The responsibility to be kind

Good for Simone Biles. Good for Naomi Osaka. Good for every single person who has recently stood up and said, “This situation is not good for me and I will not do this to myself for your entertainment.”

The world has changed in the past twenty years, and we’ve all seen the effects of social media, viral media, the bully pulpit (literally) of Twitter, the toxicity of algorithms that promote the content that makes us most reactive and angry. Of the folks that have learned to use social media to promote disinformation, or simply have learned that if they respond to everything with outrage, whether outrage is warranted or not, that behavior will be rewarded.

There’s a reason the phrase “I feel personally attacked” has become such a sly in-joke among the Extremely Online. (And even the sorta-online, for that matter.)

Everybody is having an opinion in public about everything, whether they are qualified or not. We’re not just a culture of Monday-morning quarterbacks, but a culture of Twitter epidemiologists and Facebook Juries, trying anybody and everything that catches our attention in the court of the internets. The news cycle gets nastier and less responsible as norms loosen and Fake News takes its toll.

And yet.

We’re in an unprecedented position, out here in radioland, to start setting some standards and metrics for public behavior and how we relate to each other in online spaces. We’re in a position to try to remember, as that unlikely hero Britney Spears once said, that famous people are just people. That in passing casual, unthinking, public judgement on somebody we don’t know and don’t actually know anything about aside from spin and Hot Takes, all we’re doing is exposing our own biases and projections.

Do you want to judge the German Olympic gymnastics team for their unitards? How about the Norwegian non-Olympic beach volleyball team for their shorts? Nobody can stop you. Get on Twitter and let ‘er rip. Film a scathing TikTok or YouTube video.

Just don’t be surprised if, as the environment becomes more and more toxic, this leads to all the nontoxic people vacating a space. And people who are very good at a thing deciding it’s too traumatic to do that thing in public anymore, whether that thing is sports, music, writing, acting…

It’s incredibly hard to execute a difficult skill when you feel like everybody is staring at you and judging you. We all know this from personal experience. Why do we assume that it’s different for a professional entertainer than for anybody else on the planet? Why do we assume that it’s okay to be a complete dick about somebody in public because we don’t know them and we forget that “famous” people are people? Because they don’t seem real to us. Because we forget that we as individuals and as a group do have social power, and in the age of social media we can actually have quite a lot of power.

The power to silence marginalized people and drive them off social media, for example. The power to destroy an emerging writer’s career and mental health with a Twitter shitstorm.

Maybe it’s time we made it a part of the social contract that that power should be respected and used wisely and with care. That there ought to be social consequences for unsupported allegations, trolling, bullying, and Hot Takes that amount to character assassination on little or no evidence. Maybe it’s time that, as a culture, we started deeming cyber-bullying, dropping the internet on people, and so forth and unacceptable, and took up the position that—just as it’s not okay to cut people off in traffic—deem it part of our personal social responsibility to treat people on the internet the same way we treat strangers we meet on the street.

(Considering recent reports of how some folks are treating restaurant and retail workers in Pandemic World, possibly we also need to work on how we treat strangers we meet on the street, and not accept it when acquaintances are horrible to service workers either. Remember that old adage: when you’ve started dating somebody, watch how they treat the waiter.)

It’s a small thing, but maybe it’s time for the majority of us to accept that we have an responsibility to be kind, to recognize that social media comes with obligations of nontoxic behavior, and not to judge people we don’t know anything about who doing things so hard and high pressure that it takes an entire lifetime of nonstop work to get good at them.