The horror of her loss forced us all to reflect on our actions. The ‘Be Kind’ campaign, which began life in 2015 as a charity aimed at providing kindness education in schools, was transformed into a social media movement which called for more compassion and empathy both on and offline.
In the aftermath, it felt like the message might be getting through. From salons ditching gossip magazines to a surge in ‘random acts of kindness’ during the pandemic, there was a sense that the #BeKind movement had succeeded in bringing the power of kindness into the public imagination.
It felt like a turning point which would leave its mark on social media for some time to come, but a lot has happened since then. And while that moment does remain imprinted on our collective memory, the #BeKind movement has also been muddied by misuse.
Most prominently, there have been plenty of occasions when the #BeKind hashtag has been weaponised and used as an excuse for people to avoid accountability online.
Over the last 12 months it’s been used to denounce cancel culture, shame people for speaking out against hate online and discourage criticism for flouting lockdown rules; particularly by influencers, one of whom was met with disappointment online after they responded to criticism of their recent trip to Dubai with a plea for people to “be kind” if they didn’t have anything nice to say.
Although not always explicit in their reference, countless celebrities have used the #BeKind rhetoric – that is, that we should try to keep in mind what people are going through behind the scenes, and avoid participating in ‘mob culture’ simply for clicks and likes online – to avoid taking responsibility for harmful language and actions.
Hugh Grant’s disappointing defence of Laurence Fox after he ‘quit’ Twitter because he was receiving criticism from his followers is one example. Although the #BeKind hashtag was not used, Grant’s suggestion that Fox shouldn’t be “hounded” for simply expressing his “opinions” (read: harmful and divisive statements) applied the same understanding – that we shouldn’t ‘gang up’ on people online. The problem with that? Fox wasn’t being ganged up on or bullied as Grant’s defence suggested – the criticism levelled against him was incredibly valid, and he was simultaneously ‘hounding’ minority communities with his views.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, Piers Morgan has also abused the hashtag countless times over the last 12 months. While in the wake of Flack’s death he took time to tweet about the “mindless, ill-informed, hypocritical abuse that’s made Twitter a disgusting cesspit for any public figure”, Morgan has repeatedly used his platform to belittle the movement and spread hate instead.
Take his public ‘feud’ with mental health advocate Matt Haig, for example. When Haig called for Morgan’s employer ITV to talk to the presenter about the way he speaks about people such as Meghan Markle, Jameela Jamil, Greta Thunberg and others online, Morgan turned the attention back to Haig by suggesting that his (valid) criticism of Morgan’s behaviour was in violation of his role as a “#BeKind bastion”, calling him a “hypocritical fraud”.
As both of these examples show, the nuanced understanding of the original #BeKind movement that was amplified by Flack’s death – that criticism for harmful actions is fair, but that intentionally causing harm to someone and piling on hate for the sake of it is not – has been replaced by a blanket assumption: that criticism is, in all forms, unkind.
This is not only problematic because it weakens the message of the original movement, but because it allows hateful language – which most certainly isn’t kind – to remain unchecked.
This use of the hashtag also weaponises the very mental health issues the movement set out to protect. When people quote #BeKind in response to legitimate criticism, they’re using their mental health almost like a ‘get out of jail’ free card which grants them freedom from being called out for their actions. This kind of language isn’t just offensive to those people with mental health issues, it’s damaging to the movement as a whole, because it transforms real suffering into an ‘excuse’ not to be taken seriously.
With all that being said, however, there’s still hope that the #BeKind movement’s legacy could lead us into better and brighter days.
The world has, in some aspects, become a kinder place since this time last year – a recent study conducted by Travelodge found that people have been nicer to each other since the pandemic began, and the recent conversation around Britney Spears’ story and how women are treated in the media demonstrates an appetite for more progressive, open-minded discussion about how we talk about people in the spotlight.
In this way, although the tabloids may not have learnt much from #BeKind (you only need to look at yesterday’s headlines about Meghan Markle to see what we mean), the message of the movement has not been lost on us all.
Now more than ever, we need kindness – and while the #BeKind movement may have been twisted and muddied since it’s rise to popularity a year ago, its core message is no less important.