Over the last decade or so, we seem to have lost a skill we once possessed. Niceness. I'm going to talk about why I feel it's important and why I think it's sadly lacking in our current world. Particularly online.
As an Aspie, I'm constantly faced with a dilemma. I am honest to a fault. Sometimes brutally so. I find being honest prevents far more problems than it causes. I regard it as a great trait in a person. The dilemma comes in when to hold off on the honesty. Fortunately, over the years I've developed the ability to know when to spare someone's feelings. It is one of my many learned behaviours. Honesty has its place in the world and brutal honesty can really hurt other people as I have found out first hand on a number of occasions. This is a battle I still fight often and I don't think I'll ever truly figure out which option to choose between.
The decision between whether or not to be totally, unequivocally honest all the time is one of the major reasons why, until I started this blog, my online presence has been pretty small. I have all the standard social media profiles and a few others for work reasons. I use the older, more passé branches of social media. I do not have an Instagram account for example and although I'm aware of how Snapchat filters work, I have next to no desire to explore them. Although I have an online presence, I've always kept away from the social media scene mainly through fear of upsetting someone else or being upset by someone. I increasingly hear and read stories of the most unkind and terrible abuse suffered by people at the hands of others online and it all falls under the guise of free speech. Which, sadly, it is.
I don't want people thinking that I'm saying you shouldn't speak out over something you disagree with. I don't want people to think that I have a problem with free speech. People in positions of power, like elected officials or companies, need to be accessible in order to better service the people they either represent or target as consumers. Celebrities have a more tricky set of issues to contend with but as they benefit from the adoration given to them, they too must expect a certain amount of conversation focused toward them. My problem doesn't lie with free speech, it lies with how that speech is used. There is no reason why you can't disagree nicely. There is never a need to descend into the mirky world of name calling, threat giving or shaming. We need to be nicer.
Nice doesn't mean that you can't disagree. It doesn't mean that you can't be honest. It doesn't mean that you have to hold your opinion back or water it down for sensitive ears. As long as you are honest and polite in your sharing of opinions you'll be fine.
Am I being naive? Probably. I'll tell you why I'm on this nicer world theory at the moment.
I recently watched a film called Florence Foster-Jenkins. For those who haven't seen it, watch it. It's enjoyable and well performed. It's not going to sweep the Oscars, it won't change the world (or will it?) but it certainly had an affect on me. I not only enjoyed it, but I got something marvellous out of it.
*The following may well contain spoilers. However, as this person really existed and the film is based on actual events, I feel explaining a bit about the films protagonist is akin to me explaining that the Titanic sank before you watch Titanic.*
For those who don't know, Florence Foster-Jenkins was a wealthy heiress who spent most of her money on music and the cultural arts in New York in the early part of the 20th century. She fancied herself a fine soprano but really wasn't. Her self funded recordings (made in the early 40s near her death) are of a particular quality. She is most famous now for sounding "awful" and making people laugh because she was so awful.
Putting the fact that she would never have been heard of if not for her wealth aside, it was her relationship with her partner and manager St.Clair Bayfield (wonderfully played by Hugh Grant) that I was most moved by. Mr Bayfield it seemed spent most of his life protecting Florence from the "mockers and scoffers" with great success. It allowed Miss Jenkins to express herself.
I was struck by the modern issue this presented. Why are we still so convinced that it's free speech to tell someone that they're rubbish? Of course it is free speech to tell someone whatever you like but I would suggest considering their feelings first. Florence Foster-Jenkins was a woeful singer. She gave much joy to many because they thought she was a comedy act, she contributed greatly to the cultural music scene in New York at the time and she cared for music. Would that person deserve to feel bad? Would it be my responsibility to tell her that she was awful? It would certainly be my right, but does that make it right?
Using a more personal example, two months ago our cat Hugo died. He was run over. He was a special part of our family, he was our first family pet and he was only with us for seven months. Ben is too small to really take in grief of that sort, Martha was incredibly upset and Catherine and I were too. We shared our feelings with our friends on social media. It was briefly discussed on a local website forum. We had mentioned how cars need to drive a little slower in residential areas not just for children but for animals too. We live in a 20mph zone which is regularly not adhered to. The immediacy of the responses really angered me. We were told it was a good opportunity to teach our five year old about loss. We were told that as we didn't know if the car had been speeding, our view of speeding was idiotic. We were told, on the day our cat died, that it was totally legal to run over a cat and not stop. The driver had not done anything illegal.
These people had not said anything untrue. They all say something that didn't need to be said. They all forgot that behind the text on a forum, there were people. I was angry at the time. I had a full line of sarcastic comments for them all. Lines like, "though it may not be illegal to drive off after killing a cat, it does make you a prat" and "really glad I was able to make my child feel really sad today. It was character building for her. Tomorrow I'm going to chop off her leg and teach her adversity." Needless to say, I didn't share those lines with the commenters and we had the post removed from the forum before more people had their say.
I guess what I learned from that experience was that people don't stop to think online. The detachment from the human angle a computer inevitably creates seems to stop many from considering how the people receiving their comments might feel. As an Aspie, I constantly have to think before I do most things. Did they mean that? Should I be saying this? My life on social media has been exactly the same. I think before I share, before I write and before I comment. About six out of every ten comments I write or start to write get deleted and I don't say anything at all. I self edit on a daily basis and my online footprint is no different.
People really don't have to live like that though. Be nice, be honest and you'll have no problem. People can share opinions in a nice way. People can give criticism in a nice way. It has a name. Constructive criticism. We might not be watching Gladiators in an arena killing each other for amusement anymore but I don't think we've strayed to far from it. We now character assassinate in public forums and we watch it and laugh. We laugh at the people who for a brief moment we think we are better than. We laugh at the Florence Foster-Jenkins' of the world and shatter them for good measure. We now live in a time that doesn't seem to want honest opinion sharing. I think it's time to rethink that.