Reasons to be Kind by Griselda Heppel

'People lashing out need to take a step back and think about what they would actually say in person rather than when hiding behind a screen.’
It's OK with the barbs, tweeps. We're the
good guys
Photo by Anastasia Zhenina from Pexels

So wrote a fellow Tweep a few days ago, and I couldn’t agree more. It’s not a groundbreaking idea; we know that social media – Twitter in particular – have reshaped the whole way subjects are discussed and how people relate to each other. But we don’t seem able to curb our behaviour, to stop pouring hatred down the throats of those who express a different view, or – heaven forbid – use the wrong words by accident. Before this global free for all, irritation and outrage could be vented harmlessly by yelling at the television screen; now the temptation to fire barbs publicly at the writer/politician/newscaster/actor/singer/academic/football manager/poor clumsy twit who’s ventured an opinion they might not even realise is controversial – is just too much to resist. Especially when your own sense of virtue allows you to participate joyfully in the lynching. It's great when you know you’re the good guy here. 

Recently the well-known bestselling writer, Matt Haig, was subjected to an avalanche (or pile on, to use the technical Twitter term) of vile, poisonous, I-want-to-kill-you type abuse. His crime? Describing as ‘psychotic’ a troll who threatened to burn down his house with him in it. He saw his mistake at once and apologised to all those suffering mental health problems hurt by his casual use of the word, but this didn’t save him. Eventually he issued four screenshots totalling over 1000 words of apology, self-castigation, bridge-building and earnest avowals to Do Better, before taking a break from the Twittersphere altogether. 

What I found heart-wrenching about this whole episode is that Haig himself suffers acutely from depression and anxiety disorder. His memoir Reasons To Stay Alive recounts the years of suicidal depression he experienced in his twenties and how he got through them with the help of what he liked doing best – reading and writing – and the people he loved. All the more reason, of course, why he should have known not to use mental health terms carelessly, and that could explain the intensity of the vitriol unleashed. Yet somehow it also allowed those who felt the most outrage to ignore his own fragility; how easily this one, much-apologised-for mistake could tip him back into the well of depression that is never far away. Was that their aim? Even those who acknowledged his apology took care to let him know it would never be enough. What did they want – blood? 

Photo by Eva Elijas from Pexels
Every so often an appeal goes round on social media for people to Be Kind. From the above you can see why. And here I have a confession to make: I am a living example of how easy it is to be unkind without even realising it. 

In general, I am an absolute coward on Twitter. I write brave tweets on subjects I care about and delete them before posting. But a couple of months ago, watching a scientific documentary on television, I was bored and tweeted as much. I imagined I was exchanging views with other watchers; it never occurred to me that the programme’s maker would see my tweet. Only when he responded with a sad face, to be instantly comforted by several supportive colleagues, did I realise that my tweet actually had a human victim. 

I apologised at once, spluttering something about the fault being mine, it was an impressive programme that I hadn’t bothered to engage with properly – but I don’t know if it helped. Checking his Twitter feed, I could see it was full of comments from people who’d loved the programme, and the fact that one dissenting voice had clearly hurt just shows how vulnerable we all are. Gulp. 

If you haven't anything nice to say,
keep quiet and read a book.
Photo by Eva Elijas from Pexels
To quote my grandmother - if you haven’t got anything nice to say, keep quiet. 

Yup. The old rules are still the best. 


Eden Baylee said…
Hi Griselda, Yes, there are a lot of 'brave' people behind their keyboards.

I don't have conversations about politics or religion on public timelines. It's too easy for people of opposing views to offer up their opinions. They don't need an invitation.

As for voicing your boredom about a doc ... I wouldn't worry about that. I think it's an opportunity for the filmmaker to chat with you if he/she were interested in your thoughts. We're talking about a subjective art form. Not everyone is going to like it.

For me, Twitter is a place to share, not attack. Sharing doesn't always mean I'll say nice things, but I will say it with kindness and honesty. More often than not, I'm just trying to be funny.

Have a great week,
Peter Leyland said…
Thanks Griselda, I didn't know that about Matt Haig who I rate as one of the good guys on mental health issues and I'm so sorry he was attacked. I did once venture a negative opinion on a very upsetting poem posted on Twitter. The poster who was not the author wrote an excellent defence of the poem while showing sensitivity to my views. Unfortunately a whole lot of others piled into the conversation condemning me. Some people just can't be adult online.

Your grandmother was very wise. We need it in these fractured times.
Sandra Horn said…
Thank you for this thoughtful post, Griselda. I have to say, however how sick I am of this apparently new culture of outrage at innocently-meant comments. There is no debate any more, just people howling - JK Rowling made some remarks that should have provoked discussion, but instead was vilified, often by people who didn't seem to have read her words or understood her concerns. How else could someone's threats like those made to Matt Haig be described, I ask myself? Someone undergoing a psychotic episode might well make threats or behave wildly, but they are rightly regarded as not responsible for their actions at that time because of their condition. It might be kinder to call them psychotic rather than evil, I venture to suggest, at the risk of bringing fire and brimstone raining down on my head.
Jan Needle said…
I've been on Twitter for several years now (I think) but I never look at it. If I'm missing any horrible remarks about me, I'll presumably never know. Suits me...
I agree it's too easy to get carried away on the internet, on Twitter in particular, and also with Sandra's comment about the instant outrage. Twitter certainly isn't the place for nuanced discussion! Instead people are labelled (in some cases with acronyms I don't understand!) in quite a lazy way, and people who take issue with that are also attacked.
Kirsten Bett said…
Hi Griselda, I hear what you are saying. Being kind is mostly the best option. And thanks for mentioning Matt Haig's book, it sounds like an interesting read. Though if someone threatened to burn my house down... I can see where he was coming from. 😕
Griselda Heppel said…
Thank you all for reading and commenting. Funnily enough, Matt Haig appeared on Woman's Hour a day or two ago and the furore was mentioned... including his decision to stay off Twitter forever, not just temporarily. There will still be tweets from his account, but done by his publicist. Poor guy. It's a horrible dilemma for writers because Twitter is a good place to make contact with people in the book world; but the more high profile you are, the more you'll get attacked. I thought J K Rowling was extremely brave (if a leetle bit tactless) to state views which she knew would draw hatred but I don't think even she expected the horror that resulted. As you say, Sandra, people should be able to open a debate, not be cancelled and have death threats for venturing a view.

Peter, I am so sorry you went through one of these pile ons - it is a horrible thing, even when you know people doing it have no idea who you are and don't matter. It hurts. And why should your feelings about a distressing poem have no validity? Grrr.
I keep wondering about joining Twitter..haha. Thank you, it's a good reminder to be kind, and to be intentionally kind...
Reb MacRath said…
Thanks for the needed post, Griselda. Twitter can turn into a wild firefight with no, or little, provocation. But FB has its dangers too. A number of times on my own page, when I'd posted something that seemed innocent enough to me, I've found myself under siege. I've learned not to respond again if a calm level-headed counter attracts more abuse--but instead to unFriend and block the person trolling. PRobably, this results in worse trolling behind my back and which I'll never know of. But I'd rather risk that than allow myself to get sucked in by the captivity of negativity.

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