“Hello, babies. Welcome to Earth. It’s hot in the summer and cold in the winter. It’s round and wet and crowded. At the outside, babies, you’ve got about a hundred years here. There’s only one rule that I know of, babies—God damn it, you’ve got to be kind.”
–Kurt Vonnegut, God Bless You Mr. Rosewater
This is one of my favorite Vonnegut quotes because of the last line. I think this last bit of advice gets lost quite a bit, especially when we look at the way we talk about and comment on others online and in the media. Just scan the comments section on many news stories, and you will see how easily people abandon kindness. Comments sections are full of attacks on the author, name calling, insults and all manner of hurtful speech. Even comments on articles with no political content can easily turn into readers complaining about the president, immigration or the current political issue du jour. It’s also surprising to see how quickly commenters on social media can turn on a person and attack them simply for expressing a different viewpoint.
In theory, online forums should be a way to debate and discuss different ideas. There is a lot of value in conversing with those who hold opposing viewpoints. But this is not what a lot of online discussion is. This is also true in the media where a lot of attention seems to be on slamming the opposition or deriving great joy out of someone’s failures. If you look at our media and online content, it would seem that we are a bunch of angry, hurtful people. But that’s not entirely true. I have seen many acts of kindness out in the world, so I know that deep down we are not a society of hateful people.
On a recent episode of This American Life, Jezebel writer Lindy West tells a story of an Internet troll who went so far as to set up a Twitter account with the name of her deceased father. He used the Twitter account to post some mean things about West as though he were her dead father. West explains that she is used to nasty comments on her articles, and that it is part of the job when you write online. She is usually able to let it go, but the fake Twitter account really affected her. West’s troll reaches out to her, and she ends up having a conversation with him. The conversation gives good insight into how we all think when we are tempted to write something mean online.
At the end of her story, West says, “Humans can be reached. I have proof. Empathy, boldness, kindness, those are things I learned from my dad.” Because, in the end, West’s own kindness was what helped her move through some very hurtful comments and to have a conversation with the man who wrote some very unkind things. With an example like this, I would like to think that there is still some possibility that kindness will win out.
But it’s a challenge. When I turn on the TV and hear hosts ripping apart a woman for what she wore to an awards show or see commenters on social media posts saying nasty things about the original poster, it is hard to see kindness winning out.
It used to be that when we thought someone on TV was stupid or we received bad service at a restaurant, we would tell a few friends and that would be the end of it. The Internet has given us a tool to post those comments in a forum where thousands of people might read what we say. The validation for our feelings is often quick, and it is easy to post comments in a place that the target of our attacks will see them. At what point did this become an acceptable way to have a public dialogue when we disagree?
It is important to remember the advice from Vonnegut’s quote at the start of this post. We’ve got to be kind. This doesn’t mean we can’t disagree with someone. We just need to remember kindness when we do.