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Kindness—large and small—and how Minnesota shows it

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I’ve been thinking recently that there are two kinds of kindness: microsocial and macrosocial. I totally made these words up, but hey, I gotta use my philosophy degree for something.

Microsocial kindness is a person-to-person dedication to someone else’s wellbeing: offering someone a ride, sharing food, listening to their woes, bringing them soup when sick, and so on. This kindness is very small-scale, grassroots, and individualized. People tend to save it for their immediate friends and family. It makes sense; there are only so many hours in a day and so much money in your wallet; no one can spend every minute of every day helping others.

Some admirable people just have a greater capacity to be warm in the day-to-day, but most of us know we don’t have as much social energy, self-confidence, and magnanimity to be as consistently kind as we’d like. That’s especially true for introverted folks like me; we tend to spend our microsocial kindness in limited amounts, concentrating on the core members of our Dunbar’s number (the idea that you can only maintain 150 close friendships at a time) and, maybe, occasionally doing a random act of kindness or volunteering at a soup kitchen or something.

Macrosocial kindness is a dedication to structures that promote wellbeing: good ridesharing programs, food banks and affordable farms, mental health support, strong healthcare, and so on. This kindness is very large-scale, structural, and wide-ranging.

The nonprofit sector--really the whole philanthropic sector--is an example of macrosocial kindness.

Any sort of support network is one, in fact. Taxes are a way of giving others roads we may never ride, hospitals that may never treat us, libraries we’ll never glimpse, and other needs that we want to share but aren't for ourselves. Voting is way of showing you care, and so is writing, speaking, or otherwise spreading the word about changes you want to see in the world.

But while there’s nothing wrong with wanting positive structural change, the downside can be that macrosocial kindness can feel impersonal. Modernity can’t hug you back. That inspirational anti-racist Twitter essay you wrote cannot vouch for you if you’ve been unlawfully detained.

Large-scale programs can feel so unresponsive to what you need at the time that it feels like you aren’t being helped. For example, the DMV allows us citizens to drive in a tracked manner that keeps the roads safe by requiring all drivers to get a driver's license, but the process of getting it really just feels like a circle of hell. We all know what it’s like study for the test, stand in line, fill out the paperwork, wait some more, smile for the camera, and eventually get your driver’s license (probably with a photo you hate). It can make you feel like a cog who detests "The System." So even if you bolster my minimum wage paycheck with your vote and I support your favorite arts institute with a membership, those acts alone still doesn’t do the work of a smile and a hug. Macrosocial kindness is easy to overlook and hard to feel. It can be alienating.

My impression of Minnesota is that it has a surplus of macrosocial kindness. I love that about this state. There are so many organizations that stand for so many noble things, so much reliable infrastructure, and just so much care abstracted into convenience.

However, Minnesota has a deficit of microsocial kindness, especially when looking at actions toward people who are “different.” Everyone’s goes huddling into their little Dunbar circles for the winter, with only a surface-level politeness for outsiders. But that “in-group favoristism” creates all sorts of problems— bigotism, jingoism, racism, xenophobia, and the “If you’re not with us, you’re against us” type-of-thinking at the extreme. Even without going that far, you can also see cliquishness, favoritism, cronyism—actions that lead to limited actions and thinking that ”I only look out for my friends, so anything that doesn’t impact me or them has nothing to do with me, and I don’t need to spend have time to care.”

That isn’t enough. You have got to love people on both levels, Minnesota. While systems can be cold and the the big picture stuff can break down if it isn’t rooted in person-to-person interactions, you can’t help everyone just by yourself. Most of all, any act must be rooted in responsive kindness, because who knows what you’ll get if it’s not (hint: read what I said in the previous paragraph above about natural human tendencies towards bias).

You’ve got to reach beyond your family and friends. I have a challenge for both Native Minnesotans and iced-out transplants: move out of your comfort zones just far enough enough to understand the other. Instead of just penning silly manifestos like this one, invite acquaintances to eat tempeh or play a board game. You never know what new things you’ll learn or friends you’ll make.

‘Tis the season.


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