February 1, 2021

It is widely agreed that kindness is lacking. There is simply not enough of it about, and whenever someone mentions it, that absence is implicit. When the politician says “I want a kinder politics”, he means politics is not sufficiently kind. When the actor says “I wanted to get some kindness out there”, he means someone else was being unkind. When the mental health guru tweets “BE KIND TO PEOPLE YOU BASTARDS”, he means the bastards should be kinder.

Kindness is one of those things that seems so obviously good that more must always be better — however much you start with. Telling other people to be kind qualifies as an act of kindness in itself, which a cynical person might point out is convenient, because otherwise being kind seems like a lot of work. (You have to think about what other people want and then do things for them! Exhausting!) But cynicism is itself not kind, which means kindness is hermetically defended against that line of attack.

Setting yourself up as an opponent of kindness would be extravagantly poor taste, especially now the hashtag #bekind is irrevocably associated with suicide prevention. This is unfortunate for me, because I am not a kind person; or at least, I don’t think of kindness as the quality I would like to be defined by or measured against in public life. I’m a critic, which makes it my job to say critical things.

I think that paying attention to things — how they work, what they do, how people respond to them — is the highest sort of respect, even if sometimes you end up saying that the thing is flawed. Also, being mean is pretty funny. I’m very fond of Winnie the Pooh, but I’m even fonder of Dorothy Parker’s review: “And it is that word ‘hummy,’ my darlings, that marks the first place in The House at Pooh Cornerat which Tonstant Weader Fwowed up.”

So I suppose I must be an enemy of kindness, and that forces me into a position on one of the great and endless battles of the discourse: in the confrontation of snark and smarm, I choose snark every time.

*

The last major snark vs. smarm skirmish took place in 2013, when the blog Gawker published an essay by Tom Scocca called “On Smarm”. “Smarm” was the term Scocca used to summarise a cultural attitude that had been developing since the turn of the century, and which Scocca identified particularly with the literary journal McSweeney’s, founded in 1998 and presided over by author Dave Eggers. “What is smarm, exactly?” asks Scocca, who then answers himself like this:

“Smarm is a kind of performance—an assumption of the forms of seriousness, of virtue, of constructiveness, without the substance. Smarm is concerned with appropriateness and with tone. Smarm disapproves.

“Smarm would rather talk about anything other than smarm. Why, smarm asks, can’t everyone just be nicer?”

One significant thing about McSweeney’s is that it’s always been partly a work of resistance to the internet — when people were making apocalyptic predictions about the demise of print, McSweeney’s was publishing beautiful and absorbing editions that could have no online equivalent (issue 13 has a dust jacket that unfolds to be a comic; issue 17 is a collection of letters and fake junkmail; issue 24 is Z-bound, so it reads as two books bonded back-to-back).

That goes for tone, as well as format. The internet had coalesced around a voice that was gossipy, knowing and sharp-tending-to-downright-abusive — the voice, in other words, of Gawker. Whereas if any one principle animated McSweeney’s, it was positivity — and how better to manifest positivity than by being against critics? McSweeney’ssister magazine The Believer for a time ran an online column called “Snarkwatch”, where authors could return fire at reviews they found unfair or displeasing. Eggers’ own position on criticism was summarised in this quote, which Scocca repeats in full:

“Do not be critics, you people, I beg you. I was a critic and I wish I could take it all back because it came from a smelly and ignorant place in me, and spoke with a voice that was all rage and envy. Do not dismiss a book until you have written one, and do not dismiss a movie until you have made one, and do not dismiss a person until you have met them.”

There are a lot of problems with this as an ethos, and Scocca points out the obvious one: Do not dismiss … a movie? Unless you have made one? Any movie? The Internship? The Lone Ranger? Kirk Cameron’s Unstoppable? But if you can’t dismiss a movie without making one, why should you be able to praise one either? If critical authority can only come from artistic creation, that should go both ways.

It’s also true that knowing how hard something is and being able to say how good something is are not always compatible. An author acquaintance once gave a positive review to a book which I’d dismissed because it looked twee. I read it; it was twee. When I gently asked my acquaintance about it, the explanation was that, no the book wasn’t great, but it was hard to dismiss another writer’s efforts. As a critic, though, I need to be on the side of the reader, and as a reader I need critics to be on my side. I don’t care how much sweat went into a book: I just want it to be good.

This is one of the problems with “kindness” as a catchall value. Who, exactly, are you being kind to? If I’m sparing of a dull novel, that’s kind to the author, but less kind to readers who might spend their money on it. On the other hand, Gawker’s rapacious, consuming unkindness had already gone beyond “incisive” and into “intrusive” by 2013. In 2012, it published the infamous Hulk Hogan sex tape, which led to the Bollea [Hogan’s real name] v. Gawker lawsuit; this found in Bollea’s favour in 2016, leading to a settlement which bankrupted the company. The suit was financed by Peter Thiel, who had been outed by Gawker in 2007.

Some former adherents of the snark manifesto began to recognise its limitations. “Snark is not just a tool. It’s a habit,” wrote one, the Jeopardy! contestant turned liberal commentator Arthur Chu, in a 2015 post for Salon. “It’s the kind of habit that ends up with you doing indefensible things and then trying to defend them by saying you didn’t mean to.” Instead of binding himself to either snark or smarm, Chu concluded, “it’s the substance of the values I fight for that concerns me as a writer and a human being.”

Six years later, I wonder how that commitment is going. Here’s something Chu tweeted a few weeks ago, in reference to the fatal shooting of Ashley Babbitt by a police officer as she broke into Mike Pence’s office during the Capitol riots: “Ashley Babbitt feeding the worms is one of the few good things that happened as a result of the Capitol ‘protest’ and if you feel the need to mourn her Nazi ass it’ll be easier for both of us if you unfollow me now.” And there’s more where that came from:

“A Nazi is the opposite of a person, and therefore our morality to them must be reversed
To hate them is to love
To harm them is to heal
To kill them is to bring life”

How, exactly, does someone go from being a snarker to a snark apostate to tweeting that kind of 1984 murder fantasy nightmare?

*

I watched the video of Ashley Babbitt monologuing as she drove to the Capitol for what she expected would be a confrontation between the forces of good (her, Donald Trump, various adherents to the QAnon conspiracy theory she believed in) and evil (all non-Trump politicians, police, everyone else). I read the profiles of her, which quoted her loved ones, all of whom seemed baffled by her commitment to the belief system she would die for.

She didn’t seem like “the opposite of a human”. She seemed like someone unstable, damaged, susceptible to the cultish manipulations of QAnon. She seemed like a person who had acted violently and who had been killed because she constituted a present threat, but still — a person. I didn’t exactly mourn her (after all, I don’t know her and her shooting seems like an appropriate response in the circumstances), but I certainly felt some pangs that a woman could have got so snarled up in a deranged set of stories about pizza and paedophiles that she ended up dead.

Because Ashley Babbitt believed, really and truly believed, that what she was doing was right. That when she went through that window, she was doing it to protect America and very specifically to protect children from being raped by senior Democrat politicians. She was on the side of kindness by her own lights; Chu, too, believed himself on the side of kindness when he celebrated her death. Once you’ve identified a certain cause or object as the essence of goodness, anything which threatens that cause or object is a justified target of any kind of attack.

That’s why the politician who called for “kinder, gentler politics” is the same politician whose supporters operated a reign of terror against anyone who criticised him. When, in an article about suffering a heart attack, the Guardian writer Rafael Behr mentioned that anti-Semitic abuse from Corbyn supporters had likely been one of the contributing stresses, the mass reaction of Corbyn supporters was to mock him and accuse him of exaggerating in order to harm Corbyn’s reputation.

Corbyn’s pretensions to kindness did not, as you might naively imagine, make these abusers reflect on their own unkindness. Instead, it spurred their own sense of righteousness: only a very bad person would invent such a terrible thing to hurt a kind old man like Corbyn. The cult of kindness is, in practice, a permission slip to be cruel. After all, by the law of negation, unkindness to the unkind must be the truest kindness.

The actor — Rupert Grint — made his claim to kindness to explain why he had repudiated JK Rowling, even though she is the author of the Harry Potter franchise that made him famous. Rowling had shared a long and thoughtful personal essay, in which she explained why her experience of male violence made her wary of conflating sex with gender identity and fearful of the erosion of women-only spaces. Grint’s only response to this was to express a desire to “get some kindness out there” by stating: “I firmly stand with the trans community.” In so doing Grint, very unkindly, dismissed a woman’s testimony of her own trauma.

But then, kindness is gendered. Women are the ones who are supposed to be kind, to give of themselves, to play the universal mother and make other people happy. People find it particularly shocking when a woman refuses to be kind: there’s something unnatural, offensive about a female mouth declaring that the limits of her care are here and she will not be giving any more.

I resent the demands for kindness partly because they fall particularly on me due to my sex, but also because I think that kindness is lacking. It is an inadequate virtue. If all you mean by “kindness” is “the absence of cruelty”, then I suppose I am for it because I am against harassment and violence and telling people they deserved their heart attack because they were mean about Jeremy Corbyn. But in reality “kindness” is used to mean “the absence of criticism”. It means a kind of pandering.

Pandering is an error. There are things in the world that are faulty and wrong and sometimes (like Ashley Babbitt’s conspiracies) absolutely dangerous. However beloved these things are, however well-meaning, however sacred they are considered by some — they still need to have holes poked in them. And, when all the holes have been poked, if the thing cannot stand up, it needs to be discarded.

I don’t mean to suggest that by being a critic, I’m waging some kind of crusade against the forces of delusion. Most of the time, I’m just trying to tell you what I think about something and make a few jokes along the way. Sometimes I’m being a bitch, which is a word that specifically designates “unkind woman”. A life defined only by kindness is a soft, stunted, incurious one, and probably a dishonest one too. We are all capable of being cruel and wrong. It’s the ones who believe their ideology or intentions put them beyond fault that you really have to look out for.