Analysis & Comment

Lorraine Courtney: 'We're all connected, but more isolated, in a society without the kindness of strangers'

Last week we learned that 30pc of Irish children reported being bullied in the past couple of months, up from 25pc in 2014. How did we get here? Why have we lost our kindness, and who is teaching our children to be so mean to one other?

Well at the moment, we all are. There’s all the toxic political arguing that’s going on among grown-ups and the hyper critical way we swoop in other people’s social media.

We’ve stopped thanking shop assistants and we’ve stopped talking to our neighbours. We’re raising children in a world that has forgotten how to be nice. It’s no wonder they are bullying one another in the school yard.

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Research of 1,027 students in 2018 found that close to half of second-level students have witnessed bullying in the previous year and one in 10 was either “amused” or did not care.

It’s no different for grown-ups – in 2018, a study found that two in five people experienced bullying in their work environment. In fact, we have one of the highest rates of workplace bullying in the developed world.

At first sight, it might appear that society has taken a markedly positive turn over the past decade or so.

Politicians and celebrities champion any number of apparently progressive moral campaigns: against wars, homelessness or any imaginable form of discrimination.

We said yes to gay marriage and are still congratulating ourselves that, on the face of it, we seem to be living in a new age of tolerance that’s confident in its moral values.

Then why does it feel like people are meaner than ever? If you’ve taken the time to read the comments section of a news site or driven around Dublin between 5pm and 7pm, you know that people can be really awful to one another.

Even just walking down the street feels more like everyone is in their own world. On an everyday level, we rarely bother with a simple thank you (and most of us don’t mean it either).

We’re living in a time of political polarisation. We are liberals or conservatives, SJWs or alt-righters, no shades of grey allowed. But increasingly we have this tendency to see the “opposite side” as evil and misguided.

Too many people think nothing of insulting you for not sharing their political opinions.

In real life we eye each other up suspiciously, not sure what to expect of this new, unscripted reality, wondering which ‘side’ the other person is on before we know it’s safe to start a conversation.

We used to go to Mass once a week and meet the neighbours and friends who had watched us grow up. Birth, death, happiness and sadness were all experienced together, under one roof. As religion’s hold on our country unravels, and with it the loving thy neighbour, a certain selfishness was to be expected.

New ways to gather in communities and interact with other people aren’t easy to find. The Macra na Feirme ‘Know your Neighbour’ campaign found three-quarters of adults living in urban communities feel a lesser sense of community than they themselves did growing up.

It’s easy to blame social media, but it’s easy to make a connection too. Bullying has existed for a long time, it has changed and evolved with the internet. Every medium has a mood, a tone, and the tone of social media has, most assuredly, been set by the anger of the self-righteous.

Facebook was the first public place in my lifetime where you could find people being openly and blatantly awful to other people.

For all that the internet and social media have connected the world, they have also driven people into political silos, incited violence against opposing sides, evaporated confidence in public institutions, and made conspiracy theorists of us all – while making us more selfish and, at the same time, more socially isolated.

Scroll through the comments section on your newsfeed, and you’ll always find some kind of mean-spirited debate going on.

All the while we are showing our children that it’s fine to terrorise another human being if you don’t like the way they think.

Post something online and you’ll get instant and often anonymous comments from complete strangers.

If you put anything out into the world, people are going to criticise it – and you – because social media enables us to join up and be collectively horrible together, like a tsunami of bullies that rolls on and on.

It’s easy to feel powerless but we all have the power to stop our society falling apart. Do you give up your bus seats to older people? Do you knock on your next-door neighbour’s door to offer them a lift to the shop? Do you start conversations with the person sitting beside you on the bus? No. Most of us don’t any more. But it’s time to make a change.

It doesn’t take some grand gesture to start the chain reaction, but something as simple as a smile makes all the difference. Or behaving yourself better online today.

Schools need to step in and step up too. If I had a child at school today, the only things I’d really want them learning about is kindness.

Yes, academic subjects are important too – but definitely not as important as being nice in a world that is forgetting that we should treat other people well.

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