Sunday, May 24, 2009

KINDNESS, APPARENTLY, IS IN. At least according to today's New York Times, which charts a spike of niceness on the big board of contemporary culture. I would agree. I was puzzling over a post for today on the dramatic increase in the frequency and eagerness with which people hold open doors, when I came across today's story in the Sunday Style section.

Sure, crankiness is still as prevalent as exhaust, but, for whatever reason, more and more people seem to be nicer. I think this is nice. But I'm curious why this is the case. Why now when so many things are going wrong?

My hunch is that the social contract becomes more important as legal and cultural covenants blur. Clear demarcations in culture, class, ethics, and morality lend themselves to organized behavior. Everyone knows what to expect from everyone else. Kindness isn't needed because order exists instead.

But, order's stock is plummeting.

The world is in flux. America, known for its ability to black and white itself into tedium, is going gray. Hazy beyond recognition are the lines between public and private, right and wrong, legal and illegal, ethical and unethical, the virtual and the real. Forget video games and chatrooms and cell phones. Contemporary cultural enmeshment is forcing us to redefine and rethink every form of information and identity. For example, people are now announcing divorces on Facebook, effectively doing away with the discreet conversation. The State of California keeps reversing itself on whether certain humans can or cannot marry, suggesting that the most sacred, most fundamental issues of morality can be inverted from one day to the next. Authors and publishers continue to pass off fiction as autobiography, and the most popular (and sometimes the most entertaining) television is a form of reality that is not really even real--nor is it fake.

In times like these, when almost nothing is certain--will we be married tomorrow or not? Will our banking system exist or not? Will we have a house or not?--manners often replace morality. One of the great ironies of the polis is that in times of extremis, the invisibility of the social contract provides an ordering mechanism that other more concretized systems do not.

In other words, being nice makes us feel grounded. It restores order. It calms and soothes. It reassures. Our economy may sink into a recessional morass, but you might get the thank you wave for letting some schmo squeeze into the lane in front of you.

It's really not a bad trade-off.

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