Last week, the Joseph Rowntree Foundation released a report that calls for more kindness in communities, and outlines some ways that helpfulness and support can be encouraged.
It shows that kindness takes different forms, not all of them equal in their impact, and it looks at a real British community (Hebden Bridge) to make recommendations that can be applied elsewhere.
The report reveals a perverse truth: most people think that giving help is good, but that receiving or soliciting help is bad.
Vulnerability (exposing a need for help) is seen as the counterweight to dignity (maintaining self-reliance and independence). If we want an antidote to lonely, alienated Britain, it is this psychology we ultimately have to challenge.
Four of a Kind
When talking about kindness, its seems that people tend towards four different orientations.
Here we explore what they might mean in terms of values:
- Traditional – ‘we’re both self-reliant and responsible for each other, and should look out for people when they need help’. This form of kindness relies on close, even daily, social contact with others in the community, so that people can get help without having to ask. People who practice this orientation value might cite Jesus as a role model and value responsibility and benevolence (towards others) and reciprocation and security. Despite emphasising mutualism, however, people simultaneously place high importance on their own independence and self-direction.
- Rescuer – ‘we’re invulnerable ourselves, so can act like the hero in giving support.’ This has similar logic to traditional kindness, but puts particular emphasis on the power derived from helping others. People who give help are superheros and see themselves in a position of strength relative to those who need their help. They are particularly reluctant to admit vulnerability themselves. The values associated with this orientation are a mix of capability and achievement; social recognition and power, and benevolence. (See the superhero frame explored in our Common Cause for Nature report).
- Activist – ‘we help people through our wider public and civic activities.’ This is an outward looking approach fuelled by a strong central belief in social justice. People who hold it believe that people will be kind if the civic sphere is shaped to encourage kindness. The understanding of ‘community’ is wider and less fixed, and the emphasis is on culture change rather than individual reciprocation. It’s an approach that appeals squarely to universalism values (equality and social justice).
- Virtuous cyclist – ‘like karma, the more we give out, the more we get back.’ In this orientation, people don’t rely on moral duty or individual reciprocation but rather have faith in the circular nature of helping. People who practice it prize empathy, and reflect deeply on their own motivations to see what they want to give and get back. This is connected most closely with universalism and benevolence values.
If we want to cultivate social and environmental change, then we want our communities to build universalism, self-direction and benevolence values. If this is the case, then we’d avoid the superhero emphasis on powerful invulnerability and (arguably) the traditional emphasis on reciprocity, and look to the activist and virtuous cyclist approaches.
But it’s not so simple. Both the latter approaches rely on indirect models of helping and run the risk of making it difficult for people in need to ask directly for help. And the activist orientation carries the additional risk of burnout. If we want a model that suits both individuals and communities, then there is something important we need to address: vulnerability.
Vulnerability as Courage
The way we think about kindness, particularly in the traditional and rescuer approaches above, is often premised on the idea that receiving help makes us vulnerable. This is a narrative that runs deep in our society, and it wrongly casts vulnerability as a weakness. In fact vulnerability is part of being human; it is necessary for building deep trust between people, and it takes huge courage to reveal.
Even when discussing this with friends who agree, I’ve had this kind of response: “but we should allow ourselves to receive help, because we all know how nice it feels to give help. We’re effectively giving the giver a gift by accepting their help.” But this is just the ‘vulnerability-is-weakness’ story, reworded. Why can’t we simply accept that it’s good to receive help, as well as give it? We undermine the giving if we don’t value the gift.
No-one says it better than Brené Brown:
“Until we can receive with an open heart, we’re never really giving with an open heart. When we attach judgment to receiving help, we knowingly or unknowingly attach judgment to giving help.”
The Practical Bit
The research on Hebden Bridge gives a number of transferable recommendations for communities in need of some kindness:
- Create a shared myth. Never underestimate the power of a story in binding a community and bridging social spheres. Hebden Bridge celebrates it’s local history with the UK co-operative movement (started in nearby Rochdale) and has built a reputation as a creative centre (with the slogan, ‘It’s so Hebden Bridge’, apparently). This story is expressed and reinforced by community-wide events, local media and newsletters.
- Build public hubs. The more focal points to share information and socialise, the healthier and more helping the community. Whether it’s community-run shops, pubs, parks, better social housing design, or pages on facebook, people need to own and contribute to shared local spaces. Sounds obvious, but daily informal social contact is crucial in building trust.
- ‘Kind’ the economy. Hebden locals benefit from having invested in alternative business models that explicitly aim to support local networks and facilitate helping in Hebden, rather than simply improving their bottom line.
You can read more recommendations in the report.
More widely than this, however, we need to work on challenging the cultural idea that vulnerability is weak.
Rather, it is courage, and we need it to achieve connection.