Social media: 'Age of meanness' can be defeated by simple acts of kindness – Professor Joe Goldblatt

“Are you OK?” I was surprised during the early days of the pandemic when three different friends from local community organisations, where I have been a long-time member, rang to enquire about my well-being. After the third call in 24 hours, I actually looked in the mirror to make certain that I was still in a somewhat healthy state.

Being kind to people online and in person can help counter the corrosive effect of the growing 'age of meanness' (Picture: Sean Gallup/Getty Images)
Being kind to people online and in person can help counter the corrosive effect of the growing 'age of meanness' (Picture: Sean Gallup/Getty Images)

Due to the ravages of the pandemic in care homes, I suppose that anyone of a certain age was suspected to be unwell. Although three calls in such a short period felt a bit over the top, they were being kind.

However, in society at large, it feels like we have moved from what could be described as an age of kindness to what many would agree is now an age of meanness. I miss the previous age and long for it to return.

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The US President, Harry Truman, who suffered the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune during his presidency, once famously said “if you want a friend in Washington, get a dog!” Truman found it very difficult to make close friends due to the cut and thrust of politics in America.

As I completed addressing over 100 season’s greetings cards to be posted to friends and family all over the world, I felt comforted by having cultivated these friendships over 70 years and looked forward to receiving a few return responses during the upcoming festive season. In an age of instant communication – where all too often someone sends a disparaging comment via email or social media, firing their criticism as if launching a missile by forcefully pressing the enter key – I find it calming to sit quietly with fountain pen in hand and send warm affection to my loved ones near and far.

The author Dale Carnegie was once asked by a friend how she could overcome her constant depression. She told him that on many days she could not find the energy or motivation to even leave her home, explaining that people had become so mean she could not face them.

He told her that he had a system that would help her feel better over time. He then instructed her to find others who were suffering more than her and find ways to help them as often as possible. A few days later, he met her in a local park and she was walking a small dog. He asked how she was doing and she said enthusiastically: “Fine! I now walk the dog for my neighbour who is unable to leave her house. I also provide her with a midday meal. I feel so much better!” I have also found, during the winter of my life, that I can find enduring warmth through my many volunteer activities.

A friend who was the member of a local Chamber of Commerce once told me she was to give a speech to her business leader friends so she moved around the room introducing herself prior to her talk. On one side of the room, she noticed that when she asked the attendees how their business was doing they replied “terrible!” and shook their heads. When she moved to the opposite side of the room and asked the same question, she received different replies: “Great!” “Booming!” “Better than ever!”

As she prepared to give her speech, she silently wondered why all the negative thinkers were concentrated in one section of the room. Then it occurred to her that for some people, it is more comforting to associate with those who have similar views and feelings. This, she believed, was a problem that could easily be avoided by seeking and welcoming other, more positive points of view.

Therefore, when I read about Scottish museums closing due to limited footfall and shrinking financial resources, festivals reducing their staff numbers, rising prices, striking workers and other sad events, I can easily imagine that many of us may began to feel distraught and this may contribute to what I now refer to as the growing “age of meanness”. I also wonder how we may transform this age into one of kindness in order to regain our human capacity for thanksgiving and love.

One of my favourite composers is the lyricist Oscar Hammerstein II who wrote songs for The Sound of Music, South Pacific, The King and I, Carousel and many other popular 20th century musicals. During rehearsals for The Sound of Music, he walked backstage and slipped a small piece of paper into the hand of Broadway show’s star, Mary Martin.

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The paper had these words written in his own hand: “A bell’s not a bell ’til you ring it – A song’s not a song ’til you sing it – Love in your heart wasn’t put there to stay – Love isn’t love ’til you give it away!”

After Mary read these words, he said: “Why not sing this to introduce the reprise of Sixteen Going on Seventeen to Liesel?” The character Liesel was depressed over her failed love affair with a young man who had become increasingly mean due to the Second World War. Hammerstein knew that even during our deepest period of sadness and depression, we still have the capacity to find love and give it away to others.

This is why I shall be asking family and friends in person, via the post, on the telephone and online: “Are you well?” I want them to know that I care deeply about their feelings and want to use my unlimited capacity for human kindness to provide comfort now and in the future.

Kindness is always more welcome. And by reaching into our hearts to give more love away each and every day, we may just, ever so slightly, help defeat the age meanness.

Joe Goldblatt is emeritus professor of planned events at Queen Margaret University. His views are his own. To read more visit www.joegoldblatt.scot

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