Saturday, February 28, 2015

On the importance of small acts of kindness

Elsewhere in Justice: A Personal Account (2014), Edwin Cameron speaks about the impact on his life of acts of individual kindness. He grew up poor, and during one holiday, with no warning, a well-dressed woman showed up at his mother's door, asked if this was the Camerons' residence, and handed Edwin an envelope with cash in it. Not a huge amount of cash, but enough to make a difference that Christmas, materially and emotionally. (232-34) Later, as a scholarship student at an elite boys high school, he was the beneficiary of several quiet gifts of cash that made it possible for him to attend without being humiliated by poverty. (234-35)

To the extent these gifts should be seen as part of a social structure, they were instances of affirmative action for whites and perhaps more specifically for Afrikaners (Cameron's home language was Afrikaans (36-37)), and Cameron emphasizes this important point. (237)

But Cameron also emphasizes another important aspect - the profound impact of, and necessity for, individual acts of kindness. (235-36) On this too he is surely right, though not only because, as he reminds us so vividly, such individual acts can matter deeply for those whose lives they change. Individual charity is not a substitute for the just social institutions that the South African constitution aspires to create, Cameron reminds us, but I think it is unlikely that a society without personal charity ever could achieve just social institutions, and if it did, I'm not at all sure we would like the "justice" that society embodied. A society consists of individual people, and the state of their hearts matters for the society as a whole. 

Put a little differently, much as Hamlet did to Horatio, there are more things in heaven and on earth than are dreamt of in some philosophy. The exact meaning of individual acts of kindness may be hard to explain or measure, but they can help transform the lives of everyone involved nonetheless.

No comments:

Post a Comment