October 23, 2019
Beyond the warm words
It may not be deliberate, but the lexicon of policy makers has become increasingly populated by phrases that seem to close down live debate. For instance, who argues against the promotion of ‘wellbeing’ or ‘healthier democracy’. And so it is with ‘kindness’. Whenever the subject is discussed, there’s a tacit assumption that we all agree it’s inherently a good thing. Described as ‘clean concepts’, these ideas are proving hard to take issue with. Carnegie UK, who have published extensively on the kindness theme, have carried out further work in a deliberate attempt to get beyond the warm words.
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There has been a great deal of talk lately about kindness in popular culture and – in Scotland in particular – in relation to public policy. But, although kindness has many possible definitions, its meaning is taken for granted in much of this discussion. In other words, and like some other key policy terms (such as wellbeing or community or democracy), kindness is at risk of becoming a ‘clean concept’ (Ahmed, 2014), one which is hard to disagree with and which short-circuits debate. The fact that there is now a reference to kindness in the National Performance Framework (NPF)1, Scotland’s vision for national wellbeing, is at face value easy to welcome and its symbolic value seems clear enough, signalling that Scotland places people and relationships at the heart of its conception of the good society. But what do we actually mean when we talk about a kinder Scotland? Is kindness really a concept that belongs in, or has much to say to, the realm of public policy? What are its risks and ambivalences? And, equally importantly, how exactly might public policy help to enable or sustain an ‘infrastructure of kindness’?
If we want to answer those questions – and to move beyond the warm words of the NPF into the realm of the practical and even the transformational – there is a need for elaboration, explanation and debate. This document is intended as a contribution to that process. As such, it sits alongside the work of others who have been engaging with ideas and actions relating to kindness. In some respects, it seeks to take that conversation back a few steps – to return to questions of definition and understanding. Ultimately, however, it aims to move things forward by engaging with the critical question of what the state and other organisational actors might start to do, stop doing or do differently in pursuit of a kinder Scotland.