Sunday, October 13, 2013

On kindness

(Off-topic warning; read at your own risk)

After getting a couple of rude e-mails from an idiot* this morning I have discovered that the virtue I value the most in people is not intelligence or innovativeness. It's kindness. Coarse behavior disturbs me deeply. Based on the first paragraph of The Functional Art, I guess that I've known that all along (click to expand).

As a Twitter correspondent has pointed out, kindness is an undervalued virtue in our age. We humans are naturally fascinated by evil, but only in the troubled last decades of the 20th century and the first of the 21st we came to admire people who proudly display sociopathic traits. Western societies may be in the path to accepting that lack of empathy —something that can be quantified, as Simon Baron-Cohen explained here— is directly correlated with brilliance.

This could be happening because of books like Isaacson's Steve Jobs and Stone's recent The Everything Store. Even if those authors don't celebrate the ruthlessness of their subjects explicitly, some people I worked with in the past decided that to make their employees, peers, or colleagues work harder they needed to treat them with contempt. Some passages of those books are painful to read if you still keep a sliver of decency.

Forgive me for the pedantry, but the supposed causal connection between assholeness —a vice that has been studied, tongue-in-cheek, by philosophers— and success or intelligence is a textbook example of the post hoc ergo propter hoc fallacy. Moreover, it can be easily disproved. As I wrote a while ago, creativity, wisdom, and talent in infographics, visualization, and data journalism are strongly related to friendliness, openness, and graciousness, with perhaps just one or two exceptions. Just ask the folks who work at the most innovative places, such as The New York Times or ProPublica; they'll tell you of colleagues and managers who strive to foster open, honest, polite discussion and criticism** and, as a consequence, they bring forth environments that boost progress and learning. Let's say that in human interactions, form is as important as function or content. We need more empathy to prosper, not less.

*I'm not using the word "idiot" as an insult. Based on the content and tone of the messages, I believe that it's the right adjective to apply.
** Criticism can and should be harsh in some cases, but we must always try make it constructive. I may be guilty myself of not respecting my own suggestion sometimes, but I assure you that it's a personality trait I try to keep under control. After all, I hate bad manners and bullies.