ASK Musings

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July 2022



This Book Will Make You Kinder by Henry James Garrett

Written by , Posted in Reviews

Five Stars

Best for:
All of humanity (but mostly the privileged folks).

In a nutshell:
Philosopher Garrett makes his case for the reasons we should be kind, and the ways people falter at it.

Worth quoting:
“The problem is not that oppressed people don’t empathize enough with their oppressors; the problem is that privileged folk don’t empathize enough with the oppressed.”

“Our beliefs about the inevitability of certain forms of suffering are intimately connected with our beliefs about what type of world is possible.”

“If you believe rules are the source of your duty to be kind and abstain from cruelty, you will be kind only to the extent that the rules demand.”

“Many people, for instance, mistake those rules of property and ownership upon which our capitalist system is built for moral rules, and they limit their empathy for that reason.”

“Kindness isn’t a complicated matter; in the end it comes down to whether you choose to look or to look away.

Why I chose it:
It had cute illustrations – plus I love a good book on kindness because I know I am not as kind as I’d like to be.

I knew this was going to be a special book when I got to page 5 and found an illustration of two whales. One says ‘Mama, how do we know when we’ve crossed from one ocean to another?’ and the mama whale responds ‘We don’t. Borders are socially constructed and you should be wary of anyone who takes them too seriously.’ Such adorable and profound illustrations fill this clever take on philosophy, morality, and empathy. There are turtles, dogs, birds, butterflies and other creatures imparting simple but important words of wisdom.

Garrett is a philosopher, and though this book is easy to read, it definitely has some aspects that remind of philosophy books and papers I read at university. His project with the book is to answer two questions: why are we kind, and why aren’t we kinder. The answer to the first question, he argues, is because of empathy, and the answer to the second question, is because of mistakes we make that ‘switch that empathy off.’

Early on he argues that many disagreements on particulars happen because we haven’t agreed to the underlying parameters or basic premises of the issues. If we’re starting from vastly different places, it is not surprising that we’ll feel as though we are talking past one another.

At this point and at many times throughout the book, Garrett is clear that he is not arguing that everyone makes the same number and type of empathy-limiting mistakes – this quote from above is critical to keep in mind throughout: “The problem is not that oppressed people don’t empathize enough with their oppressors; the problem is that privileged folk don’t empathize enough with the oppressed.”

Once Garrett has made his first argument about empathy and kindness, he turns to what he considers ‘empathy limiting mistakes.’ These are reasons why people essentially aren’t kinder. But first, he spends an entire chapter talking about how these mistakes are not evenly distributed throughout society – those with more power are often choosing or allowing themselves to make these mistakes, which result in them retaining more power of the people who they are choosing not to empathize with.

The chapter on the types of mistakes is enlightening, and includes things like false beliefs; ignorance / lack of knowledge; failure of imagination; a limited conception of morality (e.g. just following the rules of a religion, but not allowing for the idea that things not covered by those rules might also be unkind).

Once he’s explored in detail and provided examples of how each of these mistakes leads to a lack of kindness, he spends a chapter on how to improve empathy. This includes things like listening, treating people as experts in themselves, listening to those who are multiply oppressed, avoid being defensive, and being present.

I loved this book. I loved the sincerity and honesty with which Garrett approaches this topic. I love that he points out that ‘it costs nothing to be kind’ is a pretty limited conception of kindness – if we’re doing it right, it may very well cost us a lot to be kind, and that’s okay. I keep thinking about this book and I’ll be thinking about it for awhile.

Recommend to a Friend / Keep / Donate it / Toss it:
Keep / Buy for everyone

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