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.’
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.
To quote my grandmother - if you haven’t got anything nice to say, keep quiet.
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.
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?
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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.
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Yup. The old rules are still the best.