I was watching The Today Show this morning, and they ran a story that I saw earlier last week, too, about Lindsay Lohan…and her teeth. Today showed a recent photo of Lohan with her teeth looking a bit unkept. I retrieved this photo easily simply by Googling “Lindsay Lohan teeth” (What does that say about our society, I wonder?) and I was going to link to it here until I realized that would be counterproductive to my point.

I’m not an opponent or proponent of Lindsay Lohan because I don’t know her having never met or spoken with her. I’ve only read/seen reports in the news about some of her actions and the consequences. But whether friend or foe, should anyone, really, be making a story out of someone’s unattractive teeth? I guess the point was that she is not healthy, but the end result was mostly just an exercise in being mean. “Let’s show the entire world this photo of someone not looking her best, not being perfect, not being a shining star!” Why? To bring that person down a notch or two in order to elevate ourselves?

Late last week Andy Woodworth took a Twitter poll asking followers to weigh in on the question of what words, terms, and phrases a librarian should never use with a library patron. While I believe Andy was looking for some serious responses this was, in part, meant to be all in good fun, tongue-in-cheek, not to be taken too seriously and most of the answers reflected that, but several of the responses were kind of mean. And while those mean answers were examples of things a librarian would never say to a patron, they were obviously indicative of some of the (mean) things those particular librarians would like to be able to say to people. I’ve been wondering if the innocent poll taker was surprised by some of those tweets.

And then there’s Facebook. Facebook is a wonderfully connective tool, and I love it. However, it is also an easy outlet for being mean to many people or groups of people at one time–“Republicans are all idiots.” “Democrats are so stupid.” “I hate so and so.” Haven’t we all cringed when we see certain statuses or posts or links or comments? Much like Twitter, Facebook provides a non-threatening environment in which to say things we would never (hopefully) say in “real” life.

Why is it so easy to be mean? And what good does it ever do? Sure there are people who don’t outwardly seem to be deserving of our kindness but being mean to (or about) those people probably only fuels much of what caused them to become insufferable to begin with and keeps the cycle alive.

I’m certainly not saying that I’ve never been mean (I have). I’ve been a participant in those conversations. You know the ones–the ones where you’re laughing and talking with friends and before you know it, you’re laughing and talking about others at their expense. Sometimes the funniest and most clever things you can say in a laughter-fueled conversation with friends are also the most mean-spirited. You tell yourself that you’re doing no harm because that person or those people are not listening to what’s being said about them. You’re not being mean to anyone directly. But if being kind only matters when you can be held accountable…

As I get older, the more I realize how easy it is to be mean. It takes much more effort and thought to be purposefully kind–it can be really difficult. But even if your kindness doesn’t pay off in some obvious or immediate way, there’s never a downside. You haven’t done or said anything to later regret; you haven’t harmed anyone; you haven’t been petty or cruel; you haven’t taken the easy way out. There is a certain art to being consistently kind because while it may be easy to say kind words when someone or something has made your day brighter, it takes some effort to say something positive that’s not patronizing, disingenuous, or gratuitous when you are trying to deflect or derail a toxic conversation.

I’m going to continue to work on the art of being kind. Instead of the presidential campaign, which is now underway and destined to become a benchmark for mean and ugly, I’d rather be looking forward to a year-long, nationwide kindness campaign. I vote for a kinder, gentler electorate. One that takes the high road and not the shortcut.

And now that I’ve gotten to the end of this post, I finally realized why I wrote it. I wrote it because all three of the examples I used (and many more that I can think of) have one thing in common–I did nothing to speak out against the meanness. I didn’t send an email to the Today Show expressing my dismay; I didn’t “tweet” to the Twitter poll that I thought some of the comments were mean-spirited; and when I see a mean post or comment on Facebook, I don’t tell the person that I think they are being mean. Instead, I remain silent and come to the safety of my blog to speak out in favor of kindness. That doesn’t take much courage, does it? It’s the easiest thing in the world to be honest in an open venue where you’re not accountable to anyone and you’re not calling someone out directly. And, yes, sometimes I find myself laughing at something that I know is intentionally mean. Yeah, there’s that, too.

Is that why it’s so easy to be mean? Because people like me let it go unchallenged? Does fear of sounding sanctimonious keep us from saying, “Wow. What you just said is really mean?” Especially if the person saying it is a family member, friend, or colleague? I don’t know. I guess being kind ourselves is a start, but perhaps real change will happen only when those of us who don’t like conflict or confrontation decide to engage in it when it really matters and to stop being kind about someone else being mean.