by the Ven Peter Leonard, Archdeacon of the Isle of Wight, Chair of One Body One Faith and Member of General Synod
In a world where you can be anything, be kind.
The death of the TV presenter Caroline Flack has once again turned the spotlight on mental health, the pressure put on celebrities particularly from some areas of the media and the way that media can be a force for good or ill.
A lawyer for her family has confirmed that the ex-presenter of ‘Love Island’ took her own life after her body was found at her home on Saturday 15th February. Caroline was in a relationship with Lewis Burton and there was an outstanding domestic abuse court case hanging over her, but on reading Twitter it seems much of the blame for her untimely death is being placed firmly at the feet of the tabloid press – The Sun and The Daily Mail in particular.
Celebrities are not superhuman. They are human beings like you or I and so any post which criticises, accuses or dehumanises them is painful. A continual barrage of this kind of abuse will have a significant impact on a person and mental health issues can occur together, tragically, with a person reaching breaking point.
Questions are being asked about the programme ‘Love Island’ itself. Two of the previous contestants have also taken their own lives, Sophie Gradon in 2018 and Mike Thalassitis in 2019.
I have never watched ‘Love Island’ and to be honest I was not even aware of who these three people were until the death of Caroline Flack this weekend and yet I am both saddened and connected to their deaths but more importantly bear some of the responsibility. We all do.
Saddened and connected because I am both a member of the society and of humanity of which they were part of. Their death in such tragic circumstances diminishes society and requires us to ask questions of ourselves. Responsible because perhaps there is a greater disease amongst us humans which makes us all responsible not just the tabloid press.
It is too easy to simply point the finger at The Sun and The Daily Mail and blame them. Yes, they are odious publications who seem intent on making those in the public eye as miserable as possible. Intent on stopping them from having even a semblance of a normal life. Yet huge numbers of people persist in buying and reading them and those people bear some responsibility too.
Millions of people tune into reality shows such as ‘Love Island’ and pass judgement on the presenters and participants. They are too fat or too skinny, they aren’t muscly enough, they are ugly or not as fit as people want and expect them to be. Viewers love the drama of infidelity and seeing someone who has been hurt by someone lash out at another.
Every one of us who watches a programme like that bears some responsibility.
It isn’t just TV programmes – we devour Instagram feeds passing comment from behind the anonymity of our smart phones, safe in the protection of our sofas and oblivious to the very real wounds that our comments can cause. We build people up to maintaining false lifestyles which we know in our hearts don’t really exist and which are both exhausting and deeply damaging to the self, only to knock them down when they fail to match our unrealistic expectations.
Every one of us who passes comment on another on social media bears some responsibility.
We may criticise the monsters of tabloid journalism, reality television and social media but we created them, and we continue to feed them until they grow to such a size that we can no longer control them. We bear some of the responsibility for the consequences of these monsters very existence.
So, what can we do? How do we even begin to go about defeating these monsters?
In a world where you can be anything, be kind.
It really is that simple.
Stop judging. Stop posting comments on another person’s appearance, on their height or weight or hair or face or clothes, either online or in reality. We have no idea what else is going on in their lives and our single comment might be the thing which pushes them too far.
Stopping doing it ourselves isn’t enough of course.
If we continue to purchase publications or fund websites that cruelly judge and comment, then it is as if we were still doing it ourselves. So do not go on blindly buying tabloid press that write things about people that you would not want written about yourself. Just don’t buy them. Buy another one, pay for a different website, fund a better way of being.
Stop watching programmes whose sole aim is to ridicule, make fun of or in any other way torment a fellow human being. If we don’t then we haven’t developed very far from the Romans throwing Christians to the lions or watching gladiators fight to the death.
It isn’t just in the virtual world that we need to do this either. Be kind in reality! Do it to the people you work alongside, your friends and families, the person who serves you in the supermarket, your fellow passenger on the train and bus and indeed everyone you meet.
Having just returned from General Synod it strikes me that the Church of England needs to do this as much as anyone else.
I need to do this.
Put away from you all bitterness and wrath and anger and wrangling and slander, together with all malice, and be kind to one another, tender-hearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ has forgiven you.