Nice is an energy

I’ve thought about writing a lot of posts recently about all the online toxicity about, but none of them seem adequate or appropriate. Alan Levine asks if the Party is Over. I read Kate Bowles lovely article on kindness and it resonated with what I wanted to say. I am deeply aware that this post will come across as weak, dippy, inadequate. But here goes.

Amidst all this anger, vitriol and nastiness, what is the appropriate response? I think that depends on who you are. For my own mental wellbeing I really can’t enter the bearpit of confrontation or disappear down wormholes of anger. I really get that some people feel this is what you have to do, but trust me, I can’t. So my response seems like a lack of response, a big meh. But it’s not. My approach is to be nice to others. Kindness, respect, politeness in my general tone online. Nice is a political statement too.

Identity theory suggests we form our own identity by a sense of belonging, or ‘we-ness’. If the community is one of nice people, then those are the attributes you adopt if you wish to belong. Similarly, Kelty talks of ‘recursive publics’, which he defines as ‘a public that is constituted by a shared concern for maintaining the means of association through which they come together as a public’. The wellbeing of each other can be shared concern. We can help create the environment we want.

Nice/kind/polite are often portrayed as passive, but they’re not. They take effort. Being angry is easy. They needn’t be bland either – you can be funny, you can disagree with someone, offer criticism, put over a strong point of view, etc. But you can be respectful when you do it. Of course, being nice is no response if you’re the direct victim of online vitriol. I mean for the rest of us, actively being kind is the long-term way to defeat it. For every nasty tweet you read, do five random tweets of kindness.

I don’t know if it’s enough if I’m honest, vitriol has a way of contaminating everything else. And I’m also aware it’s probably a luxury afforded to me in a privileged position. But niceness is the best weapon I’ve got. And I think it’s undervalued.


  • AJ Cann

    It’s not just online. Listen to the comments on R4Today this morning about blame culture, stress and staff welfare in the NHS. Also apples to education. Online is only a microcosm of our society.
    In a weird way, that’s a good thing. it means that online has grown up.
    All we need to do now is fix society.

    • admin

      Thanks Sheila. I agree, nice is actually how things get done. I think you’re naturally nicer than me – I’m 50% nice, 50% curmudgeonly misanthrope, so I have to work at it. But I feel it’s perceived as a default option, against which other emotions work rather than a state in its own right which we work at.

  • Kate Bowles

    Hi Martin

    Thanks so much for the link.

    I’ve been really thinking since I wrote the post about community that it feels like others also want care to be openly valued and robustly practiced. It’s not a weakness at all. My activist colleague in writing about casualisation, the lovely @acahacker, calls this “fierce kindness”. Is this the sort of thing you have in mind?

    Since Richard Hall’s professorial thing last month I have been thinking hard about his idea of latency in networks. Just what is the nature of the energy that’s available to be released from highered for better purpose? and what does the professoriate have to do with this? Richard’s work this year has taught me so much about mental health. Having been working in a very difficult profession for a longer time, those at higher levels really have to manage mental health in leadership, which is different from trying to sustain mental health in the precarity. We all need to listen generously to the stories of impact.

    So I feel no one wins when we have to take sides, instead of taking care of one another. The question of what edtech has to do with gamergate (as well as many others) can partially be answered by what you say here, I think. That among other responses we bring a rigorous and evidence-based sense of practice to the question: how to act, how to choose, how to review and regroup.

    Such a useful post, thank you.

    • admin

      Hi Kate, thanks for the comment and your original post which sparked it off. I like the idea of ‘fierce kindness”. I must admit I haven’t really thought it through to the extent that you or Richard have, but I had a sense that sometimes being generally positive is seen as an absence of engagement, because it’s not talking about topic X, but actually we don’t know what that person’s motivation might be. I am making a more deliberate effort just to respond and be nice to others online, in the (probably misguided) belief that we can help create the cultural norms we want. Does it bother trolls if I’m nice? No, but over time, maybe it helps shape the environment so that people normalise.

  • Kate Bowles

    Not knowing what a person’s motivation might be makes me think about David Foster Wallace’s beautiful This is Water: choose what to pay attention to, choose how to think of it, choose to accept that the other people in the scene with you have their own hidden stories and that you don’t know what you don’t know. I go back to this again and again.

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