Mean spirits

‘I think it’s a bit mean-spirited,’ a colleague of mine said to me recently as she rightly explained why I should have another go at a piece I’d written about the differences between what my friends had told me I should expect from my first visit to an African country, and what I found when I did visit Tanzania. That piece, about a visit I made with the charity Tearfund earlier this summer, is still awaiting publication with a more generous tone, but in short I was mocking the way everyone in England had told me I’d be amazed by how happy everyone I met was, even though they had nothing. What I’d found in the poorest villages in the country that I visited were women who had lain awake at night listening to the rumbling tummies of the three children sharing their bed, worrying. Funnily enough, they weren’t happy. But my friends, my colleague reasoned, had meant well enough when they told me at dinner parties about what Africa was like. I was being a little unkind.

I’ve been thinking quite a lot about my mean-spirited first draft over the past few days as I’ve listened to various heated debates about the great, overwhelming issue of the day, which is of course whether or not someone should add a Tricolore filter to their Facebook profile photo.

On the one hand, this looks like the latest in a long line of no-make-up-selfies, #refugeeswelcome and Ice Bucket Challenges, where people make sure that they are the centre of attention (and looking suspiciously good while they’re at it) as they advertise their compassionate, thoughtful credentials with just the click of a button. Some go further, chiding all their friends on the social network for mourning deaths in Paris when they didn’t pause for thought about similar attacks in Beirut. It doesn’t seem to matter whether you had noticed the Beirut attacks yourself until someone else posted angrily about them on Facebook in the aftermath of the Paris massacre. It doesn’t even matter whether you actually bothered to check the coverage that news outlets had produced before claiming that they didn’t cover other attacks (or indeed whether you’d paused to think that the reason such attacks don’t get more prominence is that traffic statistics show that people just don’t bother reading the stories that are written). None of that matters: you, too, can show that you’re better than all the other ignorant people with whom you’re unfortunate enough to be friends. Perhaps one day they will be as enlightened as you, thanks to your wise cultivation of your Facebook profile.

But on the other hand, we have always offered small gestures to commemorate sad events. Why do we buy poppies in November? Why do we wear black to funerals? Or attend candlelit vigils? What about writing tributes to someone in the death notices of a newspaper, or on a plaque on a bench? Shouldn’t we fly flags at half mast or light beacons on the hills? Why not add a picture of the flag of a country in mourning to your Facebook profile?

When my friends on Facebook (though of course, it being Facebook, some of them aren’t really friends at all) started turning into French flags, I felt rather mean-spirited once again. It’s just virtue-signalling, I muttered to myself, recalling this rather amusing Daily Mash article about people feeling anxious that they’d removed the Pride filter from their Facebook profile photos too early and would now be considered homophobes. But then perhaps the enamel poppy I bought from a young soldier at Westminster Tube Station a few weeks ago was virtue-signalling, too.

Perhaps the reason I didn’t want to join in was that I thought I was rather better than everyone else, above their silly simple gestures to show that they were sorry that such a sad thing had happened. Perhaps I so loathe my own dismal jumble of motives for doing just about anything that I prefer to transpose all the bad ones onto other people, and judge them, rather than come to terms with the fact that I too am never wholly motivated by altruism.

James Bartholomew, who first wrote about ‘virtue-signalling’ in the Spectator, explained that it’s something you do to tell other people how great you are. That’s different to trying, imperfectly, to show that you’re sorry that something happened. Perhaps it’s the difference between writing a pompous blog about ‘why I’m not wearing a poppy this year’ and quietly buying one from someone at a station, or quietly not buying one at all.

Similarly, the difference, I think, between posting a picture of your face with no make up on for ‘breast cancer awareness’, and a little Tricolore over a photo, is that the former is all about you, all about your face, all about how brave you, a healthy individual who is possibly still wearing a little bit of concealer here and a small dash of mascara there, are to bare your face in public.

At least the #nomakeupselfie raised money for charity, though, while the #refugeeswelcome hashtag required no more effort than typing a tweet. You didn’t actually need to show how you’d make those refugees welcome, or indeed what you were already doing for those refugees who are already here and who often live quite miserable and lonely lives. Instead, you could just show people how great and altruistic you were without any of the difficulties of actually being altruistic. It’s funny that the truly altruistic people I know don’t bang on about it, partly because they realise that putting yourself out for someone else is often unglamorous, tiring, and inconvenient.

But when my copy was sent back to me recently for being too mean-spirited, I realised that just as there is nothing particularly admirable about trying to make every news event or sad story all about you, so there is nothing admirable about being so cynical that you see bad in everyone, all of the time. It’s certainly not a good trait for a journalist to cultivate. Of course we can’t go round giving everyone the benefit of the doubt — politicians would get away with many more stupid things than they already do if we did — but if we become so mean-spirited that we lose our empathy for others, then we can’t do our job very well either. It’s not just being able to understand how the single father of three children crammed into one tiny, mouldy flat feels when his benefits are being cut. It’s also trying to understand why a politician behaves the way he or she does. Why does Andy Burnham appear to passionately support contradictory views from hour to hour? Why does Jeremy Hunt want a fight with junior doctors? If we lose our empathy, then we lose our chance to understand why the people we write about act the way they do. We also lose our ability to be generous and forgive our friends for being as conflicted in their motives as we are. And that doesn’t do anyone any good.

I did add a flag to my own picture. It took a click. It doesn’t mean much or help anyone. But then neither does being mean-spirited.