Professor Charlton writes that our society is very nice.
Modern society exceeds all previous societies in terms of its kindness - it is the least-cruel society ever. Naturally - if we focus on this single virtue to the neglect of all other virtues and sins, then we can regard ourselves as more virtuous than anybody else.
It caught my attention, not only because its rare to read Professor Charlton praising any aspect of modern society, but because it reminded me of a quote by the late Aldous Huxley, who said:
It's rather embarrassing to have given one's entire life to pondering the human predicament and to find that in the end one has little more to say than, 'Try to be a little kinder.'
As much as I admire Huxley, I thought he was being too clever there. He never thought about kindness when he was young, and admired beauty and boldness. He only thought of it when he grew old, and needed people to be kind to him.
But the concept of modern society as kind especially reminds me of the last chapter in Kenneth Clark's Civilisation series, which I blogged about a while ago. He talks among other things of the birth of kindness as a social value:
It's an almost incredible fact, that in the middle of the 19th century there was no children's hospital in London. And children weren't taken into ordinary hospitals for fear that they might be infectious. (...) As I look at it I'm more than ever convinced that humanitarianism was the great achievement of the 19th century. We are so much accustomed to the humanitarian outlook that we forget how little it counted in earlier ages of civilisation. Ask any decent person in England or America today what he thinks matters most in human conduct, 5 to 1 his answer will be kindness. It's not the words that would have crossed the lips of any of the earlier heroes of this series. If you asked Saint Francis what matters in life he would, we know, answered chastity, obedience, poverty. If you asked Dante, Michael Angelo, they might have answered disdain of baseness and injustice. But kindness, never.
Quite true. Also you mustn't go in the time machine to find people who don't care about kindness. Just go abroad. Remember how the rebels shoved a knife into Gaddhafi's ass while they beat him to death? Or all those honor killings of young girls who's only crime is having some fun with a boy. But not only Muslims at all, see this article about a Chinese father who forced his daughter to eat shit as a punishment. Or the father who went on TV bragging how he beat his children into an elite university. Parents all over hired him to get the same results. They hire a dude to beat their children.
Not to talk about animal cruelty. In Hong Kong, a rich and developed place by any standard, a girl giggled while eating a fish fried alive. They call it 呼叫鱼, 'calling fish'. It became a hit in all China afterwards. Or this weird Vietnamese festival, where they get a poor piglet and cut it in half in front of people, who rush to dip their napkins in the blood. I have a hard stomach but this was hard to watch. Poor cute thing. But again the concept of 'cute' is a relatively new thing.
I have little sympathy of the holier-than-thou vegans and animal rights activists, but seeing the Vietnamese piglet cut in half while the people watch in excitement just screams of barbarism. Yet our admired Romans used to do that all the time. Cruelty is a constant in human society, yet today kindness, the avoidance of making others suffer, seems the most basic requirement of Civilisation. Much of the disdan of leftist Europe towards the US is that Americans are not "nice". Americans have no cozy universal welfare, and go around making wars that kill people. We on the other hand are nice and kind, don't invade other countries, and accept Somali refugees. In fact our courts make kindness mandatory to the point of suicide. There's lots to say against "kindness" from an anti-leftist perspective. But the fact remains that examples of cruelty such as the ones described above also seem beneath us. I guess its all about economic comfort. People insecure in their economic status don't have time to waste on being kind to others, let alone animals. We on the other hand are (or used to be until the recent recession) secure in our welfare, so we have time to be kind and nice. As the economy declines cruelty is sure to make a comeback in our societies.
I just hope we don't slash live piglets in half.
EDIT: I almost forgot mentioning this ultimate example of not giving a fuck about animals. See how in this restaurant in China they offered braised Koala, and quite cheap actually. No kindness towards animals, no sense of cuteness, not even a little respect of the value of an endangered species. Just cook the bitch and get some dough.