Sure, I get angry. I get frustrated. I’m human. My stern, corseted Irish grandmother, however, taught me well. “If you can’t say something nice, don’t say anything at all.” So I bite my tongue. Usually. Not everyone does though. They choose to be cruel, even when they have another choice. It’s that flat-out meanness — both personal and institutional — which angers and frustrates me most.
People are mean to strangers and to loved ones, in person and on the Internet. They are hostile to individuals as well as to entire groups. The poor, the overweight, immigrants, gays, women, non-Christians, non-whites. Heaven help you if you fall into more than one of those categories.
Why all this meanness anyway? Sure there are people with real personality disorders — sociopaths, narcissists — but what about the rest? Is it some primitive response to lash out at anyone we see as different? Is difference somehow dangerous? Or is it about status and pecking order? Do we need to affirm our power by demeaning and dehumanizing others? Or is it our inflated sense of entitlement?
Indeed, social media and reality television glorify conflict and drama. “Nice” doesn’t go viral. I worry Twitter wars and the Real Housewives of Wherever have distorted our sense of normal, of how people should act toward one another. We’ve forgotten more than our manners. We’ve forgotten our humanity. Our connectedness.
Consider the recent backlash against refugee women and children seeking asylum at our southern border. Frightened children — some traveling alone — were sent to us by desperate parents in a kind of Hail Mary pass to rescue them from near-certain death. Terrified mothers and children were greeted with contempt and taunts.
We are supposed to be the good guys in white hats. Instead, we were the aggressors, the bullies.
Ironically, many of these bullies proudly call America a Christian nation when it suits their needs — you know, when they’re defending marriage and the unborn. In this case? Not so much. What would Jesus do? That’s easy. It’s in the instruction manual. Feed the hungry. Welcome the stranger. Look after orphans and widows. I know many caring, compassionate Christians, but a few loudmouths have clearly tarnished the brand with their heartlessness.
Yes, we Americans enjoy freedom of speech, but not free from consequences. When we put meanness out into the world, we should expect meanness in return. That’s just the way the world works. Moreover, hatred and hostility toward others diminishes our own capacity to empathize, to love.
It’s not only Jesus and my grandmother who advise us to treat others kindly. Kurt Vonnegut wrote, “There’s only one rule that I know of, babies — --- ---- it, you’ve got to be kind.”
Lorie Schaefer is retired, mostly.