One of the most fascinating outcomes of the recent controversy surrounding Ellen DeGeneres and President George W. Bush (you can read our take here) is a discussion about the “limits” of kindness. In an article for Vanity Fair, cultural critic Laura Bradley argues that there are instances where “unconditional kindness” may not be appropriate, especially when “one person has historically believed other people should not have the same basic rights as another.” Actor Mark Ruffalo put it this way, tweeting: “Sorry, until George W. Bush is brought to justice for the crimes of the Iraq War, (including American-lead torture, Iraqi deaths & displacement and the deep scars—emotional & otherwise—inflicted on our military that served his folly), we can’t even begin to talk about kindness.”
One big question, then, simmering beneath all of this, is this: should kindness have limits?
I could try to answer that. I probably shouldn’t. As someone who has benefitted from centuries of privilege, I don’t necessarily think it’s my place to tell people, definitively, what kindness should look like, especially if those people are part of historically oppressed and maligned groups.
So I won’t. Instead, I’m going to tell a story of kindness taken to its outermost limits, much farther than many of us would probably be comfortable with.
Derek Black was once referred to as the “leading light” of the white nationalist movement. His father, Don Black, founded Stormfront, the first and most trafficked white nationalist website. David Duke, former Grand Wizard of the KKK, is Derek’s godfather. At age 10, Derek created KidsStormfront, a youth-oriented version of his father’s site, and from that point on, he became a spokesperson for the white nationalist movement. He was frequently interviewed by the press. He began a radio show that broadcasted five days a week, where he interviewed likeminded people and popularized the notion of “white genocide.” Derek spoke at conferences, ran for a Republican council seat at 19 and continued to collaborate with his father. To everyone within and outside the movement, Derek was the “heir apparent.” And then, Derek went to college.
Initially, Derek fit right in at New College in Sarasota, Florida, which was odd, considering the school is highly diverse and one of the most liberal in the county. With his long red hair and passion for medieval re-enactments, Derek was just one of the many quirky individuals that called New College home. But then, about a year into school, Derek saw a post about him on the school message board. A student had been researching hate groups and come across Derek’s picture. “Derek black: white supremacist, radio host…new college student???” the student wrote. “How do we as a community respond?”
Initially, the response was outrage. Friends contacted Derek, expressing betrayal and anger. The comments on the initial post now totaled more than a thousand. Derek’s reaction was to apply to live off-campus, isolate himself and organize a conference focused on arguing white nationalist ideals in liberal spaces. It was at this point that student Matthew Stevenson did something unthinkable, then and especially now: he invited Derek over to dinner.
As one of the only Orthodox Jews on campus, Matthew took it upon himself to host Shabbat dinners in his dorm room every Friday. It wasn’t a strictly religious space—Christian, black, Latino and atheist individuals came regularly—but it was important to those who went. So when Matthew invited Derek, and Derek actually started coming, a number of people stopped attending. For Matthew, though, it just seemed like the right thing to do. In an interview with the Washington Post, he recalled thinking, “Maybe he’d never spent time with a Jewish person before…”
When Derek first started coming to the dinners, there was no discussion about his white nationalist views. “I was very explicit with people,” Matthew said on the On Being podcast, “that this was not ‘ambush Derek’ time.” So they talked about everything else—religion, history, science—but never that. Eventually, though, as he grew more comfortable with Matthew and others and as the other attendees realized he wasn’t a threat, Derek began to have one-on-one conversations with people from the dinners, people he now considered some of his closest friends. These friends began to confront him about his ideology. They showed him crime statistics and explained history in a way he’d never understood in his sheltered home-school upbringing. They questioned how he could be friends with Jews and African Americans and yet adhere to a belief system that promoted hatred of both. And Derek, who had once confidently espoused his views on national news programs, found that he had no answer.
Little by little, through dinners, conversation and self-reflection, Derek’s worldview began to crumble. He saw things from a perspective that he had never seen before. He was forced to be intellectually honest about the way that he had manipulated facts to fit his narrative. Finally, in 2013, two years after he began attending Matthew’s dinners, the once “leading light” of white nationalism published an article in which he renounced everything he had once believed so fervently. In the article, he apologized for how his ideology has been damaging and explained his new position: “I can’t support a movement that tells me I can’t be a friend to whomever I wish or that other people’s races require me to think about them in a certain way or be suspicious at their advancements.” As for how this change came about, Derek credited having “grown past my bubble, talked to the people I affected, [and] read more widely…” In other words, he got to know the enemy and found that his assumptions were dead wrong.
Today, Derek is still fighting to separate himself from his past. But it is a fight that might have never occurred without Matthew, an Orthodox Jew who opened a seat at the table for Derek when very few would.
Matthew is quick to note that he never felt threatened by Derek—“Derek has never beaten me up,” he jokes—and acknowledges that not everyone has the same “opportunity set” in terms of safety or background. But Matthew also notes that “the fact that someone is…the one that’s ostensibly victimized by the ideology, may give them a unique ability to actually reach out…” In spite of Derek’s ideology which directly targeted him, Matthew was kind to Derek, and in so doing, altered the trajectory of Derek’s life forever.
And so we return, once again, to the question: should kindness have limits?
First, it is worth recognizing that, initially, Matthew’s kindness came with no strings attached. He didn’t want to attack Derek. “This was not some opportunity to yell at him for the wrongness of his beliefs,” he said. He just wanted to give Derek a space to be. This was the culture that Derek existed in for months, getting to know the others at the Shabbat dinners, feeling it out, building trust and relationship. Then, when the conversations about his ideology started, Derek was not on the defensive. Why? Because he knew these people. As he says in the On Being interview, “It was not that I had to make my points and try to get some converts; it was that I trusted this person. I liked this person. I respected this person.” The relationship was established, and because of this, Derek was responsive to confrontation.
Second—and this is vital—the friends in Derek’s life didn’t just accept him the way he was, white nationalist beliefs at all. They challenged him. They argued with him. They told him he was wrong. Today, Derek says that one of his biggest fears is that his story will just become “a piece of evidence that the only way that you change people’s minds is by having friendly conversations with them…” Instead, he says, “…it’s essential that you speak up loudly and condemn something that’s wrong.” That’s what happened through the Shabbat dinners. Derek found a community that told him, lovingly and insistently, that what he believed was “morally” and “factually wrong.” When a friend told him, “Derek…Get out before it ruins some part of your future more than it already irreparably has,” he listened.
Perhaps that’s what the Vanity Fair article and the Mark Ruffalo tweet are getting at. If kindness is just letting people do whatever they want without consequence, then yes, let’s stay away from that, please. But I don’t think that’s a very good definition of kindness. I think kindness—true, radical, unconditional kindness—is best modeled by individuals like Matthew Stevenson. They invite the enemy to the table, recognize their humanity and then vigorously show them how to be better. I don’t think we should wait to talk about that form of kindness. Indeed, kindness of that sort may be the only real solution we have.
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