The Distinction Between Genuine Kindness and Excellent Acting

What is it about someone telling you to be nice that makes you want to punch them in the face? We’ve all been there — making fun of someone for something they did, hating a girl because she’s prettier than you. It seems that we do these things instinctually, automatically pushing other people down on the social ladder to make ourselves seem higher. And maybe it is automatic and evolved and instinctual, or whatever, but I don’t care about any of that crap. It’s still messed up.

We surround ourselves with people we call our friends, but complain about them to our other friends behind their backs. We live in a time where we avert our eyes when walking past people we don’t know. Maybe we’ll glance at them (only to avert as soon as they start looking at us), but we don’t greet them — say, “hello, how are you?” and smile and wish them on their merry way. Why not do this? You can all think back to the last time a stranger smiled at you — made you want to smile back, right? An instant new friend you’ve just made! Wonderful. But, unless on vacation, we just aren’t like that very much, even though it’s drilled into our heads from the moment we are born: play nice, share, be kind, etc., etc. But we just aren’t. We don’t share. We constantly look for ways to exploit others and further our own motives, whether it’s sneaking the last of your roommate’s leftover pizza or the last of the alcohol at the party.

This kind of thinking is most easily done when the evils we do can’t be traced back to us. This is most commonly and easily done on the Internet, where anonymity rides strong. If we can comment without it reflecting back to us, we can say whatever we want. We can be as nasty and horrible as we can be — we’ve all been the Internet ‘troll,’ online and off. In a classic social psychology study on deindividuation, trick-or-treating children who were given the opportunity to steal extra pieces from a “take one” bucket on a porch took more when they were wearing a mask, less when not wearing a mask and even less when not wearing a mask and when a mirror was behind the bucket, so they could see themselves taking candy. Adding the mirror removed the children from their ingrained selfishness, allowing them to see themselves from another’s perspective.

Why does this happen? We treat others not as they deserve to be treated, but as if they’re playing an auxiliary role in the epic that is our life. Their goals and wishes are not as important as mine! you rightly think. How could they be? Your thoughts and hopes are so central, so immediate. Maybe if we could stay cognizant of the fact that the self we portray to others is a mere veneer of who we really are to ourselves, and that every single other person is living a life as complex and confusing as our own, maybe we could learn to be a little more tolerant of other peoples’ stupidity.

Whatever you may think, dear reader, this column isn’t about your stupidity. It’s about ignorance and trying to live a better, more effective, more efficient and happier life. It’s about being open to what you may or may not be doing wrong and deciding whether or not you want to change yourself (for the better, obviously). We all are living a troubled, complex and difficult life, whether or not it seems so on the outside. And because we can never pierce through that shell into each other’s troubled existences, it should become increasingly apparent that we should just do our best to be kind, to everybody — except that damn person trying to pay in exact change in front of me at Cuca’s. Asshole.

Daily Nexus columnist Kevin Ferguson wears a mask every Halloween.