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Against Snobbery: Why We Need More Kindness in the Culture

My favorite part of the feel-good Tokyo Olympics last summer was the moment in which high jumpers Mutaz Essa Barshim of Qatar and Gianmarco Tamberi of Italy decided to share the gold.

Speaking with an official at the moment of their tie, they look like nerdy physics students about to ask someone out on their first date: vulnerable, shaky, and wide-eyed. The much shorter man, clipboard in hand, begins to explain that they can have a jump-off, or… and Barshim, unsurprised, seems to have mentally rehearsed his line, “Can we have two golds?” Tamberi’s mouth falls open at the moment of realization. The question contains the answer. The two lock eyes and Tamberi leaps to wrap his impossibly lean legs around the impossibly lean torso of his slightly embarrassed friend, like a toddler in the arms of his mother.

The Olympics had many touching moments like this. Isaiah Jewett and Nijel Amos tumbled in the 800 meters. They got up together and walked arm-in-arm. Hurdler Luca Kozák of Hungary helped competitor Yanique Thompson of Jamaica up after a fall. Athletes were embracing more: swimmers, gymnasts, volleyball players, martial arts fighters. Two rival soccer players from different countries fell in love. When Japanese skateboarder Misugu Okamoto slipped, dipped to fourth and lost her medal, her “rivals” hoisted her on their shoulders.

When Simone Biles bowed out, prioritizing mental health, she was also saying that all those years as Larry Nassar was traumatizing young athletes, someone should have insisted their well-being was worth more than winning. I see this as her true moment of triumph. Compare this to the gymnastics of my youth, where the fate of the Cold War was placed on the shoulders of athletes as young as fourteen, so much so that Elena Mukhina, one of the grand hopes of the Soviet Union, was taken out of a cast too soon. She broke her neck, was quadriplegic and died by 46. It’s easy to see that the tone of the Tokyo Olympics, the Olympics-that-almost-wasn’t, was better for the human spirit. I imagine that the joy of these games, the feeling of triumph, glory, and accomplishment was spread more widely among athletes than it usually is. Participants from the world over argued that silver and bronze and participation certificates can be pretty wonderful too. Less went home sullenly feeling they shamed their countries. The athletes have cast aside the adage, “You don’t win the silver, you lose the gold,” for the right to camaraderie.

Certainly, this has something to do with us all being trapped in our homes for over a year by the time of the games. Perhaps it has to do with the lack of large-scale live audience. Also, In this age of fascist takeover, as the US is fighting out of the shadow of the gas-lighter-in-chief and Putin, Bolsonaro, Duterte and plenty of other authoritarians all still in power, I can’t help but see the athletes’ commitment to affectionate humanity as defiance of unchecked power, but the real reason I’m composing this essay is that I believe that it is time for the American well-educated to take a cue from these athletes, abandon a withholding culture, and embrace a more affectionate value system.

“The music business is a cruel and shallow money trench, a long plastic hallway where thieves and pimps run free, and good men die like dogs. There’s also a negative side.”

Hunter S. Thompson

This goes out to the Olympic champions of culture of the United States: decision-makers at film, television, book, and music companies, respected publications, museum and arts organization directors, even middle management and entry-level, the winners of awards, the prestigious posts at Ivy League universities. This also goes out to the artists. I’m talking about writers who throw tantrums about the order in which they appear at public readings, academics who humiliate colleagues over low feelings of self-worth in cold institutions, bitter characters in Netflix’s The Chair.

I’m even addressing the frustrated adjunct instructors who believes the unfairness of the world gives them the right to be nasty to students. The adjunct system is heinous, I was one for 14 years, but so is taking it out on young people. Those of us in literature are not the only ones; film is probably an uglier world than books, and books can get pretty ugly.

I address cultural workers not because we are worse than everyone else. I’m sure finance people and corporate lawyers are even higher on the misery index. I discuss this group because I know them best. In researching for this essay, I found studies arguing that more income and education make you happier and studies arguing that there is no causal relationship. Going with my personal experience, as a person raised in the Rustbelt among the children of both professors and autoworkers, I have had the good fortune of being at least somewhat experienced with various levels of society. I will say in the world of letters, those whose self-worth comes entirely from prestige, those who need to feel above others, strike me as less happy than financially stable people who just want to be around nice people and have a laugh in their day. But believing accomplishment and camaraderie are mutually exclusive is a myth.

Far too many of the learned and cultivated are miserable through a high value of status, and a lack of interest in connection. It’s time for this group, the competitive miserable, to fight their way out of it. Let’s end this cut-throat, anything-I-say-is-justified-because-I’m-special culture. It’s pretty obvious that far too many very book smart people lack the self-awareness to avoid a scarcity mindset. The competitive miserable could have their first taste of the extended happiness that otherwise only comes in those few moments of recognition. It’s simple: Be kind. Be affectionate. Stop throwing tantrums at support staff, airport workers and bus boys; do you really think they make the rules? And seriously, who cares if they make mistakes? You’re just ruining your own day.

I’m not talking about extremely toxic people. They’re probably unsalvagable, and they should be fired. I am thinking of the art professor I met at a dinner party who said he encourages many of his students to quit because he thinks there’s too much mediocrity in the visual arts. He is probably an abusive personality. I wish him healing. Bosses who poison the ecology of institutions with cruelty and make five or dozens or hundreds of people miserable probably won’t be influenced by an appeal to kindness. I’m addressing more flexible people, people who have love in their hearts but have been caught up in a culture that quashes it.

Tiger Moms, it’s fantastic if your child is good at the viola, the satisfaction of enjoying our work is a great life gift. Why not also teach children to give it their all, want it badly if that comes naturally to them, but flip a switch and hug as soon as the competition is over? Give your all for the gold, if you like, but why cry one moment for the silver? Why hate yourself or your competitors? Why not think a bit about keeping your eyes on your companions and offering them solace or a shared joke? I think this is a culture very unaware of the simple, friendly, pleasures of the day.

After I moved to New York, and began traveling in writers’ circles, it took me a few years to realize that I didn’t have to go to parties where almost anyone I spoke to would ask me where I worked and where I went to school within the first ten minutes. It was as if they had to know how I ranked before they could engage. Once I began to hangout in other kinds of creative circles, less ivy league, less white, I laughed harder and enjoyed myself more. Of course, the coldness of whites vs. people of color or upper-class vs. lower is generally, but not 100%, true.

A friend who worked at a prestigious art organization once told me that there are writers of color who will never appear with other writers of color. The truth is, this probably does help their careers with many gatekeepers, but it can’t feel good. Why not do all that work, enjoy it, but put a smile in your voice, offer affection before you know another’s rank? Look your neighbor in the eye. Don’t be a jerk to the delivery guy. Ask your Uber driver about his family. Try it for a week, see how you feel.

As we come out of the pandemic — this year, next, or, heartbreakingly, years from now — many of us will have thought hard about who we want to be, and I’d like to argue that many well-positioned Americans should make the decision to concern themselves more with connection than competition.

Nobody thrives when shamed, and your career is rarely more important than human decency. There isn’t really much one does in life that we need to do without being kind; this includes advising employees and students. You will never receive enough accolades to be happy; such things are a temporary fix. Expressing kindness and affection is a lasting peace. Our culture is far too withholding. Winning is a fantastic, even a glorious party, but it’s not the key to true happiness.

Simone Biles can feel good about contributing to the mental health discussion for the rest of her life, instead of being like once-was Tom in The Great Gatsby whose life smacks of aftertaste after life as a handsome college athlete. Don’t-you-know-who-I-am? is not a moral ethical system. Let’s stop investing in this lie and be like the Tokyo Olympians.

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