Over the last week or so, a couple of stories have come together, to get me thinking about our relations with each other, generally.
First, I read a thought-provoking article by Angela Gifford, in which she laments the way in which people who receive care in their own homes find that even if they are conscientiously cared for, the carers won't do anything that isn't on the plan, however obviously it needs doing. For example, no one would leave a vase of dead flowers on the table in their own home, yet most care workers – even if they have a few minutes to spare – won't think to throw them away, or to wipe up some spilt tea on the tabletop, or even put clingfilm over the sandwiches they have made for lunch, so that they will still be palatable when they are eaten four hours later. None of these tasks are included on the care plan, so they don't get done.
Then, there is the ongoing debate about "trolls", who lurk around social networking sites, forums and bulletin boards, anonymously posting vicious comments about people they dislike or disagree with. It seems that nobody is safe from the attentions of these individuals, who can, astonishingly, come up with nasty things to say about people who are ill; who have committed suicide; who are accident victims. The mindset that allows one to attack in circumstances where compassion is surely the only reasonable reaction, is quite chilling.
And in their different ways, these two examples seem to me symptomatic of the same problem: an inability to empathise with others, to "put yourself in their shoes" and imagine how you would feel if the positions were reversed. We are, of course, looking at opposite ends of a spectrum: the visiting carer is guilty of nothing more than thoughtlessness, whereas one must assume that anyone spreading hate on the internet intends their words to wound, and presumably derives some satisfaction from the knowledge that they are hurting others.
Though interestingly, when Sports Illustrated's Jeff Pearlman decided that he was fed up with anonymous cyber abuse, and tracked down and confronted some of the people who had been posting nasty comments about him, he received apologies, expressions of shame and guilt. One person said he hadn't meant to hurt Pearlman, but "the internet got the best of me".
So perhaps the two types of behaviour are not so far apart after all: maybe cyber bullies do feel remorse when faced with the consequences of their actions, and it is simply the fact that the medium protects them, by conferring anonymity, that enables them to carry on doing what they do without thought.
I hope that is the case, because the one thing we all need, if the Big Society is going to hold us together and ensure care for those of us who are most vulnerable, is a powerful ability to see others as people just like us, and to provide for them the compassion and support that we hope will come our way when we need it in our turn.