Emotions are contagious. If someone smiles at you, it’s hard not to smile back. And if someone barks in anger at you, well, you know yourself.
The contagious power of emotions – especially negative emotions – is obvious on social media, particularly Twitter. Things can get nasty on Twitter; people say all kinds of things they would never say in face-to-face conversations. One person disagrees with another, things get heated as others join in to defend their friend, insults get hurled and the contagion spreads. Soon enough, it’s no longer enough to say the other person is wrong or misguided – s/he is a bigot, a scumbag, a loathsome person who should rot in Hell.
I’m exaggerating, but only slightly. Social media can be ugly, with people seemingly forgetting they’re hurling insults at a real person with real feelings. It was refreshing, then, to read about a recent case in America where the opposite happened, where one person responded to harsh words with kindness and compassion, setting in train a life-changing series of events.
Alabama man Michael Beatty, 65, got irritated after reading a negative tweet from comedian and actor Patton Oswalt criticising Donald Trump. In a knee-jerk reaction, Beatty sent Oswalt two tweets, poking fun at his height and saying he enjoyed watching a movie character played by the actor 'die so horribly'.
Oswalt responded with a joke of his own but then scrolled through Beatty’s tweets, where he learned the pensioner had serious health issues and massive medical bills. 'This dude just attacked me on Twitter and I joked back but then I looked at his timeline and he's in a lot of trouble health-wise,' Oswalt tweeted to his millions of followers. 'I'd be pi**ed off too. He's been dealt some s***** cards – let's deal him some good ones. Click and donate – just like I’m about to'. Oswalt donated $2,000 to Beatty's GoFundMe account and his generosity produced a cascade effect, with one act of kindness followed by another. Soon, almost $50,000 had been donated, while others offered words of encouragement.
A stunned Michael Beatty replied: 'Patton. You have humbled me to the point where I can barely compose my words. You have caused me to take pause and reflect on how harmful words from my mouth could result in such an outpouring'.
'I realised that knee-jerk reactions to things [are] not the way to go,' said Beatty in a subsequent interview on National Public Radio (NPR). He was in bad place when he wrote those angry tweets, he said, angry at himself for letting his health deteriorate. 'It was easy to snap back and snarl.' It was, he added, 'harsh, uncalled for, embarrassing'. The empathy shown to him changed him. Politics divides people but one on one, 'people are caring, generous, helpful'. His anger has faded. He used to have serious road rage, but now will wave people in if someone wants to move into his lane. 'I have changed'.
It’s a powerful story. Michael Beatty learned important lessons, but so did the people who took Patton Oswalt’s advice. All too often, social media sees people respond to one insult with another, whipping themselves up in a lather of indignation, asserting their moral superiority over the other. It can feel good to do so. After all, when you condemn another person, you are implicitly saying you are different, wiser, better. In the long term, however, this leads to cynicism, bitterness and division.
It’s important to remember holding a particular set of beliefs does not make you better than someone else. It’s also important to remember that even when someone else is behaving in a way you genuinely consider to be wrong, that all kinds of emotions – hurt, anger, disappointment – may be underlying their behaviour. We don’t know what’s going in on other people’s private worlds, we really don’t.
Patton Oswalt made the choice – and remember, we always have a choice as to how we respond – to suspend judgment. He chose to see the person who penned those insulting words was a real person going through a tough time. He chose to be kind – and that kindness spread, changing lives as it did so.