Today Ben very kindly took Joshua, the apple of my eye and source of my sleep deprivation, to Sainsbury's whilst I had an afternoon nap. After waking up, I got myself a cup of tea and watched a couple of episodes of Jon and Kate plus 8; I learned about this programme from a fantastic blog called Stuff Christians Like that I read daily (and whose praises I'll sing at greater length in another post), and after reading that the "plus eight" consists of eight children - twins followed by sextuplets - I decided it was worth tuning in to see how they manage with such an enormous family, and whether or not Kate can survive on an eighth of the sleep I am currently getting.
Jon and Kate Gosselin are a Christian couple living in America who underwent fertility treatment twice in order to conceive, and refused to undergo selective termination when a scan carried out during their second pregnancy revealed that six babies were expected. They ended up signing a contract with the American TV channel TLC to have their daily comings and goings filmed, with the slogan "It might be a crazy life, but it's our life" repeated at the beginning of each episode before allowing viewers to peek into their neat and tidy house, watch them celebrating birthdays, go on excursions with them and hear Jon and Kate being interviewed about their unusual and busy domestic setup. Of course, it's reality TV, but if you're interested in parenting and lots of children and family life and Christian values and domesticity, keeping up with the adventures of the Gosselins seems a nice way to pass a half hour if you have one to spare.
Unfortunately Jon and Kate have just announced that they are planning to divorce, and since they are now media megastars, every tiny detail is currently being chewed over and commented upon by all and sundry in the American press and blogosphere. The alleged extramarital activities of both are being breathlessly discussed, glossy magazines are filled with photos of Kate holidaying without Jon and Jon partying without Kate, and Kate in particular is being criticised for everything from her hairdo to her controlling manner. Our British equivalents are people like Kerry Katona, Katie Price and Kate McCann - all have suffered recent family hardship, and all have been lambasted loudly in the media by those who are waiting to sit in judgement and are gleeful when an opportunity arises to pounce on someone.
If you visit any newspaper's website, there is a section entitled "Comment" where intelligent and articulate journalists do just that in abundance upon a variety of topics. After Jade Goody died, there was a flurry of Comments - some were kind, some weren't, some were patronising and most were highly (and sometimes unnecessarily) complex in their analysis of Goody's significance within modern popular culture. And if you look at the bottom of almost every article published on Times Online or www.dailymail.co.uk or any other national news source, you too will be given the opportunity to Comment. "Why not add your thoughts below?" we are urged. Depending upon how controversial the article is, or how unusual the circumstances of the people featured might appear, you can then join a queue to have your opinions made widely known upon whichever subject takes your fancy or provokes wrath inside you.
Now I am all for free speech and making one's voice heard and standing up for what you believe. But in many, many cases these "Comment" / "Have Your Say" forums become places where people read an article and then post an immediate and sometimes violent gut reaction, whether or not it has been thoughtfully constructed or reflected upon at any length. So the woman who has recently given birth for the first time aged 60-something can look forward to having the first precious days and weeks of her baby's life displayed in the media not only for public viewing but also for public judgement. Is having a baby at her age "right" or "wrong"? We must feel free to decide the answer, and then to let everyone else in the world know what we think! An enormous online argument often then ensues, with people copying and pasting excerpts from each others' comments into their own contributions, and commenting upon not only the news story but also someone else's opinion about it. If someone's post is spelled poorly or contains bad grammar or lacks logic or it seems as if they didn't read the article properly before sharing their thoughts, the counter-commenters are usually even more gleeful in their subsequent put-downs. There exist some forums where the same people come back to comment time and again and the place turns into either one big in-joke or a virtual boxing ring as a result. And all these comments are pretty much anonymous, since identifying yourself as "Sophie, Nottingham" or "Nature Lover, Sussex" isn't terribly illuminating. It's incredibly easy to tell millions of people what you think and how you feel about the choices and actions of people you have never met, after learning only a fraction of the full story. As someone once said, a little knowledge can be a dangerous thing, because it's possible to become complacent and smug and to sit up there on your high horse, congratulating yourself for not being as stupid or selfish or careless or just plain wrong as the person you've just read about.
Presumably very few of us would publicly air negative opinions about a friend or family member or colleague with quite the same alacrity, probably choosing the diplomatic route instead to avoid rocking the boat or provoking a return tirade of criticism. So why is it okay to judge and comment upon those who we've never met yet can still access - and be affected by - our opinions? I think a lot of people would claim that they spoke out against someone like Kate McCann and her husband Gerry (whose daughter Madeleine went missing after being left asleep in bed in an unlocked apartment on holiday and who was very probably abducted, though nothing has ever been proved) because a) they deserve everything they get for leaving three children alone whilst they enjoyed tapas and wine in a nearby restaurant, b) they became ubiquitous in the year following Madeleine's disappearance, were rarely out of the press and some people became irritated by their high-profile media campaign to find their daughter, and c) because if enough people criticise what they did, perhaps other parents will think twice about leaving their children alone in case the same thing happens to them.
Now some people, journalists and otherwise, have written very supportively and kindly about the McCanns over the past three years. But the levels of venom directed at them from others was absolutely staggering, and their critics would always cite one or more of reasons a), b) and c) to justify themselves. They didn't seem to realise a) that if the McCanns were guilty of a criminal offence, they would be punished appropriately by the force of the law, and that whether or not this was the case, they would still be paying a heavy price for leaving Madeleine alone for every day of their lives unless she was found safe and well, b) that if they didn't want to read about the developments in the story they did not need to do so, and c) that there can't be a parent in the country who would now leave their children alone and go out for a meal after what happened to that little girl, and nobody needs to point the dangers out to the rest of the nation - this very sad case has spoken for itself. So all of those three "reasons" for speaking out against the McCanns are nullified and no commentary is necessary. They are visibly devastated by what happened and would clearly give anything to turn the clock back. In this country we are innocent until proven guilty, so speculation regarding their own possible involvement in Madeleine's disappearance is entirely pointless. Yet so many people positively delighted in their tragic misfortune, when instead they could, as fellow human beings, sent messages of compassion, encouragement and hope to this desperate pair. Which is probably the very thing that we would all appreciate if something similar happened to us, whereas the constant airing of strangers' disapproval and criticism could be the very thing to send us over the edge into total despair. Walking a mile in Gerry and Kate McCann's shoes would certainly teach their detractors a valuable lesson, but it very rarely happens that someone stands up and says "I was wrong, and I was unnecessarily unkind, and I take back all that I said."
There is a very fine line between expressing concern for a situation or a person and feeling a superior sense of satisfaction every time someone else's life gets messed up by their own hand. Those who are genuinely concerned for Madeleine McCann's whereabouts could have donated money or campaigned or prayed or helped to comb Praia de Luz looking for her. Criticising her parents serves no purpose whatsoever, except that it provides cheap entertainment for others, which cannot possibly be worth the additional pain simultaneously inflicted upon the McCanns. No one has any idea what really went on in the Gosselin marriage. We just think we do because they star in a reality TV show and offer some aspects of their lives up for public consumption. Why do we consider ourselves qualified to comment upon whether Jon is henpecked by Kate or whether the pair of them are simply fame- and money-hungry or whether their eight children are being exploited or whether they could have tried harder to save their marriage? And why does our opinion matter, unless there is something we can actually do or contribute to salvage and help the situation? I believe it doesn't matter, and we shouldn't offer it purely for the sake of commenting. If we are especially articulate in doing so, or make a hitherto unnoticed point, we may win applause and appreciation for ourselves, but it will be superficial and hollow. It is so much better to build up than to tear down.
Ultimately we should ask ourselves if what we are about to say is true, helpful and kind. It has been said that if we can't answer "yes" to two out of those three questions, then what we have to contribute is redundant and unnecessary. I am certainly not suggesting that we should blindly agree with everything that everyone does, but rather that we could, myself most definitely included, leap to a hasty judgement of a situation a lot less often. It has been particularly bewildering to see how many Christians have waded in with both feet to heap a good telling-off on both Gosselins for their alleged marital unfaithfulness and to disassociate themselves with this brother and sister in Christ because of their sinful behaviour. As sinners saved by grace, they shuld be the last to cast stones but are sometimes the first, which frankly doesn't help the reputation of Christians (though that's another issue). "They got what they deserved" should be a sentence that never passes the lips of a Christian, given that we believe none of us get what we truly deserve in the way of judgement. It is perfectly possible to acknowledge that Kate and Jon Gosselin have done a seemingly excellent job in raising eight apparently well-behaved children thus far (with the increased likelihood of divorce hanging over the head of all parents of multiples, great blessings though they are) whilst also learning from their sad situation and perhaps altering our own behaviour for the better in the process, without needing to gossip amongst ourselves about how they brought their misfortunes on themselves. Good news and kind words might not sell papers, but they certainly make the world a better place.