It seems that periodically we humans as a group devolve just a bit. We temporarily lose our integrity, good manners and compassion. Those tend to be very dangerous times when we become angry and suspicious of anyone not like ourselves. We fall for arguments that blame our woes on certain groups. Somehow we aren’t as nice to one another as we ought to be.
The Germans lived in one of the most sophisticated and learned societies on earth. After World War I the country fell apart at about the same time that ugliness reared its head all around the world. There was a nationalistic, protectionist fervor across the globe that some say resulted in the Great Depression and only deepened as economies tumbled into a death spiral. Isolationism ruled the day. Literally every nation had the attitude that the needs of the natural born citizens had to come first. There was great suspicion of anyone who was different. In Germany a demagogue promised a way out of the need and want, a better future, a stronger country. The people were hungry and ready to try anything. They hailed their leader as a savior little realizing that the price of their salvation would be one of the most horrific chapters in the story of mankind.
For some reason the cycles of history seem to repeat themselves as though we somehow forget the lessons from our ancestors. Right now the world is in grave danger of turning in on itself much as it did almost a hundred years ago. We live in an era of distrust as we witness real evil incarnate in so many places. Our fears are well founded but I sometimes wonder if we are searching for the right methods of dealing with them. There is a tendency among our own citizenry to respond to differing ideas not with interest but with cynicism and ugliness. Even among people whose thinking is quite similar there are hateful arguments involving character assassinations rather than rational discourse.
Our media and our politicians tend to play on our fears and magnify them for their own purposes. We are far more likely to turn our attention to a controversial program than one that demonstrates cooperation. We too often forget that many politicians are more about seeking their own power than helping us. We listen to rumors and insults like gossip, hanging onto half truths as gospel. We overreact to those who propose solutions that differ from our own. For some reason compromise is now viewed as the domain of cowards. We extol dividers and turn on those who would work together to seek common ground. We seem to exist in an all or nothing kind of society and as we have all too often seen such extremes sometimes lead to civil wars, concentration camps, neglect and terrors too terrible to even imagine. Finding common ground is so very difficult right now.
I drive around in a car with a license plate that announces to the world that I am an older woman with grandchildren. One would think that I might derive a bit of respect as I go on my daily errands but I can’t even begin to enumerate the number of times that a young person has yelled obscenities at me or given me the one finger salute simply because I kept to the speed limit. If I voice opinions publicly I am often denigrated in ways that should never be voiced, especially to a stranger. When I recently remarked in an editorial discussion that I had taught my students to be open minded I was attacked with the words, “Why would anyone ever take advice from someone so ignorant that the only occupation open to them is teaching?” There was no reason for this individual to be so unkind. I had not insulted him nor had I even assailed his thinking. I simply suggested that it never hurts to listen to all points of view before deciding how to vote.
I worry not so much because of the personal disparagement that I have received but because of the frequency with which it is now used. Our world of anonymity on social media has made people believe that they are immune from any form of responsibility for their commentaries. I instead propose that the incendiary nature of such words is driving an extremely worrisome trend in our society and around the world.
A good example comes in the reactions to the death of Nancy Reagan, a ninety year old woman who has lived in relative seclusion for a number of years. Some have actually suggested that they hope that she is now f—ing burning in hell. On the other side people are hurling slanderous comments at President Obama because he does not plan to attend her funeral. The truth is that the only sitting presidents who attended the funeral of a former First Lady were John Kennedy who paid homage to Eleanor Roosevelt upon her death and Bill Clinton who was actually a good friend of Jackie Kennedy Onasis. The tradition historically has been to send either the sitting First Lady or a high ranking official to honor the wives of former presidents. President Obama in fact has spoken very respectfully about Mrs. Reagan and her influence on him. To impugn his character simply because he has a previous engagement to which he is committed is typical of the constant efforts by some to question his every move.
We have Christian groups who have outrageous demonstrations at the funerals of fallen soldiers. We have women who rage over other women with epithets that in an earlier time would have been call for a mouth washing with a bar of soap. Our politicians attempt to turn us against one another and even go so far as to demand our allegiance. We lump entire religions and ethnicities into stereotypical memes. The far right is horrified by the brazen behavior of progressives and the far left makes crude remarks about those who would defend their religious beliefs.
Our children learn from what they see us do. Right now it is frightening to even think about what must be going on in their minds. We are allowing our anger and our fears to overtake our common sense and decency. I’d like to think that this is not who we are. In fact, I actually still believe that most of us are good well meaning people. Still we are allowing the darker side of humanity to gain a foothold and we are doing little to stop it.
I doubt that most of the German people wanted what transpired in their country. The whole movement started with a decided minority but things got out of control. There was no stopping the evil once it had infected the very foundations of their civilization. It took force to stomp it out.
We have many legitimate problems in our country and the world at large. Solutions will not come if we continually act as though every situation is about winners and losers. Sometimes the best ideas come from a variety of ideas. They also come from having respect for one another. Our quarrels need not lower us into the gutter. I worry greatly that we are heading for great trouble if we don’t bury our disagreements and find ways of working together without so much rancor.