We can all do our bit to make 2017 a calmer, kinder year

Wayne Ingram and Stefan Savic
Former soldier, Wayne Ingram raised £140,000 to transform the face and future of Stefan Savic, a Bosnian boy he met 13 years ago Credit: John Stillwell/PA

The take-off for 2017 feels a bit like buckling your seatbelt for a new flight, shortly after disembarking from one which featured long patches of unexpected turbulence, raging arguments between the passengers and moments when it felt as if the entire crew had disappeared from sight along with the pilot.

As the engine thrums, there is an air of hoping for the best. More than that, I think – with the continuing feeling of uncertainty at the top - many people seem determined to take an active part themselves in making this year a calmer, kinder one. Travelling on the Tube in London, I have rarely noticed so many shy little acts of courtesy.

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2016 was notable for many things, but prominent among them was the widespread disintegration of polite public discourse. In the UK, the Brexit debate led to levels of political acrimony that were unprecedented for most people (save those of us who grew up in Northern Ireland, or who had just come through the heated referendum on Scottish independence.)

When the immediacy of Twitter and Facebook collided with political passion, it resulted in an explosion of accusations and expletives between Leavers and Remainers in which both sides thrilled to the unleashing of insults. On broader ground, the intemperate language of the hard left mirrored that of the alt-right.

2016 was notable for many things, but prominent among them was the widespread disintegration of polite public discourse

In the US, the presidential candidate Donald Trump mocked the speech patterns and movements of a disabled reporter, was caught on an old tape bragging about grabbing women by the crotch, and tagged his opponent “Crooked Hillary”. This form of discourse eagerly beckons the other side to join in. Clinton damaged her own campaign by dismissing half of Trump’s supporters as “a basket of deplorables.”

After Trump won, the writer Aaron Sorkin – the creator of the West Wing – wrote a passionate but somewhat cringe-inducing open letter to his daughter Roxy in which, among other things, he called the president-elect “a douche nozzle” and vowed: “we’ll f-----g fight (Roxy, there’s a time for this kind of language and it’s now.)” 

Aaron Sorkin and daughter Roxy Credit:  Startraks Photo/REX/Shutterstock

That’s just the thing: it isn’t the time for this kind of language at all, whether in the UK or the US. It’s playground stuff that clouds proper arguments, and it sounds self-indulgent and embarrassing coming from an articulate adult. In fact, the more serious one’s political concerns, the more cool-headed one’s language in public needs to be.

We may laugh at our peculiar old House of Commons with its ornate verbal flourishes of “the right honourable member” and its ban on calling another member a liar in the chamber (anyone who doubts the seriousness of the rule can watch the footage of Betty Boothroyd suspending the late Rev Ian Paisley for making just such a charge against Sir Patrick Mayhew.) Yet these formalities have long preserved the ability to debate difficult and emotive subjects without the escalation of abuse.

The more serious one’s political concerns, the more cool-headed one’s language in public needs to be

It might seem odd to concentrate on language when the structure of Europe is in flux, Islamist terrorism is on the rise, and the role of the US on the world stage may be changing fundamentally. What does a bit of over-excited cursing count for in the middle of all that? But language is the means by which we convey our fundamental regard for other people, and – however you diagnose the political ills of the UK – how you speak to and about others can determine whether you become part of the problem or the solution.

Like family members exhausted by the aftermath of a screaming row, we are hungry for uplifting tales of goodness. The story recently emerged of how a Swedish tourist called Annis Lindkvist befriended a homeless man, Jimmy Fraser, in Glasgow and invited him to spend Christmas with her family back home: by all accounts the visit was a great success.

Not many of us are as open-hearted as Ms Lindkvist, but many do their best in other ways. I listened to a caller on Woman’s Hour this week describing how her village ran a Christmas dinner scheme for all those who might be lonely on Christmas Day. Although her family were among the helpers, she said, they had got so much out of the experience that “we’ll never have Christmas on our own again.” 

Swedish tourist, Annis Lindkvist invited homeless man, Jimmy Fraser, to spend Christmas with her family Credit: Provided

The Twitter account “Random Acts of Kindness” is vowing “Let’s Make 2017 the Kindest Year Yet”: it includes suggestions for unprompted acts of altruism such as letting someone have your parking space or sending unexpected flowers. Amid all the self-righteous rhetoric about the stupidity of others, we can often forget just how decent so many people are: those who give their free time to coach children in sports, or volunteer on behalf of charities, or help out a sick neighbour.

Some exceptional individuals change lives, such as Wayne Ingram, who was a soldier 13 years ago when he first met a four-year-old Bosnian boy called Stefan Savic, who had a rare facial deformity. Over time Mr Ingram raised £140,000 for five operations - the final one last year - which have utterly transformed Stefan’s face and his future.

It is easy to sound Pollyannaish when talking about the power of kindness and courtesy, but it doesn’t mean thinking the world is full of rainbows and fairies, or ceasing to hold opinions and express them sharply and robustly. It just means stopping short of the point at which one’s own rhetoric becomes part of the blur of vulgar insult that turns a discussion into a slanging match. In a year when we will - thanks to circumstances - be thinking more intensely than ever about what exactly we want Britishness to mean, cultivating generosity in how we speak and act towards each other could be a very good place to start.