“In a world where you can be anything, be kind.” These are the words that Caroline Flack wrote on Instagram weeks before she took her own life in 2020. When the news of the 40-year-old’s death was released, just before she was due to face trial for the alleged assault of her boyfriend, her words instantly went viral. #BeKind began trending, thousands of her fans spread the importance of her message, and dozens of fellow celebrities lent their faces to the movement.
Today, a year on from her tragic death, #BeKind is trending again. In a way, it hasn’t really stopped. Over the last year, the #BeKind message has found its way onto T-shirts, mental health websites, the John Lewis Christmas ad, and thousands of people’s social media feeds across the world.
The hashtag #BeKind was originally created back in 2017 by Lucy Alexander, a mother who lost her son to suicide and wanted to raise awareness about the horrific impact of online trolling – something that Flack was also subjected to. Her death last year led to the hashtag’s revival, as well as mass media coverage of the #BeKind message.
But, has anything really changed since then? It’s undoubtedly heart-warming to see so many people talking about the importance of kindness, particularly when the hashtag has also been used for the very practical purpose of raising money for mental health charities, but a year on, are we any kinder?
‘The message seems to be forgotten,’ writes one Twitter user, in a sentiment that is being expressed repeatedly on social media today. ‘[Flack’s] death started the #bekind trend,’ says another. ‘Did it last? No, it did not. Newspapers still think it’s okay to tear down strong women.’ Many are referencing examples of tabloids mocking Meghan Markle’s pregnancy announcement, even in light of the fact she recently spoke out about the agony of suffering a miscarriage. ‘A year since #CarolineFlack and yet our media still continue to do this,’ writes one woman. ‘The #BeKind movement didn’t last long.’
It’s undeniable that women in the public eye, from Flack in the months before her death to Markle at every stage since her engagement to Prince Harry, are subjected to behaviour that can only be described as unkind by both the media and online trolls. Flack’s death is not the only tragedy to raise awareness to this – it happened in 1997 with Princess Diana, Whitney Houston in 2012, and with Love Island’s Sophie Gradon suicide in 2018 – and sadly, little has really changed.
But while the #BeKind message doesn’t seem to have changed the way the media treats strong women on a mass basis, it has reached millions of individuals. On Instagram alone, it has been used over 9.9 million times. Professor Robin Banerjee, head of psychology and director of Kindness Research at Sussex University, recognises that creating a ‘kindness culture’ isn’t easy. But he believes that any campaign promoting kindness has plenty of merit, and #BeKind has certainly promoted kindness to millions – something he feels the world is particularly receptive to now.
“The focus on kindness seems to be resonating with people more than ever before in the context of the Covid-19 pandemic,” he says, referencing the example of the virtual Kindfest festival that took place on World Kindness Day on 13 November last year, was opened by Captain Sir Tom Moore, and was attended by 6,000 people from 38 different countries.
“Seeing thousands of people logging in from all around the world with a common interest in kindness was really inspiring. I think it relates to rapidly growing evidence of the strong connections between kindness and well-being (not only for the recipient of kindness, but for the giver too).”
The benefits of kindness are clear, and tragedies like Flack’s death prove just how essential and urgent it is for our society to become kinder. Progress in some areas, like tabloids’ treatment of women, is sadly very slow. But the fact that the #BeKind message has been going strong now for a whole year now is inspiring. It proves that millions of people in the world are ready to start being kinder, and judging by the huge rise in volunteering and community efforts this year in the pandemic, change is already in action.
It might not be as fast as we want it, but as individuals, all we can do is clean up our side of the street and make sure that we’re being as kind as we want to be. It’s really that simple. We can’t control others or force mass change, but as Flack herself said all those months ago, in a world where you can be anything, why wouldn’t you choose to be kind?