Kindness matters – ask Ellen

If there’s one thing the Ellen DeGeneres mean-girl fiasco has reminded me of, it’s that kindness matters.

The soiled TV show host has been in the news again this week, this time for lying to guests on her hit program Ellen. Apparently she offered to pay the college tuition fees of a struggling female student who had been donating blood for six months just to get by. But instead of the college fees, the student received only a computer.

I am in no way dismissing this and other claims of nastiness made against DeGeneres – particularly of sexual harrassment by her producers towards junior staff. And I certianly don’t think she should be let off the hook to carry on in a way that seems to have offended many.

But, I am finding the collective scapegoat mentality towards DeGeneres increasingly unpalatable. I realise that as a celebrity – especially one who espouses kindness – DeGeneres rightly carries weighty expectations of being a role model. And, in a position of power, she does have a particular responsibility towards the more vulnerable – especially if she trots them out on her TV show.

But – newsflash – DeGeneres is certainly not the first, or last, celebrity to behave this way. She’s also not the first, or last, person in the world to (allegedly) act like a brat and stomp all over those around her – even those who say they are “good people”. So, in focussing so much on DeGeneres’ bad behaviour, I wonder if it’s serving to mask “the plank” in our own eyes?

It’s certainly interesting that our society seems so surprised to find a mean girl in our midst. After all, our schools are full of them.

It’s certainly interesting that our society seems so surprised to find a mean girl in our midst. After all, our schools are full of them. Unfortunately, this is particularly true in Australia.

One in four Aussie students experience bullying at school, according to research by various organisations, including Reach Out, Bullying No Way and Relationships Australia. An international report places Australia as a world-leader in bullying, with over a third of secondary school principals saying intimidation and bullying occurred at least weekly between students, compared with an OECD average of 14 per cent.

And, according to a study by McCrindle, the number of Australian students experiencing bullying may even be up to 60 per cent.

I have a kid who fits into that category. In Year 7, one of my daughters had her property taken, names called and was repeatedly ostracised by girls who she had been through primary school with. Eventually, she changed schools and all was going well until, another bout of bullying occurred this year – thankfully it was short-lived (so far) and her current school has been wonderfully proactive in dealing with it.

My point is, what does a generation of mean kids turn into? Mean adults!

Again, Australia almost takes out a medal in this category – ranking sixth highest for workplace bullying when compared with 31 European countries in a recent study.

When it comes to schoolyard bullying, some experts are linking the increase in this behaviour to a decrease in empathy among our children. Recent studies in the United States show a dramatic drop in empathy among US school children over the past two decades, alongside a dramatic increase in narcissism.

In contrast is Denmark, where empathy has been a compulsory part of the school curriculum since 1993.

In contrast is Denmark, where empathy has been a compulsory part of the school curriculum since 1993. Denmark has also been one of the happiest countries in the world for the past four decades – and in the top three for the past seven years, according to the UN’s World Happiness Report. It’s therefore not surprising that some are drawing a line (at least in part) between these classroom lessons in empathy and the overall happiness of people in the whole country.

While teaching empathy in schools may not be the entire solution to our meanness problem, it would certainly help. The fact is that until our culture changes, and empathy and compassion rate as more desirable achievements than getting to the top of the tree, we should not be surprised to find meanness in our midst.

And changing a culture is a task that begins by looking inwards – at our own households – not by pointing the finger at wayward celebrities in cyberspace. Although I’m sure by now, Ellen has been convinced about just how much kindness matters.

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