“Ou est la Bastille?" is a question that is asked by many an ill-informed visitor to Paris. In response, Parisians can only point out the square where the Bastille once stood, because little trace of the infamous state prison remains. History enthusiasts may want to stand in the Place de la Bastille today, however: July 14 is Bastille Day, the day in 1789 that working-class insurgents overtook the fortress and killed its military commander. They then freed the prisoners and armed themselves with the guns and gunpowder stored there. The victorious revolutionary government subsequently demolished the hated Bastille, but the Storming of the Bastille is a lasting and powerful symbol of the beginning of the French Revolution.
History teaches us that the American Revolution in part owed its success to the aid that France provided the colonists, and the French Revolution closely followed its American counterpart. We were once comrades in violent revolution. But on this Bastille Day, well over 200 years later, I propose a different kind of revolution for our country: a revolution of kindness.
We made some real progress in civility and inclusivity in our lifetimes, in a small revolution that was insistently branded and maligned as “political correctness” by some, but now we seem to have reverted to our unkind ways and habits. The Unkindness-in-Chief has contributed to the rapid decay of our communal speech, of course, but we elected this president in full knowledge of his penchant for name-calling and belittlement. We have co-signed unkindness. But what a revolution does best is challenge the unacceptable norms. If we give it a try, I believe kindness can overcome the current spirit of meanness among us.
From the birth of our country through the labor of revolution, American ideals (if not always our actions) have championed the underdogs, the scrabblers, the desperate and marginalized in other countries. We have been the ones with open arms and open minds, the ones who do not stand on fusty old ceremony, the ones who innovate and include and blaze the path of forward progress. As a nation, though, we seem to have narrowed our vision and closed our mind. We have let our country shrink. Rather than reaching out in kindness, we have folded our arms in fear. I’m not even referring here to our treatment of immigrants: we have done these things to each other, as individuals, as fellow Americans. We have no truck with each other.
We have forgotten how to be kind. Or we have decided to be unkind. Either occurrence marks a low point for our public discourse and a sad state of our affairs. We shout and tweet; we dismiss and ridicule; we taunt and bully; we vilify and demonize.
We need a revolution of kindness.
For a durable lesson on how to be a kind person, I suggest a documentary, in theaters now, called “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?” Fred Rogers, the Christian minister and unlikely TV personality who created "Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood," continues to be a role model of kindness and empathy, even after his death. The movie demonstrates his deep, lifelong commitment to listening with love, especially to children. Mr. Rogers understood early on the communicative potential of television, and he used the quiet but revolutionary power of love to touch hearts and to help people re-examine their behavior. He lived the Gospel message without sermonizing. His legacy of love and his example of neighborliness are especially pertinent today, as we blunder about without any seeming consideration for others, as we speak far more than we listen, and as we mistake kindness for weakness.
But rather than weakness, kindness is brave and radical choice. It provides the strength for a commitment to the renewal of our American principles. Surely a revolution of kindness can show us where we who disagree so vehemently nevertheless hold basic human values in common. Kindness can gently defuse anger. Kindness can create good neighbors. Kindness can beget the civility whose loss we mourn. Clearly, it is time for this revolution.
"Ou est la Bastille?" On this Bastille Day, I would answer that it stands in metaphor as the fortified walls around our hearts. With kindness, each one of us can take down our inner Bastille, stone by stone by stone.