Of Kindness and Unkindness

The value of kindness is often under-rated. We all know how a small gesture of courtesy, a thoughtful remembrance of something important to us, a smile, a word, can transform our day from bleakness to sunshine. The opposite is true of unkindness. A harsh word, a contemptuous gesture, can leave us feeling diminished. One of the things that has troubled me for a long time is the way in which the online world often seems to give free rein to unkindness. Even on this blog you will find a few comments that are deliberately rude and provocative, as though giving offence were somehow the measure of independence of mind (it isn’t). Yesterday I ‘listened in’ to one or two Twitter conversations prompted by Dr Meriam Ibrahim Ishaq’s case. What struck me forcibly was the number of people who used this poor woman’s plight as an opportunity to be rude and belittling about religion. There was no attempt at argument. It was like children saying, ‘ya, boo and sucks!’ — only the people doing the name-calling were not children. They were adults, many of them with university degrees and presumably some degree of intelligence.

We can rationalise such behaviour by saying that, if one believes something to be absurd, treating it with contempt simply underlines its absurdity. Possibly, though I myself would argue that to ridicule successfully one must be really witty. ‘Force without mind falls by its own weight,’ and I’m sorry to say there are many instances of that to be found online. The horrible insults and threats to which Professor Mary Beard and others have been subject are not merely examples of a particularly nasty misogyny, they are also the result of the two big dangers of the internet: its anonymity and immediacy. Some people hide behind the shield of anonymity. Others are a little too prompt to express their views. I have sometimes written things I wished I hadn’t in the heat of the moment or expressed myself clumsily when a little more thought and time might have spared both the reader and me some pain. But deliberate unkindness? No, I don’t think I have been guilty of that; so where does it come from?

This morning I read a sad little message on Facebook from a FB friend who has an advanced cancer. Yesterday he informed all of us via a status update that the tumours are still growing and unless the next round of chemotherapy can achieve something, the prognosis is poor. It was honest, brief, and to the point. But he was accused by some of ‘sympathy seeking’ and rubbished. To me, that smacks of cruelty, but I think it is a cruelty born of fear. Did my FB friend tap into a little reservoir of fear in his reader that led to that explosion? Was it his cancer, or the other’s fear of cancer that called forth the resposne?

I think those of us who are Christians have a duty to watch our behaviour online with particular care. We can build up or tear down. To be kind, to attempt to lessen the world’s pain rather than adding to it, may not attract much notice, may not make us ‘big names’ but it is surely worthwhile. Jesus in the gospel calls us his friends ‘if you do as I command you’. Loving as he loved means loving in all the little, everyday things of life, often in simple, human kindness rather than in huge, dramatic sacrifices. We may be mocked for it, but wouldn’t it be better to be mocked for being kind than condemned for its opposite?

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