London 2011: Are We Kind Enough, We Asked?

As she helped me conceive it back in the early summer, it was disappointing that Lucy Windmill was absent in hospital on November 10th when the London 2011: Are We Kind Enough? Conference was held at Somerset House. She’d broken a metatarsal bone (a la David Beckham) on the way to a Big Society Network board meeting the day before.

As co-founder of Kindness Day UK on November 13th and someone who gets called to speak on UK `kindness’ since I set up the UK Kindness Movement in 2005, the idea was to get a fresh update on how we are faring in our capital city. Then, in between, came the alarming scenes last August, when London seemed more a war zone than a friendly metropolis. Quite rightly, people everywhere and particularly overseas are asking `What has happened to the UK?’. Not so many years ago we were pilloried as manners-obsessed, not aggressive enough in competition and too hospitable for our own good. This year reports of neglect in hospitals, rude behaviour in shops and on tubes, buses and trains, blatant mis-selling of goods and services are a daily read in the press. Lack of courtesy and consideration costs the nation big time, not just in quality of life, but possibly also in the real economy.

Then along came the report by The Young Foundation in October suggesting that most British people care about and have had positive experiences of civility. So the question of are or aren’t we kind seemed relevant. Are the bad reports accurate? And if not, why so many? If they are, what can we do about the situation to improve it.

Ironically, the analysis of kindness is complex. Everyone has an opinion on its relevance in today’s world. As Rod Whiting of BBC Lincolnshire put to me on his Breakfast show that morning, `Have we got our priorities right there? We have all manner of disasters befalling us etc and we want to talk about kindness!’ Kindness Day UK for this year alone shared its date with Remembrance Sunday, a touching tribute to those who gave the ultimate sacrifice of themselves for the benefit of others. But, in a world where profit and greed play such a large (and who know’s, possibly essential) part in our economic system, there has also to be a dedicated  time to reflect on those who are not so self-indulgent. And that’s one of the reasons behind my initiation of Kindness Day UK.

BBC Radio Derby’s Morning Show presenter Aleena Naylor asked me about the link between kindness and religion, which crops up quite a lot. My view is that talking about `kindness’ as a subject in itself avoids discussing organised faith. It’s something we can practice and talk about amongst each other, wherever we’re from. It doesn’t get heated, or awkward, or hurt feelings, or incite passion. And as they say, `never argue about religion.’

There are a myriad of interpretations of how to run a more considerate society.Big Society Network  CEO Steve Moore opened with a précis of how the charity is encouraging practical initiatives, such as Benitas Mafoshka’s People Who Share, initiative, which is a marketplace connecting those who want to swop or donate just about anything, from goods to businesses. Tom Andrews, a former strategic manager for the Royal Opera House trialled an ambitious project in Herne Bay in Kent which celebrated kindness across a whole town as part of an initiative of his organisation People United.

In this new computer-era, when many people have lost the natural art socialising with strangers to build their business or personal connection it was a good choice to select Judith Perle Co-author of The Network Effect to chair the evening.

Dan Thompson, the man with the gumption and faith in the general public to organise the impressive Clean Up after the riots, told of the great spirit that abounded and his phone call of support from PM David Cameron in the thick of it all. `When there is a real crisis, ordinary people just got on with the job of helping. Only once did I hear someone mention `Health and Safety,’ he said, which was energising.

Thankfully, not everyone is intimidated by red tape when other peoples’ lives and welfare depend on it.

To answer the question Are We Kind Enough?  Dr Paula Boddington, lecturer in ethics at Oxford University referred to the ancient Greek philosopher Aristotle who believed the virtuous life was one which had pleasure within. `One simple reason for this answer is to do with what the nature of each individual human is: we are social beings, living together, as Aristotle so charmingly put it, not side by side like grazing cattle in the fields, but with a common life and interest in each other,’ she said.

James Max took a more political stance, vigorously defending the capitalist system in general which he felt got too much bad press when it came to kindness. Just because you were a money-maker, or ran a successful business, did not necessarily mean you were less empathetic or generous to others.

Mark Williamson of Action for Happiness reminded us though that despite being much wealthier, studies show we’re actually no happier than we were five decades ago and that there an essential link here with kindness which was often overlooked.

There is no doubt that the more competitive environment forced upon us by the demands of modern society, is no breeding ground for the `after you’ style of politeness which is so pleasant to live amongst.

Nor, that while we (I believe) are still a kind nation, as you can read in my speech, there’s been a change.

This was a sentiment echoed by Vijay Rana, who told a very touching story to illustrate the decline in kindness as a result of changing employment conditions.  A former broadcasting journalist for the World Service of over twenty years he now publishes the Journal of Health and Happiness

Similar to Dan’s voluntary leadership to clear the debris from the streets at the end of last Summer George Monck spoke about the extraordinary impact his initiative of Cleanup UK has had in bringing people together out of doors in a simple, basic way. Just pick up rubbish, was his clear message. It stands to reason a cleaner, prettier, tidier community makes you feel better and act accordingly. Known as an effective pro-social activity, it reminded me of a scheme run in Camden in 2005 to clear litter, rubbish and graffiti as a crime deterrent which linked clean streets with a feeling of safety.

Kindness has always been in conflict with governance to some degree. It was fitting, as a RSAWSN event, that Deborah Wharton of ID-choices should cover the point about the role women have to play. As I often speak about in my motivational programmes, the female leadership style tends to lend itself to fostering people skills. Possibly that means that women have a significant part to play in the current global market where profit alone is no longer the only incentive for growth.

Louise Burfitt-Dons is compiling report on Kindness in the UK. If you have any ideas on practical ways in which we can ensure that kind people and organisations gets the recognition they deserve please leave your comments hear or email info@ukkindnessmovement.org

About Louise Burfitt-Dons

Writer and social critic
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