What can we do to promote a culture of kindness in society?

If you read my comments in today’s Mail on Sunday – “Top headmistress says social networking and public rows between celebs are causing a generation of mean girls”, you will see that I am warning against the culture of nastiness that often pervades our online (and real-life) world. Why this is aimed more at women than at men – women’s appearance, women’s life choices, women’s relationships – is an unfortunate and depressing indictment of the state of our society today, in which there are still strong undercurrents of misogyny, sexism and chauvinism (witness the debate on girls’ schools which raged last week in the national press – see The Times and The Daily Telegraph, but also see my blog on the subject, which received hundreds of visits).

Depressing, yes, but there are positives. We must remind ourselves sometimes that we are still in a period of social transition, and that we have not yet, for instance, reached the 100 year anniversary of women (some women) gaining the vote in this country. Vast changes have happened in the past century in women’s education, women’s rights and gender equality in all aspects of our world. Yet changes of this nature take time to embed, and it takes imagination and determination to alter mindsets – both our own and those of others. This is happening – bastions of male privilege are dying out, and women’s mentoring schemes are blossoming, to give but a brief overview. There is much still to be done to address gender pay gaps, the dearth of women MPs, the number of women in senior positions … but we are moving in the right direction, and at least the legal and regulatory frameworks are in place (though not, as yet, in many countries in the developing world).

And many schools – and many parents – are playing their part. If you read beyond the headline in the Mail on Sunday, you will see that I emphasise that schools teach about “give and take”, which is one of the fundamental principles upon which societies are founded – tolerance of others, and the acceptance of difference, as well as kindness and generosity to others and the acknowledgement (put into practice) that we are bound to act not just for ourselves but for the good of those around us – locally, nationally and globally. This is how societies work; these principles will ensure our survival as a human race. Schools and families are crucial to the embedding of these values.

What makes it hard for schools and families is a powerful and pervasive backdrop in the world around them and their children that presents a culture that is at odds with the culture we need to move forward successfully. Societies work because they seek to overcome and guard against selfish impulses of individuals. We are all prone, of course, to bouts of selfishness, of regressing to our baser human nature; what makes it difficult for young people in particular as they grow up is if they see this sort of behaviour glorified by the false gods of our society – the rich and famous, the celebrities and those with a strong public presence in the media. When this is coupled with the features of the online world that have yet to be properly regulated – its capacity to bombard us with a stream of untempered messages, and its perceived anonymity – then we have a toxic mixture that is both seductive and overwhelming. No wonder it is hard for parents and teachers to get their messages across.

So … we have to continue to work hard to get this balance right. We need to recognise what messages are being sent to our young people, and we need to highlight the effect that this is happening. “Moral vacuum” is not too strong a phrase to use in many instances. And then we need to work with a passion to compensate for this, to make sure that our young people receive the strong messages they need to be able to make a positive difference in the world.

And we need to be doing this now. For one day we will discover that tomorrow will be too late.


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