Civility Crisis: Why Does Someone Always Have to Lose?
There seems to be a disturbing trend in our country that is summed up in -something I heard on a flight from Los Angeles.
I had the good fortune to get my upgrades on a flight back to Connecticut (my home at the time) when I heard a 30-something man say in conversation with the flight attendant: "It is not enough for me to win; I have to see you lose."
To this day, I do not know what prompted this discussion. I was seated after their chat had begun, but it stung my ears and I have never forgotten it. I know that it was in 2001, because I flew not long after the terrible events that devastated New York in ways hard to comprehend if you never lived there or were not there on or close to the time of the attack.
During the years since, I have seen an awful increase in a loss of daily civility, a loss of the ability for any politician, right, left or center, Republican or Democrat, to work for solutions. It is not enough that XYZ wins the election, passes the bill, runs for office, is appointed; someone else must lose in a very public - and, if at all possible, humiliating - fashion.
The facts do not matter so much anymore. The ability to continue on does not matter so much anymore. But it seems we have a new national motto: It is not enough for me to win; I must see you lose.
On a T-shirt, it might be merely cheeky. As policy and civil discourse, it is as close to a death knell for democracy as I hope to hear. I hope that we, the average citizen (right, left and center) might demand better in our daily lives, on TV shows that purport to be news, and certainly from those who are elected to do the people's business.
There are bricks aplenty to throw at Fox or MSNBC. In whomever you like best, you will not see this trait. In whomever you detest, it will be obvious that it is they who do this dastardly deed. The problem is, it has become us. I hear it on the streets even in this lovely area. I hear it in airports and on trains, and I am not merely saddened but frightened by it.
By Our Own Hands
When in such a learned democracy we fall back on black-and-white thinking, when the world no longer has gray areas anymore, when all decisions can only be made by party and not by individual thinking and honest reflection, when our world no longer includes the merest possibility that one may see the other person's point and shift in one's own thinking, when arriving at the real solution dies at the hands of "my way or the highway," where might a democracy find its true north?
I fear, to continue that metaphor, that our compass has been tampered with - and worse, it is by our own hands. There seldom seems to be a group of folks who sit to analyze an issue/problem and are brave enough to look not only to history and ideology but also to the future and the long-term effects of phony thinking.
True consultation on an issue cries out for assessment of the issue, the throwing on the table of many and varied solution possibilities and the selfless search for a first step in the answer. Not for the glory of being "the one who did it all" or "is on the right side," but rather for a group coming to a consensus of the first step and plans that may follow. I say "may follow" because after the first step, change may be needed.
Once one is locked into ideology/party or ego, shifting course becomes dangerous to those who wish to be right instead of doing right. Blame is the other side of the coin of self-congratulation.
Much of what passes for news on various cable TV and radio shos is much heat and no light. Both sides of the aisle delight in trashing the other, if not lying outright. We feel comfy -listening only to those with whom we agree or or toward whom we lean, and seldom do we challenge ourselves by reading the other side. Who wants to listen to those jerks?
So what are we ending up with? A very literate society where dumbing-down to the lowest common denominator is preferred, where one is a traitor if one varies on any issue from the assigned role. We begin to sound like a banana republic.
The end of the flight I told about at the beginning was as interesting to me as the chilling statement the fellow had made. We pulled into Chicago, where some passengers were deplaning - remember, this is less than a month after 9/11 - and as we taxied into the gate, the flight attendant made a serious statement about no cell phone usage until entering the terminal.
Trashing Is Too Easy
Remember, we did not yet know how all of 9/11 was carried out, what could lie ahead. And the fellow who was so full of himself and wished to see others lose hid his cell phone close to his chest and started to dial. A chill ran through me. I did not know him, I did not know why he was dialing on a cell phone so close to the terminal in a plane with still many gallons of fuel on board. On the verge of jumping out of my seat, I turned and in a stern voice said: "Stop that now."
I wish I could say it to everyone who would rather be feeling in the right than doing right. I wish I could say it to the entire Senate and House, to our community and friends. Stop that now - while we still can change course to a democracy where blame is less a coin of the realm and where solutions become the greatest product the United States gives itself and the world.
The fellow who thought that call was more important than the rule glared at me and rose to exit. Nothing had happened but a foreshadowing of the next decade. Rules for others, not for me. Self-importance that trumps reason. I over you, and there is no we.
The United States has more often than not been a land of concern for others at home and abroad, great ideas and energy to accomplish those ideas and a place that sets store on the smallest among us as well as the cult of celebrity. In this next phase of our life as a nation, I hope we do away with "it's not enough for me to win; I have to see you lose" and replace it with something akin to, "Hey, need some help in getting the job done?" Or, "Hey, here's an idea I think can help nearly everyone. Wanna work it out?"
It takes roll-up-your-sleeves work to get the job done. It doesn't take much work to trash a fellow or stand in the way. I still don't believe we are that person deep inside. I still believe we have more of our higher selves available, but the clock on that surplus sure seems to be ticking awfully fast.
Joyce Reehling lives in Pinehurst. She recently retired here from New York after a 33-year career in theater, TV and commercials in New York.
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