We need to talk

Sometimes I want to stick my fingers in my ears and yell “SHUT UP!” over and over at the top of my lungs until the madness stops.

One cannot turn on the TV, pick up a newspaper or go online without getting a daily dose of the name-calling, character assassination and overall nastiness that has characterized our recently-ended demolition derby of an election campaign and its aftermath:

Herr Trump is a sociopathic demagogue, and the RepubliKKKans who support this Manbaby and Groper in Chief are a racist, misogynistic basket of deplorables. … Crooked Hillary was a nasty woman who lied every time she opened her mouth, and the Libtards who supported her are entitled whiners, sore losers, crybabies and snowflakes who only want free stuff.

One could practically see members of the news media salivating as they proclaimed the 2016 presidential election to be the ugliest mudfest in history, and the venom shows no signs of abating now that our new president has begun his term. But our current political climate did not come from nowhere. For years now, we’ve been subjected to the endless barrage of accusations, counter-accusations and demonizing that characterize the Culture Wars:

You know who’s causing all the problems in this country don’t you? It’s those feminazis intent on killing babies and destroying traditional marriage. … It’s those right-wing bigots who push hatred as a family value. … It’s those unions bankrupting businesses and the government with their outrageous demands. … It’s those greedy capitalists who stuff their pockets while robbing honest working people of their retirement funds. … It’s those lazy welfare bums with their infuriating sense of entitlement. … It’s those wealthy elites who have too much already and want more, more, more. … It’s those incompetent teachers who staff our lousy public schools. … It’s those immigrants stealing our jobs. … It’s those SUV drivers contributing to global warming. … It’s those obese gluttons who gorge on too much fat-and-sugar-laden junk food and drive up health care costs … It’s those people who own guns, those people who want to take away our guns. … It’s those fundamentalist Christians, those radical Muslims, those godless atheists, those New-Age Buddhist-Hindu-Native American-Neo Pagan navel gazers … It’s those teenagers who watch too much TV, play too many video games, listen to rap music, do drugs, drop out of school, get pregnant and join gangs. … Of course, none of this would be happening if it weren’t for those working mothers and helicopter parents who fail to teach their hopelessly coddled offspring personal responsibility!!!

Whew! Have we left anyone out?

This seething anger has seeped into the public square and manifests itself as an epidemic of rudeness. Even before the 2016 election, we’d come to regard name-calling and mudslinging as normal for political campaigns. On the cable news networks, political pundits and other guests routinely talk over each other and shout each other down while debating the latest hot-button issues. “Flaming” and “trolling” have become popular sports in the anonymous comments sections that follow news articles and blog entries.

As I’ve paid closer attention to the steady drumbeat of vitriol that makes up the background noise of our daily lives, I find myself thinking, “No wonder we’ve become a nation of people with clenched teeth and balled up fists.”

Indeed, it seems that people I encounter in my everyday life have become more surly and defensive than they used to be, and some seem to be spoiling for a fight. A car with a middle-aged driver sports a bumper sticker that tells us what we can eat if we don’t like the owner’s driving. We have Road Rage (shouting, cursing and making obscene gestures to other drivers), Airport Rage (yelling at ticket agents and flight attendants), Sidewalk Rage (acting violently because people in front of us are walking too slowly), Parking Lot Rage (engaging in an angry standoff with another driver over a parking space) and Starbucks Rage (working oneself into a ballistic frenzy over the color and design of a coffee cup).

We have Climate Wars — the folks who believe climate change is caused by human behavior vs. those who believe the former are perpetrating an elaborate hoax. We have Class Wars — the 99 percent vs. the 1 percent. We have Worship Wars — should a church’s music and worship style be traditional or contemporary? We have Mommy Wars in which a mother’s decisions on everything from whether to work outside the home to whether to breast-feed or bottle-feed is scrutinized and judged by other mothers. We have Turf Wars in our social services system that keep helping professionals from working together for the common benefit of people who seek help for problems ranging from drug addiction and homelessness to domestic violence and mental health issues. We even have Autism Wars — a genuinely sad state of affairs in which adults with autism and parents of younger children or more severely affected adults are locked in an unyielding struggle over how autism should be defined and how services and research dollars should be allocated.

It would be bad enough if the tide of anger and disrespect served only to put people in a surly, antisocial mood. Unfortunately, the damage doesn’t end there. Our finger-pointing epidemic leads to everything from Congressional gridlock to violence against individuals who belong to the maligned groups. Two friends on opposite ends of the political spectrum have talked seriously about what they fear is an impending civil war. And perhaps worst of all, our children are watching us.

On a personal level, the constant conflict has left me exhausted, and apparently I am not alone. In a recent survey by the American Psychological Association, 52 percent of U.S. adults said the 2016 presidential election was a “very significant” or “somewhat significant” source of stress. Republicans and Democrats were statistically equally likely to say this was true for them. The APA pointed out that arguments and hostile or inflammatory comments on social media heightened the sense of stress felt by people who took the survey.

In the meantime, our real problems go unaddressed. Raging war in the Middle East is creating hundreds of thousands of refugees. Thousands of children worldwide die each day of starvation and totally preventable diseases, and nearly a third of all children in the U.S. live in poverty. Nearly every week brings news of another mass shooting. Environmental damage threatens our planet and all of our futures.

Some well-meaning people suggest we respond to the divisive slander the same way our parents taught us to treat malicious gossip: Don’t dignify it with comment. However, I no longer think we can afford to make political issues a taboo topic in polite conversation. The stakes are too high on too many of these issues, ranging from our ability to get health care, to the quality of our children’s education, to the impact of climate change on our grandchildren’s futures. “The personal is political” didn’t get to be a cliche for no reason. And because the vitriol on all sides is so widespread and so relentless and so damaging, we must look for ways to turn down the heat.

That is why I’m starting this blog. I would like to invite responses from all sides — liberals, progressives, conservatives, libertarians, independents, centrists, people who don’t like labels. What would happen if we could all take off our political/ideological hats for just a few minutes, eliminate the name-calling, the character assassination, the trolling and the flaming, and simply have a rational discussion about the real issues?

Questions for readers: How has all the divisiveness impacted you personally, your family and friends, our society? What problems do you see going unaddressed while we rip each other apart? What do you think is behind all the divisiveness and how do we turn down the heat? I’d love to hear your responses to these questions, as well as your comments on the article itself. Just hit “Leave a Reply” below.

2 thoughts on “We need to talk

  1. A lot of people are turning down the heat by sticking their heads in the sand. A completely unsatisfactory approach, in my book. Though I can appreciate the temptation. It’s difficult for me, and I have to guess equally so for those on the other side of the issues, to unsee the ugliness of the attitudes of supporters of the current regime. People I used to respect have totally lost my respect. I continue to maintain civility most of the time; it’s not always easy, and it’s clear that some have given up all pretense of civility. But if we all do that, I think hope would be lost. Because we’re already so alienated from each other, and nastiness tends to result in further alienation as well as heels digging in. As a person of relative privilege, I only occasionally feel personally attacked. I can understand that it is many times more difficult to maintain civility when personally attacked.

    Liked by 1 person

    • “Because we’re already so alienated from each other, and nastiness tends to result in further alienation as well as heels digging in.” That’s my feeling, exactly. I try to look below the surface and ask “Why?” But I agree that’s much harder when we feel attacked. It seems like I need to restrain myself 100 times a day sometimes.

      Like

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