Be kind online, we may need it some time

My poor parents must have suffered in silence when I decided, in my youth, that I didn't care what people said about me. Not about some things, anyway. It's not that I was terribly wayward or anything, but it didn't take much in our straitlaced Asian society to set tongues wagging.

I figured it was nobody's business what I did as long as it didn't hurt anyone.

True that, but it occurred to me recently how my parents must have taken umbrage on my behalf when word got back to me about disparaging remarks being made of my teenage daughter. They were implied more than said outright, and made by one person, who lumped her with other kids, but it riled me nonetheless.

Who are you, I thought, to judge my child?

Of course, it wasn't as though I had never said mean things about other people's children before, so I resolved (again) not to be so cavalier with other people's feelings.

I just hope I'll have the willpower to be better than this person the next time her name - or her children's - comes up, though I doubt it.

The truth is, you'd have to be a saint never to have spoken ill of anyone or be spoken ill of. We put down co-workers, children, spouses, bosses and friends, with nary a thought, at the drop of a hat.

A child being mentored by a friend asked her last week if she had ever been in a situation when someone is nice to you but says bad things about you behind your back?

"Of course," said my friend. "And usually, it is more about the person, and his or her own issues, than it is about you."

Sadly, knowing this doesn't always save the day from being ruined. I have had hate mail from readers who told me I was an educated idiot, and if I had any friends, they were just pretending to like me. They upset me for days until I realised I didn't have to carry the weight of people who don't matter.

But the true cautionary tale is never to speak ill on the Internet, where you could be outed by a Facebook "friend" for your stupid, ill-judged remarks and then lynched by an outraged nation.

We have seen this happen in Singapore in recent times with a few individuals who said some very unwise things - under duress, perhaps, or out of a warped sense of humour - and then were demonised when their posts were spread by so-called friends.

They were publicly criticised by officials, stripped of their jobs and then harassed until they had to leave the country. It was nothing short of shameful.

If a crime has been committed, then it's up to the authorities to deal with it. Social media is a kangaroo court and self-styled vigilantes are just as culpable as the targets they have turned into victims.

By all means, direct your anger at organisations or public figures in power when they deserve it, but all private individuals - even racist or elitist snobs - deserve the protections to life and safety that you and I expect.

A few voices were raised to temper the feeding frenzy but, to our shame, mine included, not quite enough.

"The best lack all conviction while the worst are full of passionate intensity," wrote the Irish poet, W.B. Yeats.

In an essay she wrote for Vanity Fair this month, Monica Lewinsky talks about the casual cruelty with which she is still treated 15 years after she unwisely had an affair with US president Bill Clinton.

She is still tainted, whereas he has washed off the whiff of scandal. Without his formidable resources, his former intern has to put up with her name being bandied about as though it were not attached to a person with feelings.

She, too, was betrayed by a friend, who secretly taped her phone conversations with the president.

Today, there is far greater danger of having one's private unguarded moments broadcast to a wider audience than a prosecutor, and God knows, we all have moments we are not proud of.

More than ever, circumspection is crucial.

But even more important, I think - if we want a liveable and endearing home - is to breed respect and humility everywhere. Respect for other people's privacy and rights, and the humility to recognise that there but for the grace of God go I.

Kindness trumps sanctimony every time and every last one of us will need the kindness of strangers some time in our lives.

The writer watched the events mentioned from her home in Chapel Hill, North Carolina

This story was first published in The Straits Times on May 25, 2014

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