Following the tragic death of Caroline Flack, Stylist explores how we create a lasting culture of kindness.
In December 2019, Caroline Flack posted a quote on Instagram: “In a world where you can be anything, be kind.” Just 72 days later, she took her own life.
Scrolling through Twitter after the news broke, I noticed the hashtag #BeKind appearing more and more in relation to her death. On Instagram, users were sharing her December post about kindness, and reflecting on their own conduct. Without knowing the rights and wrongs or the intricacies of her mind, there was a consensual feeling that she had been treated badly. Unkindly. And that this unkindness had in turn led to her death. Seeing this reaction felt pivotal – you could sense the stirrings of a shift; a widespread call be kinder.
That night, I took stock of my behaviour, and I felt ashamed. I’d never spoken about Caroline Flack online. But I remembered how, when news of #WagathaChristie broke, I’d liked several tweets poking fun at Rebekah Vardy. I didn’t know the full story between her and Coleen Rooney, but through my clicks I took a side. And taking a side wasn’t kind. Imagine being Rebekah that day. Who can say they’ve always been kind about other people online?
Flack’s post, with the new context of a life lost in desperate circumstances, has sparked a national conversation about kindness, and how we treat each other. At the time of writing this article, a T-shirt bearing the same words as Flack’s post released by In The Style had raised over £300,000 for the Samaritans. Russell Brand shared an emotional statement encouraging people to use their “network of connections” to “convey love and support and kindness”. And when independent bookseller Simon Key offered to send a copy of Matt Haig’s depression memoir, Reasons To Stay Alive, to anyone struggling with their mental health in the wake of Flack’s death, social media users contributed £6,000 to his initiative.
Suicide seldom has one cause, and we shouldn’t over-simplify. Flack had spoken about suffering from depression in her 2015 autobiography, Storm In A C Cup. Last October, around World Mental Health Day, she posted on Instagram about her struggles with “anxiety and [the] pressure of life”. In December, she was charged with assaulting her boyfriend, Lewis Burton, and the day before she died, Flack had been informed that the Crown Prosecution Service would be taking the case to trial. She had wanted to post about her case but was advised against sharing it on social media. Last Wednesday, the same day an inquest opened into her death, her family released the message to the Eastern Daily Press. In it, Flack said she took responsibility for what happened that night, but said “it was an accident” and she was “not a domestic abuser”. Of course, we will never know the full story of that terrible night.
Since her death, many fingers have been pointed: at the tabloid media, for writing salacious articles about her in the aftermath of the alleged assault. At social media users, for sharing them (in one Instagram post following the allegations, she wrote “this kind of scrutiny and speculation is a lot […] for one person to take on their own”). But also at Love Island bosses, for replacing Flack with Laura Whitmore. And at the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) – Flack’s management accused prosecutors of pushing ahead with a “show trial”, pointing out that Burton did not want the case to go forward. But the CPS can’t drop abuse cases at the requests of victims. For years campaigners have been working to ensure the power to take legal action is not left at the will of the victim, who may often be emotionally unable to press charges against someone they love or once loved, or who is under pressure from their abuser to stay quiet. This law is in place to protect both female and male victims suffering at the hands of complex domestic abuse.
From the tabloid mistreatment to the online hounding that led to a woman at the top of her prime unable to cope, it seems her legacy will be about kindness. “To paparazzi and tabloids looking for a cheap sell, to trolls hiding behind a keyboard – enough,” Whitmore said through tears on her BBC Radio 5 Live show. Flack’s death caused us all to start asking deep, searching questions of ourselves – and each other. How do we treat people, particularly women, in the public eye? Do we like cruel jibes about people on social media? Do we click on stories in the ‘sidebar of shame’? Do we gossip? Do we enjoy the downfall of others?
Ending the culture of cruelty
If this is the beginning of a national kindness movement, it’s long overdue. Recent months have seen Jameela Jamil, Katie Price and Meghan Markle subjected to huge amounts of scrutiny. Accepting the Best International Female award at last week’s Brits, Billie Eilish spoke about how online trolls had made her feel “hated”. Cruelty is sadly a key tenet of our celebrity culture but it’s not just those we consider traditional celebrities who face abuse. A worrying number of female MPs stood down at the last election – many of them cited social media abuse as a key factor. “Death and rape threats are a daily occurrence for women MPs […] I am not surprised that many women are leaving politics,” said Leeds West MP Rachel Reeves on Twitter.
Why does our society build people up, only to tear them down? “Some people do it for fun,” says Professor Wanda Cassidy of Simon Fraser University in Canada. “Others simply enjoy hurting people – especially if there are no repercussions in doing so, because you’re part of an anonymous online crowd.” Low self-esteem is also a factor. “There’s a lot of research to show that bullying behaviour has a lot to do with power and control,” adds Cassidy. “People who feel they don’t have control over their own lives take back control by ripping others apart.”
But there are psychological consequences of having to deal with this level of scrutiny. “Our brains are hardwired to believe what we see,” says psychotherapist Anna Mathur. “What you see on a screen, you see as fact – even if it’s opinion.” So if someone is already struggling with their mental health, they may not have the resilience to cope with an online savaging. “When you’re depressed, low and anxious, things that you might have been able to talk through become a lot more powerful and louder,” Mathur adds. “If you are feeling vulnerable, you project what you see. Say you have 1,000 supportive comments on social media for every negative one. If you’re feeling depressed, you’ll focus on the negative one, because it affirms what you already believe to be true for yourself.”
A petition to introduce Caroline’s Law has amassed more than 770,000 signatures so far. It calls for government legislation that would make it a criminal offence, similar to corporate manslaughter, for the British media to relentlessly dive into someone’s personal life and harass them to the point where they take their own life. But the sugary dopamine hit of signing a petition, then promptly forgetting all about it, won’t create meaningful action. If we want to stop cruel articles appearing about celebrities online, we need to change our online behaviour. “The reason we’re all so touched by Flack’s death is because, on some level, we realise we have blood splatters on our hands,” says Mathur.
Reading this, you might think your hands are clean – that you’ve never trolled anyone. But if you’ve ever scrolled the ‘sidebar of shame’ on your lunch break, you’ve fed the beast. As Stylist’s executive digital editor, Felicity Thistlethwaite, explains, “Digital editors look at the most clicked stories of the day and then try to ensure more clicks tomorrow. If you always click negative stories on female celebrities, there will be a team of reporters trying to find more dirt on another celebrity to make you click again.”
The power of clicks
It goes without saying that influencers and individuals follow the same pattern on social platforms. Like or share a tweet or an Instagram post and you’re essentially asking for more. It’s an uncomfortable truth, but a necessary one: we are all complicit. You may not have been the one to go and doorstep a dead celebrity’s parents, or invade their privacy with a long-range camera lens, but “we clap with our clicks,” says Mathur. “We’ve forgotten the power we have in our hands when we are scrolling and clicking. Social media gets under your skin. You become what you fill yourself with.”
Of course, not all media outlets are bad: many report accurately and responsibly. Stylist has a policy of only covering celebrity stories that they have in some way personally verified, or by supporting famous women who are being vilified in other media. At the other end of the spectrum, Emily Coxhead’s The Happy Newspaper only publishes positive stories from around the globe. “Very rarely is the ‘good’ that celebrities do ever heard about, let alone celebrated,” says Coxhead. “We need more celebrating, more cheering and more acts of kindness in this world that is so quick to tear us down, rather than lift us up.”
So, how can we create a kinder society? “With more ‘cyber kindness’, where you think about the needs of the other person and attempt to meet those needs by using supportive and positive vocabulary, rather than negative,” says Cassidy, who is also one of the world’s only cyber-kindness experts. This training would start in schools. “Every school has courses in literature and communication. Why not have sessions in the curriculum on how to use tech in positive ways? That way, over time, it will become normalised.”
She also argues that regulators need to impose tougher obligations on social media providers to stamp out abuse. Just last week, tech giant Facebook said it wants to work with governments on “new rules for the internet” and published a set of recommendations for online content regulation. It’s a step in the right direction and, beyond this, Cassidy credits Australia as an example of a country that has got it right by introducing an eSafety Commissioner responsible for ensuring the safety of all Australians online.
It’s relatively easy to be kind to people who share the same views as you. But a truly radical theory of kindness extends to everyone – and not just online. It means not sneering at your Brexit-voting relatives, but trying to understand their point of view. Being compassionate to the friend who flakes on you all the time because she is depressed and can’t get out of bed.
Although being kind is sometimes seen as weak, or associated with pushovers who can’t stand up for themselves, it’s worth considering that kindness is actually in our nature. “Humans are a social species; we rely on other people to survive and thrive,” says Dr Oliver Scott-Curry of KindLab, a research institute dedicated to exploring kindness in all its forms. “Kindness is a way of plugging into that support system and creating mutually beneficial relationships that make us feel good.”
Science backs this up too. Dr Scott-Curry tells me about a 2008 research study from Harvard Business School and the University of British Columbia. Scientists recruited participants, who were each given between $5 and $20 to spend on either themselves, or another member of the public. They found that the people who spent the money on someone else reported higher levels of happiness, compared with the people who spent the money on themselves.
“If you give people an excuse to be kind to each other, people like it more than they expect,” explains Scott-Curry. “They underestimate the value of kindness.” The KindLab team wanted to test this theory on a grander scale, so they recruited 691 people to carry out a week-long study into human kindness. After a week, they checked back in with their participants. All of those who performed acts of kindness reported improved wellbeing, happiness, compassion and connection with other people. And the more they engaged with the project, the better they felt.
As we know, being kind can also save a life. Lots of us remember ‘The stranger on the bridge’ story, where Jonny Benjamin who, aged 21, stood on Waterloo Bridge preparing to jump – and it was the kindness of a passing stranger who persuaded him that life was worth living. “When we’re kind to someone, we’re saying, ‘I see you and apply value to you,’” explains Mathur. “It’s an act of acknowledging someone’s worth, and that’s the most powerful thing about it… often when people are depressed do not feel worthy of living or love. When someone shows kindness to that person who’s feeling low, they’re saying, ‘I see something in you that you may not see in yourself.’”
So, how can we create active kindness on a wider scale? Through the small actions, says Dr Scott-Curry. “There’s no great masterplan of kindness policy,” he laughs, adding we don’t have to donate a kidney or sponsor an orphan to be kind. “What we suggest is that people experiment with kindness in their own day-to-day lives. Start small, by saying hello to the homeless person outside your supermarket, or learning the name of your bus driver. Although this doesn’t sound like much, our research shows that even the smallest acts of kindness can have a big difference.”
And there are organisations trying to create a kinder society. Since it launched in 2013, charity 52 Lives has grown into a global network of 100,000 people showing kindness, from buying teeth for a man in Alabama to making video messages in support of a child being bullied. The seeds of a kindness movement have been germinating for some time: the first Random Act of Kindness Day launched in 2005, and celebrated its 15th anniversary only last week. Of course, it’s relatively easy to be nice to strangers for just one day every year. Getting that idea to stick takes more work.
After a tragedy, there’s always a period of reflection – for a while. And then the world keeps turning, people go back to their lives and shrug on old habits like familiar friends. If we want kindness to be a movement, not a moment, we have to take action now. Which means embracing those small steps and making an effort to do better by each other, day by day. Let’s all keep the #BeKind impetus going.
If you need to talk to someone you can call the Samaritans free, any time, from any phone on 116 123 or email firstname.lastname@example.org
Five steps to a kinder world
Put an end to kindness blindness
You might think that being kinder means a lot of work, but it really shouldn’t be. “We all do kind things all the time without even thinking about it,” says David Jamilly, founder and CEO of Kindness UK. “Smiling at strangers, making tea for coworkers, listening to a friend who is having a tough time – they all count.” When you think of it like this, undertaking more acts of kindness seems less daunting, so make a resolution to add another beyond what you usually do.
Sneak it in your schedule
Weaving acts of kindness around your everyday activities can help make them stick, says Jamilly. Popping into Pret for lunch? Pick up an extra sandwich for someone who will need it. Commuting in rush hour? Take a moment to look around – Jamilly thinks busy stations are the perfect place to sharpen your awareness of others and perform practical acts of kindness, as there is always someone who needs help with heavy luggage or needs a seat more than you.
Always pay it forward
We’ve all succumbed to ‘sidebar of shame’-style clickbait before, but if we really want to be kinder, it’s time to give damaging media up for good. “As we move deeper into a virtual world, we need positive actions and support from individuals, not just media platforms, to display kindness,” says Jamilly. After all, he explains, content is driven by engagement, so if you don’t read it, it’s less likely to get written. The result? A kinder media, and kinder world.
Do not feed the trolls
Recognising other people’s kindness can have a ripple effect, says Jamilly. “Thanking someone for a kind action can act as an unconscious psychological trigger, encouraging them to be kind again.” Gill Hasson, author of Kindness: Change Your Life And Make The World A Kinder Place , agrees. “Kindness is contagious. Experiencing, seeing or hearing about it inspires people to also do something kind.” So if you see it, pass it on.
Undertake a decency audit
Yes, the trolls are in residence, but social media can also be a platform for mass kindness – each #PrayFor hashtag proves that. So ask yourself, how many of your interactions are positive? “Kindness is not just about what you do, it’s also about what you don’t do,” says Hasson. “Before you post something on social media, ask yourself: ‘Is it true? Is it necessary? Is it kind?’ If it’s not at least two of these, then keep quiet.” Words to live by.