Our times are raw and rough. This is a commonplace, and implies that the period before was less so. This is also true, albeit not in the mushy sense it is often understood. Earlier times were kinder in subtler ways.
First of all there was a cultural recognition particularly in the hippie era that tenderness was a moral imperative, despite the many violent protests. Ronald Reagan chipped away at this perspective with his adoration of wealth and trickle-down economics, yet the personality of Reagan reduced the sharp edge of his philosophy. The Contract with America and neo-cons put kindness as a self-standing goal into question and opened the door for the wholesale introduction of the cold-heartedness of the Trump era. That is perplexing, though, given that the intervening Obama presidency very deliberately (and tragically in vain) championed positivity and embraced kindness even towards political enemies bent on frustrating its policy goals. Just contrast the considerate fashion in which health care reform was introduced by Obama and the immoral and brutal steps taken during the Trump presidency to seek to discontinue it.
That tenderness is on life support today is to a large extent the fault of populism. Populism sees only black-and-white, where tenderness presupposes recognition of nuance, diversity and individuality. The binary truth perception of populism also makes it antithetical to democracy, as we have experienced all too clearly lately.
But inequality, the close relative of populism, also carries significant guilt for the retreat of tenderness. Inequality is premised on a perception that all rewards are accrued by own effort – that they are inherently just deserts. The flipside of this argument is that misfortune is equally just deserts. The self-righteousness involved largely precludes empathy, let alone tenderness. It represents the rough world of Hobbes. And the idea that all is ‘deserved’ is obviously fundamentally flawed. It is impossible to seriously dispute the effect of one’s environment and the lottery of genetics.
The corona crisis has given us object lessons in how tenderness does and does not function. The deliberate culling of segments of the population by governments refusing safety in putative favour of the economy is showing not just a lack of tenderness, but a complete absence of humanity, particularly in societies that can well afford proper lockdowns. What is happening is making social Darwinism look good!
On the personal level, the lockdowns have taught many of us the virtues of tenderness. Living claustrophobically closely in a successful manner requires acknowledgement of The Other and a subtlety of approach that we often sought to avoid when we had the possibility of fleeing to the office, travelling incessantly, and leading a butterfly’s social life. It is hard not to get the impression that President Trump is so emotionally averse to lockdown measures partly because they mean that he cannot entirely escape a closeness he is constitutionally unable to cope with and has spent a lifetime trying to avoid.
All is not lost, though. Corona has highlighted human fragility, and understanding fragility is a first step on the road back to tenderness. Joe Biden, for all his flaws, understands the preciousness and precariousness of human life – and thus is a poster person for tenderness, as was his boss, Barack Obama.
Yet, it is for each of us individually to use this time of multiple crises to pursue new beginnings in our lives and in society. Any meaningful endeavour in this respect must first and foremost get tenderness off life support!