and which, in consequence, obliges us to be decent — or may I say kind — to one another.
Unfortunately, such behavior is too often taken to be the exception, rather than the rule. That is probably why the New Testament parable of the “Good Samaritan” has such an enduring place among stories from the Bible (and there seems to be no comparable example in the Old Testament). The essence of the story is that three people in succession come upon a man lying at a roadside, in desperate need of assistance.
Two of the three pass him by. But the third, who, because of ethnic and religious differences, might have been thought least likely to want to get involved, is the only one who offers aid. As a result, all his fellow denizens of Samaria have to this day enjoyed such a good name that various institutions have been proud to apply it to their “Samaritan” hospitals, and even to their “Good Sam” RV clubs.
Yes, we must regret that a single bad deed is far more likely to be remembered and immortalized than a good one. I need hardly give you any examples.
But, if we are not, as a society, interested in promoting kindness, we are, at least, or have become, in relatively recent times, concerned with preventing cruelty. We now have widespread organizations devoted to preventing cruelty to animals, and even (though it took longer for a movement to arise) cruelty to children.
Cruelty is also mentioned in the U.S. Constitution, but in a way that has always puzzled me. First, it occurs only in an amendment (the Eighth) — i.e., as a kind of afterthought. Second, it is concerned only with legal punishments — which is why so many private individuals had to work so long on behalf of animals and children (to say nothing of slaves). Third, it cares only if the punishment is both “cruel and unusual” — with the implication that cruel punishment is O.K., so long as it’s not “unusual.” Lawyers have no doubt been arguing for centuries about just what those words mean.
But, of course, “kindness” doesn’t appear in the Constitution at all — nor does the word “love,” in any piece of legislation that I know of — even though these are supposedly revered values. The trouble is that, as soon as you start talking about people helping each other, you start getting into religious territory. Nevertheless, legal systems in various countries, including some American states, have begun to wrestle with this issue, by introducing what are sometimes called “Good Samaritan Laws.” The chief problem is that bystanders often hesitate to get involved, because they are afraid of doing more harm than good, and also of possibly incurring some kind of legal liability. Everybody has heard of cases in which the Good Samaritan became the Fall Guy. In a worst-case scenario, the victim dies, and the relatives sue the person who was trying to help.
So, these new laws are designed to protect people who want to help, in some kind of emergency, from suffering legal consequences, if they do intervene, but things go wrong.
But of course, we don’t have to wait for emergencies in order to perform what somebody termed “random acts of kindness” (inspired, no doubt, by the all-too-frequently-reported “random acts of violence”).
And you don’t have to read much history to realize that many cruel, but once socially approved, practices, such as gladiatorial combat, burning of “witches,” and bull-and-bearbaiting, are no longer tolerated in most parts of the civilized world. Yes, we still have massive unkindness in the form of bullets and bombs – but that is cruelty at a distance, which may, I suppose, be considered some form of progress.
But we have to thank Hamlet (once again) for the insight that sometimes one must “be cruel to be kind.” It was, however, that same proverbial concept which was claimed to have justified the instigators of the St. Bartholomew’s Day massacre in Paris, which occurred when Shakespeare was 12 years old (1572) and took 50,000 innocent lives.