by Tony Wyman
When I was young and needed a male role model, someone to whom I could look for guidance about how to be a man, about how to live life without making too big of a mess of things, I looked to two men: novelist Kurt Vonnegut and television personality Fred McFeely Rogers, who we all knew simply as “Mr. Rogers.”
At a time in my life when I was full of anger, testosterone and resentment, Mr. Vonnegut and Mr. Rogers taught me critical lessons that helped shape me into a much better person than I would have been if not for the beauty of their words.
Mostly what I learned from them was how to forgive, how to accept that people, including myself, were imperfect, that they were consumed by their own doubts and fears, ruled often by demons that were invisible and unknown to even those friends and relatives closest to them.
What both Mr. Vonnegut and Mr. Rogers taught was kindness, the value that being nice to other people could bring to all our lives.
“Hello, babies,” said protagonist Eliot Rosewater in an oddly sweet baptismal speech in Mr. Vonnegut’s ‘God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater,’ the book that changed my life. “Welcome to Earth. It’s hot in the summer and cold in the winter. It’s round and wet and crowded. At the outside, babies, you’ve got about a hundred years here. There’s only one rule that I know of, babies—God damn it, you’ve got to be kind.”
And Mr. Rogers added, “Imagine what our real neighborhoods would be like if each of us offered, as a matter of course, just one kind word to another person.”
He even defined for us the path to being truly successful in life this way, “There are three ways to ultimate success: The first way is to be kind. The second way is to be kind. The third way is to be kind.”
While I don’t mean to suggest for even a minute that there aren’t still many kind and decent people in our country, perhaps even an abundance of them, it seems to me that the notion of decency is going out of vogue. Studies have even shown we prefer less decent leaders to those who are kind and generous.
Psychologist Dan McAdams concluded in a study he completed in 2018 that President Trump‘s confrontational aggression and insulting conduct appeal to our primal nature and that his “incendiary tweets” and like the ‘charging displays’ of a dominant chimp, designed to intimidate and cowl anyone who would dare challenge him.
Of course, three years into the Trump presidency, it shouldn’t be a great shock that dialogue in America has grown measurably harsher and less civil. One would have to be a fool to believe the country could be led by a man so prodigious at using social media to insult, belittle and demean others as President Trump is without it having an effect across the nation.
But, if we are going to be honest with ourselves, Mr. Trump’s incivility isn’t the disease, its simply the symptom.
If we didn’t have buried in us an appreciation for the sort of bile the president spills each time he accesses his Twitter account, Mr. Trump never would have been elected president in the first place, even with Russia’s help.
The fact is, Donald Trump never attempted to hide his true self during the election. He showed his true colors right from the start. He mocked a handicapped man’s disabilities to a roar of laughter from a sea of red hats in the audience.
He used language to belittle women in ways no decent, respectful gentleman would ever consider. He attacked each of his opponents in crude, uncouth and indecent ways repetitively throughout the primary and the general election, yet we elected him to the highest office in the land, anyway.
It would be fair to blame Mr. Trump for making it appear that being an unrepentant vulgarian is acceptable in polite company, but we can’t blame him for the flaw in the American character that created so many like-minded vulgarians joining him.
And it isn’t fair, as well, to accuse only Trump loyalists of indecency and incivility. As we saw with the death of Sen. John McCain, a man whose military service defined sacrifice and honor for many men who, like myself, also wore the uniform, some #NeverTrump and liberals, people who should know better, demonstrated the same petty spitefulness that shamed their MAGA counterparts.
No, the increasing lack of common decency we see in our country wasn’t swept in with the Trump presidency. In fact, in a 2019 survey done by Weber Shandwick, 93% of those surveyed reported seeing the declining tone of civility in the country to be a “problem” with 68% viewing it as a “major problem.” In that poll, 57% listed “social media and the Internet” as major contributors to declining civility, while 50% listed the White House and 47% blamed “politics in general” for the crisis.
What was most interesting about the study, though, wasn’t the areas where incivility was most prevalent, it was who the respondents thought were most responsible for fixing the problem.
By a score of 87%, Americans believed it is up to us, the general public, to return civility, decency and kindness to the American landscape. First, ahead of the government, the media, the church, Americans said, if we are going to have the sort of country we all say we want to have, one where we care about one another, where we go out of our way to be compassionate and caring, where each of us offer, as a matter of course, just one kind word every day to another person, it would have to start with us.
“America is not just a country,” said author, inventor and physician Dr. Edward de Bono. “It’s an idea.”
That idea is that people from all over the world, people of every race, religion and background, people rich or poor, can find a place in this country where they are welcomed, where they are free to be whatever their ability allows them to be.
That idea isn’t possible if we aren’t willing to be civil to each other, it isn’t possible if we aren’t willing to take responsibility to make America the country she should be.
As Mr. Rogers said, “We live in a world in which we need to share responsibility.
It’s easy to say “It’s not my child, not my community, not my world, not my problem. Then there are those who see the need and respond. I consider those people my heroes.”