Hello, friends. It’s been a while.
I’ve been thinking about kindness a lot lately. As anything, it’s the result of the juxtaposition of several events, but without a doubt I’ve been mostly thinking about it in the context of raising my daughter. Emotions can be difficult for humans to manage, and a huge focus for us with our three year-old daughter has been teaching her the skills to handle them. Anger, sadness, and frustration can easily overwhelm a little person, and having the tools to deal with them is important. Often, I tell my daughter, “It’s ok to be mad. Being good isn’t about never getting mad, it’s about how quickly you can get yourself back under control when it happens. And when you are a grown up, you may be able to do that so fast that no one even notices you were mad in the first place.”
Of course, that’s all well and good, but there is a time for anger, a time for sadness, and a time for frustration. Adults express all of the above, sometimes more often than others. It may be old hat to say this, but this is particularly true online.
We are way past the Don’t Be a Dick rule of Internet Life. Now it’s…People Will Definitely Be Dicks to You on the Internet. Do Your Best.— Catherynne Valente (@catvalente) September 12, 2015
There’s much discussion around the toxicity of the online conversations, and bemoaning the “outrage culture” of the internet. It’s certainly true that some users have less of a filter online. After all, it’s easier to think of people on the other end as something other than a person. They’re just a name and an avatar, right? In addition, as we engage increasingly in online communities, it becomes important for individuals to establish their identities clearly to those around them. We’re looking for our tribes, which means that the narcissism of small differences gets taken to an extreme. When cut off from the mooring of physical environment, it’s a human way to cry out, “This is me. This is what I think. Are you here? Are you like me?” We end up forming our identity by the ideas we subscribe to, and ultimately build whole communities around them. When your identity and community are based around an idea, what should be a simple disagreement can quickly become a blood feud.
In addition to such notions, which may be as inconsequential as your personal preference of genre fiction or video games, individuals often feel the need to take their defense or enthusiasm of an idea to inappropriate extremes, which is where flame wars come from.1 Of course, we’re not talking about long bitter arguments anymore, either. We’re talking about systemic vitriol and harassment campaigns that span both online conversations and extend into the rest of the world. This isn’t just an online experience, this is life.
Something threw gasoline on the fire.
Our culture is undergoing a major shift, and these extreme arguments are fueled by an ongoing uncertainty of what that means. Certainly you see the worst of it – alarmingly so! – when a community of individuals2 are confronted with evidence of their own privilege. Some listen, but there is often a backlash to realizing that the things you thought you did on your own – and you did! – were easier for you3 than others because the system was built to serve you. Maybe it’s not even that, maybe it’s the discovery that the thing you love hurts people in ways you never intended. Can you imagine? It’s not easy to come to terms with, and in communities where their very identity is based around an idea, this information is often met with violent resistance.
To be clear, my intention is not to justify this behavior, only to identify its source. We may understand where this behavior comes from, but it does not in any way excuse it.
So, now I think about my daughter, and try to imagine how in the hell she will navigate this morass of hatred. It would be naïve of me to think that this will change before she begins to engage online, but what kind of guidance can I give her? I spend a lot of time showing her how she can do anything she works hard at, not to take abuse from jerks, and that she’s a strong person, but that’s only part of the solution. Because regardless of the argument, we’re all still people here, and strength is about more than standing your ground, it’s also about your ability to reach out to others and to lift them up when they’ve fallen.
So here’s what I’ve settled on for now: When in doubt, be kind. When someone is acting strangely, and you’re not sure how to react, err on the side of kindness. Be compassionate and give them the benefit of the doubt. Maybe they’re just feeling sad and don’t know how to deal with it yet.
To be clear, this is not some “turn the other cheek” philosophy. If someone is clearly being an asshole, or is hurting someone else and needs a sharp response, then give it to them. But, when in doubt, it’s always better to be kind.
Make that your default.