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August 11, 2010



Well, it really depends how far you look, I think. I think we've probably lost some intimacy and affection between people compared with simpler times - especially intimacy between people of different generations, or closeness among neighbours. On the whole, though, I think people today are kinder to one another, or at least to strangers. I think people are less scared of each other, and as borders break down, the circle of compassion has extended for a lot of people. We're more likely to show kindness or goodwill to those of a different nationality, religion, class or sexuality to us than we were in the past. This extends to those of other species too: it's not uncommon to see a stranger stop outside a shop, bend towards a dog whose leash is tied to the telephone pole and have a quick chat with it or give it a quick pat or scratch under the chin. In fact, it's hard not to feel goodwill towards a dog; the empathy is in our blood and begs to be allowed to the surface.

Yet while most people often show kindness to a dog, few do so to a pig, a creature of similar disposition and superior intelligence. Most eat pork regularly, despite the fact that much of it comes from the babies of sows who are kept in cages so small they can't turn around, for their whole pregnancies; so small that they can't make eye contact with their children once they're born. Most people drink milk, syphoned from the breasts of cow mothers whose babies are killed days after birth so that the milk that was meant to nurture them can instead go into our coffees. Few act in kindness toward chickens, most of whom spend their lives in an area less than an A4 sheet of paper per bird, with ammonia fumes burning their skin, eyes and lungs all day. The absence of kindness in our society towards these creatures is, to say the least, tragic. Their suffering is of a severity most of us can't imagine, and their numbers dwarf our own: tens of billions of them get crunched through the system each year. The cruelty and lack of humanity shown to them would, I think, make farmers - and perhaps even hunters - of past eras reel with disapproval. Most of this cruelty goes on very far away, in doors that are very closed from the public eye. Some anthropologists have remarked that we are as much a herd culture as some of those of ancient times, only in our case we don't even realise it because the herd is so far away from our consciousness. Though most of us are complicit in this, because deep down most of us don't want to know too many of the sordid details of where our food comes from.

This selective kindess is nothing new of course. I'm sure most White South Africans in the 1970s would have considered themselves kind people. And many of them probably were, if you were White. Some no doubt acted in kindness towards Blacks and so-called Coloureds, too, though obviously this would have been a smaller number. In England a few centuries ago, I'm sure kindness was frequently shown. After all, the English had a famous respect for nobility, chivalry, self-restraint and charity (a much grander word back then). But if you were African, Asian, Catholic, Irish, a peasant, or gay, then the kindness probably wasn't quite as available to you as it was to others.

So, I think it really depends on where you look. If you look at humans, dogs, and cats, then I think that we are a kind society, and perhaps we are even in one of the better periods of history in terms of how much kindess we share. Though if you look at cows, pigs, and chickens, for example, then I think the honest answer is that in terms of kindness, we are somewhere between sociopathic and monstrous.

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