I’ll admit it, I winced when I first saw it. Not because of the concept itself, but precisely because of who had already latched onto it: Piers Morgan, Katie Hopkins and now, in defence of Laurence Fox of all people, Hugh Grant. The message? To “be kind”.
It made perfect sense in the wake of Caroline Flack’s death, whose day to day life couldn’t have been made easier by attacks online, either by individuals or some parts of the media. We were reeling, confused, perhaps reminded of our own ties to death by suicide through loved ones, or our own experiences. After tragedies like that, kindness always seems like the most logical move. Until it isn’t.
Soon after Flack’s death, the directness of that #BeKind “movement” of sorts, became muddied. The blanket call for compassion could be extended to anyone, even those who make it their daily duty to target specific communities under the banner of freedom of speech.
Now, we’ve gone one further. In a tweet posted shortly after Fox’s announcement that he was leaving Twitter because he’d become a victim of “cancel culture” (conveniently forgetting that he’d fuelled one of the biggest racism denial debates of 2020 after his Question Time appearance), none other than Grant decided to speak out in support of him.
He tweeted: “Dear @LozzaFox I don’t think we agree on very much but it’s nonsense that you should be hounded for expressing your opinions. My love to your Dad.”
The words #BeKind may not have been in plain sight, but the same sentiment of unwavering niceness, no matter what, was palpable. And it speaks to an emerging trend of immediately positioning critics of (usually white and right-wing) public figures as bullies.
Robert Daniels, a film critic based in the US, expertly articulated this phenomenon in a piece responding to a similar situation between director Jason Lei Howden and two black critics for RogerEbert.com.
For context, Howden, the Guns Akimbo director, made a similar plea against “woke cyberbullies”. He even went so far as accusing writers and women of colour, DarkSkyLady and Valerie Complex, of “attempted murder with online bullying” after a former editor of Much Ado About Cinema (which has since shut down) attempted suicide not long after screenshots exposing their use of the n-word had circulated.
Both insisted they were not involved in the harassment. It should also be noted that Howden has since deleted his Twitter account and apologised in two tweets.
It was, and is, a tremendously unfortunate series of events. And the weaponisation of so-called compassion in that moment was just as tragic. It’s worth questioning why two women of colour so easily became targets. Why they had so easily been labelled bullies at their core?
Daniels wrote: “[Howden] used the term “woke culture” as virtue-signalling to condemn black writers who have spent their whole lives recoiling to the very syllables of the n-word, which from the lips of a white person often dehumanises or worse. Here, Howden’s worldview thrived on the inherent awfulness of those who denounce him.”
That’s precisely what’s at play here. The question of who is most frequently asked to be kind (the “woke”, as their opponents cynically call them) and why – for either disagreeing or claiming to experience something some people view as fundamentally false, ie racism – tells us much more about what people like Fox, or Morgan (who has waded deeper into controversy by exposing private messages he allegedly received from Caroline Flack about Jameela Jamil) are really asking for.
Truthfully, this has nothing whatsoever to do with kindness, and everything to do with being able to manoeuvre whiteness to gain sympathy for things that are otherwise unequivocally deplorable.
Under that logic, when white people take clear delight in spending hours attempting to delegitimise the experiences of marginalised communities, it’s just their opinion. When anyone who is genuinely hurt by that abuse attempts to respond, or explain why such thinking is harmful, they’re bullies. Entitled, virtue-signalling and dangerous bullies, if they’re black.
Fox aside, the idea that unthinking kindness alone will lead to significant change in terms of the way we talk to each other, or about celebrities, is incredibly naive. The very concept of celebrity has almost always relied on public perception, and to pretend otherwise isn’t as helpful as it appears.
While I agree that we could all do with exercising more compassion, or stopping to consider how our words on social media can reach beyond the audiences we have in mind when we write them, simply saying: “Let’s all just be nice” does absolutely nothing to acknowledge the complications that the digital age has created in terms of the way we engage with fame.
Nor does it acknowledge the prejudices that often lead to people being so vile in the first place. When faced with that treatment, what use, really, would feigning kindness be? In the absence of politeness in response to slurs or gaslighting, is whatever comes your way then warranted? If I fail to embrace someone after they deny my humanity, is the way I was treated then my fault?
Of course not. But that’s the direction that we seem to be going in. So let me say this once and for all: we should be compassionate, yes. We should strive to be good people. But if discrimination and prejudice fits into someone’s idea of what a good person is, please, spare me the requests for benevolence.
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