A Twitterstorm has been in full flow this past week or so, reacting to revelations that Caroline Criado-Perez has been subjected to appalling threats of rape and violence through the medium of Twitter. Ms Criado-Perez led a successful three month campaign to bring a female face – that of Jane Austen â€“ to the new UK £10 note; when the news was announced, this sparked a venom online which included, in her words, “up to fifty threats an hour” over a sustained period of 12 hours. This venom was extended to her defenders, including Stella Creasy, MP for Walthamstow, who has a great track record in standing up for what is right. Two people have since been arrested, and Tony Wang, the General Manager of Twitter UK, has since apologised and promised to make it easier for users to report abuse; the fact remains, however, that – idealistic though this may sound – in a civilised society, this kind of behaviour should never occur. That it does so is of grave concern, particularly to those responsible for the education of our future generations; it indicates to us that we must place a high value on education in how to behave with others, and how to change behaviour that is unkind or bullying.
This is not simply a question of etiquette online, although teaching our young people how to behave in their online interactions is essential as part of this process; this education reaches far deeper, into how we respect and treat ourselves and others. Since the days of Aristotle, who observed the innate ‘goodness’ of human beings, but who emphasised that this ‘goodness’ needed to be developed through practice into habits and character, philosophers have wrestled with how to enable people to grow into the best of themselves, in a way that allowed them to develop and contribute to a harmonious society. Sanctions and punishments alone are not the answer, although there is intense value in learning that actions have consequences; the real opportunity lies in changing behaviour through intervention and education.
And we need to spend more time on this in schools, in active programs, but also through role-modelling, intervening, exposing and discussing values, and helping our young people to grow. As the Dalai Lama pointed out in his recent public talk in Sydney, in words that will resonate with most belief systems throughout the world: we spend time learning letters to enable us to be proficient readers; why then should we not expect to spend time learning about how to be in relation to others? Studying – and practising – good behaviour is essential to our development as human beings. We need to learn how to interact with others if we are to grow a civilised world, and this is particularly important when our young people do not have the strong messages or role models around them in society to help show them what they should be doing. Bullying and unkindness abound amongst those in the public eye, and violence and cruelty are to be found represented in the media at every turn.
Writing assemblies for young students is a very good discipline. When I was planning my beginning of term assembly for Kindergarten to Year 2, I knew that I wanted to tell them about the Dalai Lama and the messages about values that he had to communicate when he gave his public talk in Sydney. I knew I had to distil into a few simple words what he wanted to communicate – messages about values that the girls would understand and remember. I wanted to make sure that they were at their very simplest level, so our children could understand, and this was what I came up with:
- Naturally, people are very kind.
- We often hear things around us that make us less kind – we read stories about unkind people, or watch television about unkind people.
- This all makes us forget a bit that we need to be kind.
- So we need to remind ourselves all the time to be kind.
- And – all the time – we need to practise being kind.
If we all learned to abide by these messages – and it will require discipline and action for us to learn to do so – we would go a long, long way to making the world that better place that we all know it can be.