Monday, July 17, 2017

Fixing What's Broken

The other day my friend Ed posted a commentary on Facebook in which he discussed reactions to a story about a woman who, after the death of her husband, relied on Medicaid to provide medical care for her children. The story generated an ever-downward-spiraling swell of anger and vituperation, accusing the woman of being lazy, demanding she get a job, accusing her of living large at the expense of others, and worse. Ed's commentary on the story and the online reactions to it ended with this paragraph:

"At one point in the discussion, someone asked, how did we get here? That's what I am wondering about. What has gone wrong in our culture that so many people are filled with this anger, looking for something to be offended at, and so bereft of the simple human virtues of kindness, civility, and empathy? How did rage and contempt become successful marketing tools, while compassion and kindness are looked on as weakness? What got broken with us, and how do we fix it?"

How, indeed? There are a lot of reasons our society has become more coarse and uncivil.

One of them is the lack of good examples set by parents. When I was growing up in the 50s and early 60s, my parents were loving, but strict. We were expected to be polite and courteous, and to reserve anger for the few times it was the only reasonable response to a bad situation. Nowadays, it seems that parents ignore foul language and bad behavior on the part of their children, whether because they're too busy with work and their own recreation to pay attention to it, or because of a misguided belief that their children should "express themselves honestly," even at the expense of common courtesy and civility.

The comforting anonymity of the Internet is another, allowing despicable trolls to spew hatred and propagate the most ridiculous lies, wrapped in the warm blanket of anonymity provided by a screen name and an opaque IP address. It's much easier to act badly when you don't have to face the target of your bad behavior.

Yet another is the belief of many present-day Americans in the absolute primacy of individual freedom over responsibility to others. When the individual is considered supreme, it isn't much of a stretch to believe that one has not only the right, but the obligation to say and do whatever one wants, without regard to the rights and feelings of others. It represents the erosion of empathy and compassion - two things that once were hallmarks of America and its people.

An outgrowth of this attitude is the belief that if another person has fallen on hard times, it is their fault for not accepting personal responsibility for their own lives. If a person loses his or her job as a result of economic decisions made by their employer, is it their fault? If they try to find a new job and discover that all the jobs for which they're qualified have been sent to India and China where workers are cheap, is it their fault? If they try to get the training and education that will qualify them for other jobs, only to find that it's priced beyond their reach, and their governments - in the sacred interest of cutting spending - have eliminated the assistance that might have helped them, is that their fault, too? Yes, we each have an obligation to be responsible for ourselves and our well-being ... but we also have an obligation to understand that sometimes there really are circumstances beyond our control.

Finally (for now, at least), we have elected to the presidency a boorish and utterly unqualified individual whose personal behavior is in many ways the opposite of what we once found admirable in our leaders. His total lack of gravitas, crass behavior toward women, proud ignorance of public policy, jingoistic attitudes, cavalier jettisoning of decades of international agreements and norms, and crude, 140-character Twitter attacks on those who disagree with him demonstrate the sort of person many of us were ready to put in the chair once occupied by George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, and Franklin Roosevelt. Our children look at his execrable behavior and assume it must be okay because, hey, he's the president ... and why should they be expected to act any differently? And why did we decide things were so terrible that a person like this seemed like a good option to so many people?

What got broken with us?

How do we fix it?

They're excellent questions. I think the first one is easy enough to answer; the second, much harder. We can fix it only by returning to the qualities that really did make America great: not just individual determination and self-reliance, but on a sense of community and a shared understanding that we all have a role to play in making the country great by working together and helping each other.

Unfortunately, I don't see that realization dawning on much of America any time soon.

Have a good day. More thoughts tomorrow.



eViL pOp TaRt said...

It's true: we have lost much of our sense of community.

Banana Oil said...

Some people are left to their own devices while children, and consequently learn no better. And bad examples of how to act are rampant on t.v.

Elvis Wearing a Bra on His Head said...

I'm afraid that it will take a generation to return to civility.

Mike said...

We're counting on you to come up with a solution. No pressure.

allenwoodhaven said...

Now this change, if followed, would make America great again. I think many still feel and think this way but are far removed from power.