“I want a kinder, gentler nation.” – President George H.W. Bush
Despite their awesome power, presidents and candidates seldom make an impact with their words. Bush in particular was knocked for his lack of eloquence. Yet, he struck a chord with this simple wish. He seemed to articulate something that people yearned for, such that even people who disagreed with his politics stopped to reflect on what a kinder and gentler nation would be like.
But have we become a different nation since then? When I look around at our popular culture, I sometimes see only reasons to wish that the former president’s remark had had more impact.
Not long ago, I came across the reviews of a recently-televised reality show focused on the daily life of an Olympic champion – a good-looking man of superlative athletic skill with an impressive set of competitive records and a whopping eleven medals to his credit. At the age of only 28, he has achieved what most of us, as they say, can only dream of.
So you might think he would be accorded some respect, but he certainly was not. Instead, the reviewers were gleefully disdainful of the person and character of the man himself. They cheerfully disparaged him as a vacuous, barely-articulate, skirt-chasing, dim bulb and prototypical man-bimbo, forever without a shirt and vainly showing off his enviable abs.
Granted, I didn’t see the show, so I can’t say for certain how he was portrayed (editing can slant things in many ways), and I don’t know the man to say what he is really like. However, what made the biggest impression on me was how much the reviewers relished the chance to demean him, how smug and superior they were, how they LOVED doing it, and didn’t bother to hide how delighted they were.
Most of us know we would be undone by this kind of unsparing judgment, but even then we may feel no sympathy, figuring that this kind of thing is just part of being in the public eye. Of course, few of us are likely to be the focus of professional reviewers, but while our social spheres might be smaller, wouldn’t we feel mortified and diminished by this kind of disrespect?
In many ways, it seems like we’ve lost ground in the culture since the former president made his speech, although, actually, this kind of caustic commentary is anything but new. I’ve noticed, however, that it is more accepted and overt, and it certainly has an audience. Courtroom shows, sleazy talk shows, and many reality shows seem to exist only so that we can laugh at people such as Honey Boo Boo and the like.
I once heard a radio commentator say something thoughtful that impressed me. He said that in his religion, Judaism, it’s a particularly grievous sin to humiliate someone or make them the object of ridicule. This dishonor violates something inherently sacred about a person, something essential that should always be respected.
I would add to this by pointing out that tolerating this coarsens everyone, that when humiliating is accepted, the expectations of how to treat others are lowered.
Perhaps we all know this, or have felt it, but still it’s easy to judge others – even to be harsh – whether to their face or behind their back. In fact, is there anyone who doesn’t do it?
When I was younger, that tendency was stronger and I was often a harsh judge. Making snap judgments about others, being rigid about what I expected or thought was acceptable, came pretty naturally, and it seemed very correct.
Now, however, I see the folly of not understanding people wholly and of highlighting their flaws. Time lends moderation to one’s perspective, and you become more aware of how difficult life can be, more tolerant of the gray areas, more conscious that someone who appears praiseworthy may be hiding a dark side, or how a reprehensible person can eventually bring a better character forward.
There was a time that I would have been equally critical of our Olympic hero and others whose shortcomings are easy to mock. I hope I’ve learned something. I want things to change, but I’m aware that I am just me, and that I cannot really affect the national culture. I don’t want to be part of its negativity, however, so I don’t watch the stuff that ridicules people, or holds them to be less honorable than they deserve.
But, I believe my actions can be meaningful, and I want to be counter-cultural where the culture of my immediate environment is harsh and callous. So, I think I need to concentrate on bringing kindness and gentleness to my own corner of that culture – to the realm of my family, friends, social relationships and workplace. That is the sphere where most of us have influence.
How can any of us be part of being different? Don’t join in office gossip. Where someone is criticized, resist being part of it, then go further by bringing up something good about that person that others are overlooking. Respond to people without reacting to them. By that I mean, be considerate and give yourself a moment to think about who someone really is before making a solid conclusion. Always seek to understand why someone acts as they do (and you don’t have to approve of it).
Perhaps if we all make this effort, our part of the world will reflect the type of kindness and gentleness that we all would prefer.