When our much vaunted, Nobel peace nominee leader Jacinda Ardern campaigned in 2017, she preached a beautiful, counter-cultural message. When asked the qualities that underpinned her path to leadership, she responded with
“Kindness, and not being afraid to be kind”
“I want the government…. to bring kindness back”
But is Jacinda really kind? And what about you and I?
Kindness is complex. I wish it was as simple as smiling at your neighbour and baking cookies for your friend (which is a great start), but the rabbit hole runs deep. I use Jacinda Ardern as an example, first because she has claimed the high ground of kindness, and second because her actions as prime minister are plain to see. At the end of this musing I hope you’ll ask yourself the same questions I’m asking myself right now
“How kind really am I?”, and more importantly “How can I do better?”
Three levels of kindness
To help us think about kindness, I propose three levels of kindness. We start at level one with interpersonal kindness – kindness to the people we meet along our road. Our families, our workmates, the homeless person we pass by every morning. Level two is kindness to our wider community. People we may never meet but who share our supermarkets, schools and tax code. And third, kindness to people far away in space and time. People we rarely consider – those on the other side of the world, and those born in the future. This three level framework is a flawed model with ambiguity and overlap, but perhaps it can help us to understand the complexity and depth of human kindness.
Three Levels of Kindness
Level One – love your neighbour
On March 15th 2019, A gunman walked into a Christchurch mosque and murdered 51 people. In the midst of the anguish, Jacinda’s response was incredible. She listened to the victims, cried with them and embraced them with her arms, words and actions. An iconic picture of her embrace with a victim’s wife captured her kindness, empathy and compassion while sending ripples around the globe. Jacinda displayed incredible level one kindness, the kindness we show directly to our neighbours, our families and the suffering people we meet on the way.
Jacinda Ardern is an expert practitioner of level one kindness. You can feel it in the tone of her voice, her warm smile and well chosen words she speaks through every crisis.
Level one kindness is the where the rubber in our heart hits the road. It’s not easy to be kind to our neighbors and those we meet on the road of life. It takes effort, empathy and time. But there is rarely a large price to pay for level one kindness. Jacinda can be kind to those suffering from a crisis without hurting anyone, unlike the next two levels of kindness where something has to give. To achieve level two and three kindness there are personal, financial and political prices to pay. I would argue that for politicians, level one kindness is important, but is the least important of the three levels, because the job of a country leader is to be kind to millions, not just a select few.
Level Two – Kindness with a cost
Level two is kindness to our wider community – people we don’t know and may never even meet. People who share our tax code, our hospitals and our schools. We display level two kindness when we pick up rubbish, pay our taxes and vote with our whole community in mind, not just our selfish ambitions. But level two kindness often has a tradeoff. We sacrifice our money when we pay tax and vote for higher taxes. Picking up rubbish can be pretty gross and time consuming. Also, level two kindness often goes unrecognized. People will never know if we’ve put all our rubbish in the bin.
For politicians, level two kindness even harder. In order For a politician to be kind to the wider population, they usually have to harm some people. Truly “win win” policies are rare. Leaders ask (or force) one group of people to sacrifice something for the benefit of another. You harm one group, to help another. When we practice level two kindness, we hope that the total good will exceed the smaller harm to some people. I’ve visually represented this below, with the greater good eclipsing the necessary smaller harm.
In some areas Jacinda has demonstrated admirable level two kindness. The most obvious is the Covid-19 lockdown. She made the hard decision to harm some people, to bring about a greater national good. The lockdown decimated tourism, with many businesses forced to close, in order to keep the virus out. Families have been separated in order to keep the virus our. We went into recession, in order to keep the virus out. But the benefit of keeping the virus out was far greater than these harms.
On other occasions however she has refused to display level two kindness. New Zealand is in the midst of a housing crisis, with house prices among the most expensive in the world and rents skyrocketing. Fixing the crisis requires bold Level two kindness, as Jacinda would have to harm richer home owners, sacrificing political support in order to lower house prices for hundreds of thousands of poorer New Zealanders who are struggling with the skyrocketing price of property.
In 2019 a Tax working group recommended that the government implement a capital gains tax which might have helped stabilise house prices. Jacinta refused to implement the experts’ recommendation, with full understanding that she was rejecting level two kindness for political gain. To her credit, she even conceded that she was not doing the right thing for political reasons.
“Under my leadership, we will no longer campaign for, or implement a capital gains tax – not because I don’t believe in it, but because I don’t believe New Zealand does.”
Jacinda understood the right thing to do – implement the tax. But to use her own words against her, she was “afraid to be kind” because of the political and personal cost. I respect her intellect and honesty, but don’t respect her making the unkind decision.
Level Three Kindness – Fight injustice from afar
Scott Morrison, the prime minister of Australia has been criticised for not being kind, some seeing him as an antithesis of “kind” Jacinda. But in the last year, he has been world leading with astonishing level three kindness that harmed his own people, to the tune of over 3 billion dollars of lost business, in order to do the right thing for people suffering on the other side of the world. The perhaps genocidal treatment of Uyghur Muslims by the Chinese government is arguably the largest scale human rights abuse of our time. With over a million Urghurs locked up in “re-education” camps, tens of thousands undergoing forced labour and evidence of forced abortion and sterilization, the treatment Urghurs by the Chinese government has been described as the largest incarceration of an ethnic group since the holocaust. World leaders haven’t done enough, but at least leaders like Boris Johnson, Donald Trump and Angela Merkel openly condemned the Chinese AND put some sanctions in place.
The real heroes though are the Australian government, who were among the first to speak out strongly against the Chinese government, and have suffered severe backlash from the Chinese including 100% to 200% tax on Australian wine imports. The Australian government is causing their own citizens to suffer a little, in order to fight injustice abroad.
On the other hand, Jacinda Ardern has been one of the least kind world leaders to the suffering Uyghurs. Her pathetic statement that the situation is “an issue of grave concern” and her lie “I don’t know what could be stronger than raising it face-to-face with the leadership in Beijing” (how about sanctions or far stronger public words) illustrate the famous concept “All it takes for bad people to prosper is for good people to do nothing”. She has chosen political and national financial gain over kindness to millions of people she will never meet. How can someone who professes to be kind, ignore what is perhaps the greatest human rights abuse of our time? As a New Zealander I’m ashamed to be part of this unkindness.
Fighting climate change is perhaps the ultimate test of level three kindness. Action to prevent climate change primarily affects people who haven’t been born yet, and that’s not easy for politicians. It’s not easy to harm people who are living now, in order to do good to humans who don’t exist yet. People who haven’t been born can’t vote for you! Unfortunately there is no alternative – almost every policy we use to fight climate change does economic harm now, in order to safeguard our future.
On climate change Jacinda has failed the level three kindness test. New Zealand isn’t a world leader on any climate change front. Our carbon tax is pathetic, we barely regulate farming (our biggest emitter) and we are 10 years behind the rest of the world on electric cars. Much maligned ‘Murica just pledged a far more ambitious carbon reduction target than New Zealand’s. Indeed it is hard to find a developed country doing less to combat climate change than New Zealand. The problem again is that Jacinda would have to hurt some people now in order to safeguard future generations – a kind of kindness Jacinda doesn’t appear to possess.
Level 1000 kindness – Love your enemies
As a final note, there is a level of kindness which extends beyond these three. A level that we rarely (me included) reach. Far harder than being kind to our friends, building a generous welfare system or even fighting injustice around the world is loving our enemies. if even a significant minority of humanity were to reach this level of kindness, our world would look very different.
Can we learn to love our enemies – our annoying workmate, our extortionate landlord, or those far right/far left “idiots” we despise? It’s easy to say “well that’s just not how the world works” (which is true) but it’s harder to be part of changing how the world does work. While those across the political spectrum use free speech and cancel culture to punish their enemies, there are ways to love those we hate, and bridge divides. We have role models like Deeyah Khan, the Muslim film-maker who engages face to face with the very Neo-nazis who persecute her, and has even compelled some to abandon their hateful ideology. The only time Jesus tells us to be perfect is when he commands us to love our enemies – that level of kindness has no parallel.
So here’s the challenge not just for Jacinda, but for all of us. How are we doing at all levels of kindness? How kind are we to people we meet along the way? Do we consider our wider community with our actions, and what about those around the globe or future generations who haven’t been born yet? Is there even a way we can be kind to the person we hate the most?
“I tell you, love your enemies. Help and give without expecting a return.
You’ll never, I promise, regret it”