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Jane Austen would agree: Err on the side of kindness

This column begins with Jane Austen, the English author of corseted drawing room romances who wrote anonymously and in secret out of a sense of propriety. A woman in Regency England simply did not bring public attention to herself.

Thanks, at least in part, to a petition campaign by feminist blogger Caroline Criado-Perez, Austen's face will appear on British paper money beginning in 2017, only the third woman to be so honored. The others are the Queen, of course, and prison reformer Elizabeth Fry, who is being rotated out in favor of Winston Churchill.

On the morning of the announcement, Ms. Criado-Perez felt a modest sense of pride. "We took on an establishment institution and won," she wrote in a horrific account of what happened next.

Her Twitter feed was immediately flooded — at the rate of one a minute at one point — with "vivid, graphic, horrific" threats of rape, torture and murder. I would repeat the threats here, but any decent editor would strike them.

She complained to Twitter's head of journalism and news, who responded by locking his own account and blocking Ms. Criado-Perez personally.

When Stella Creasy, a member of Parliament, came to her defense, she was targeted with similar threats, one of which included a picture of a masked man with a meat cleaver.

"Twitter tells me," Ms. Creasy wrote in the Observer, "we should simply block those who 'offend us' as though a rape threat is a matter of bad manners, not criminal behavior."

Meanwhile, journalists found Ms. Criado-Perez — knocking on her door at 10 p.m. on a Sunday night, no less, and scaring her half to death — and took up her cause. She was then accused of milking the situation for money and fame.

The next step, of course, was that she became the go-to interviewee "expected to hold forth on all the ills of the world.

"I must condemn people and acts on request, and if I don't … I am judged inadequate."

This is a familiar trajectory to those of us in the news business. But it is hugely ironic that this horrible public degradation of a women writer should come in the cause of Jane Austen, who published all her books under the appellation "By a Lady."

At this point, gentle reader (as Jane might have written), we take up the topic of author George Saunders' commencement address this graduation season at Syracuse University, which has gotten so much attention that it will soon be a book.

He began by saying that the only things worth talking to old people about are their regrets, and we might start telling you about them without you even asking. (I confess, I am doing a lot of that lately.)

There is a lot to choose from in his life, Mr. Saunders said, including the time he went swimming, naked and with his mouth open, in a river in Sumatra only to realize that hundreds of monkeys were pooping into it from the trees above. He, of course, became very ill.

No. Not even that compared to his regret over the many times he failed to be kind.

"It's a little facile, maybe, and certainly hard to implement," he told the graduates, "but I'd say, as a goal in life, you could do worse than: Try to be kinder."

The good news, he said, we automatically become kinder as we age — less selfish and more loving. This happens mostly because we no longer see ourselves as the center of the universe.

Since, he said, "your life is going to be a gradual process of becoming kinder and more loving: Hurry up. Speed it along. Start right now."

He urged them to do big things in life — travel, get rich, get famous, fall in love, make and lose fortunes. "But as you do, to the extent that you can, err in the direction of kindness."

I think you can see where I am going with this.

George Saunders is about to publish a slim volume making the case for kindness at a time when Noah's flood might be needed to wash away all the meanness in the world.

Susan Reimer's column appears on Mondays and Thursdays. She can be reached at susan.reimer@baltsun.com and @SusanReimer on Twitter.com.

Copyright © 2015, CT Now
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