Why can’t we just call things unkind?
From Love Island to social media rows, suggesting someone’s behaviour is simply hurtful can sound limp and childish. But an emphasis on kindness can be a powerful thing
Is there gaslighting on Love Island? Maybe. From cruel jokes to crueller recouplings, commentators have been quick — and sometimes astute — in noticing how patterns of behaviour on the program can dramatise the more disturbing aspects of dating in the real world.
These are interesting conversations and, as others have noted, Love Island’s capacity to spark wider discussions around consent, relationships and gender is part of what makes it such a fascinating program.
Discussing signs of abuse in the abstract is useful, too: if seeing a TV character’s behaviour labelled thus helps one woman recognise that a sustained, amplified version of the same has happened in her life — and can be addressed seriously — then that can only be a good thing.
But while the debate over whether certain contestants’ actions constitute abuse or not is a fraught one, there is something we can all readily agree on: often, it isn’t very kind.
As a label, “unkind” can sound more reminiscent of the schoolyard than of adult heartbreak. Whereas “gaslighting” hints at a slow, psychological poison, “unkind” is the language of children’s books and schoolyard tiffs. It’s not kind to take people’s toys. It’s not kind to leave someone out of your birthday party. It is not kind to stick chewing gum all over the bottom of Sarah’s desk, William, please can you tidy that up before breaktime.
Yet taking kindness, and unkindness, as a central problematic has value. For just as real abuse should not be diminished — and attempts to minimise it resisted — so might we take seriously the reasons somebody may reach for a label of “abuse” in instances which are not abusive.
It is easy, for instance, to laugh at the person on social media who claims they are being roundly abused, while a simple search reveals the extent of the pile-on to be a handful of feather-light critiques. But while claims of “trolling” and “threats” can appear ridiculous, the underlying impulse — to find a way of articulating hurt that will make it seem legitimate — is not.
Sometimes when people say they have been threatened, it is not because somebody made a threat, but because the experience was threatening. The fact is, even as an adult, being left out of someone’s birthday party can feel not very nice at all. Similarly, being told you are wrong by several people at once inevitably registers as an attack — even if the individual messages were intended to be anything but.
It is much easier to rule someone’s behaviour an objective violation than it is to say, “this made me feel really sad and small.” And yet point out something is unkind, rather than unreasonable, is to acknowledge that making someone feel bad matters — even if there is no social law that has been violated. There is no reason you cannot call someone an idiot online, or be the 200th person to point out that they said something stupid. But it wouldn’t be very kind.
Of course, it is right to resist the obligation to be kind when that obligation is rooted in inequality: when the stranger in the street demands a smile, or when a black colleague is called “aggressive” after standing up for themselves in a work meeting. There is no law in this world that demands we constantly take care of everyone else’s feelings.
But the fact that kindness can be demanded, or taken advantage of, doesn’t strip it of meaning. In fact, it’s precisely because kindness carries such weight that those in power feel the urge to demand it — or its shallow facsimile — from those who would otherwise proffer them no special treatment.
True kindness comes from a position of power. It is an acknowledgement that we have the capacity to make other people feel good or bad, and that while we have no obligation to protect people’s feelings if it comes at the expense of our own happiness, we should err on the side of doing so when it costs us little.
To be kind is to recognise that the world is messy and imperfect, and that sometimes the things we want conflict with what will make other people happy, and that when that happens, it is better to be kind (particularly when their unhappiness is about to be broadcast on national television).
More than that, it is to see other people as having dignity, and to see that dignity reflected back in ourselves; not owed, but given freely.
Kurt Vonnegut’s pronouncement on kindness, written as a missive to new babies just arriving on earth, has, perhaps, too strong an afterlife in sunset-toned Tumblr pics to still count for much among the serious cynics who stand to learn the most from it. But put aside the cheesy graphics, and it retains a charge — if only in that it treats being in the world as both a great leveller and state of duty.
“There’s only one rule I know of, babies,” Vonnegut writes. “God damn it, you’ve gotta be kind.”