Op-Ed

The Tear-Down Culture

26 May , 2018  

Controversy and debate keep life interesting. Ideally, they make us think – they make us examine our values and why we we hold them near and dear. They help us get to know others better, and maybe to appreciate how their life experiences have shaped their ideas. They may even persuade us to think differently, and to change our stance on issues and beliefs. A healthy debate brings new information to the table and allows the other “side” to chew on it a bit. I wish that we could disagree more civilly, more productively, in order to seek out win-win solutions, rather than playing life and politics like a football match, insisting on winner-take-all victories. Are we becoming a tear-down culture?

I first heard the term “tear-down” in the context of a quiet neighborhood full of modest, older homes in varied styles. It was nestled into a desirable, rapidly growing part of town. Someone remarked that “the tear-downs in that neighborhood are a quarter of a million and up!” Too rich for my blood, I thought, and continued searching for a home I could better afford. But it seemed odd, these decent-sized lots, worth a quarter of a million dollars, but only after tearing down the homes that had stood on them for decades. Was it because the homes had been given poor foundations, too little love, and not enough support over the years? And it felt like the folks who said these things liked to look down on the “tear downs,” to think themselves better, somehow, than a lot worth a quarter of a million dollars. I suppose the people who sold them laughed all the way to the bank, and those who sneered at them are now stuck with tear-downs, themselves, right next to sterile, over-planned, gated communities full of strangers.

In some respects, maybe we’ve done the same with people, allowing them to think that respect is owed them, whether they behave decently towards others, or not. Or that they deserve a trophy, just for showing up to work, whether they contribute what they’re capable of, or not. And then we proceed to disabuse them of all these notions in the harshest, cruelest of ways, as if it were somehow their fault for believing their parents and teachers and shrinks, and not their elders’ faults for feeding them nonsense and building a foundation made out of recycled fluff from the dryer filter?

Are we becoming a tear-down culture? I’m not the first to think so. MSNBC’s Abby Huntsman asked, in 2014, “Is America’s Tear-Down Culture Winning Over Finding Our Passions?” Is it no longer worth it, then, to invest in one another – to repair the cracked foundation and support the crumbling facades, even when constructive criticism is necessary and warranted?

I used to urge bloggers to play Devil’s advocate, to argue the unpopular side of an issue, to #writebravely, as it were. That was never meant to be an invitation to bullies or Internet trolls, nor was it meant to turn bloggers into bullies and trolls. It was a call to write posts that were more interesting and thought-provoking, even to encourage supporting other bloggers by linking to them so that readers could find all sides of the conversation – not by linking to them with a bull’s-eye target and a call to the faceless internet horde to “destroy” them!

The nastiness has always been there, an undercurrent in the dank sewers flowing beneath the old information superhighway. And even the nicest human beings are still basically “herd animals,” naturally inclined to side with the strongest of the herd against a perceived threat. It doesn’t mean we like the big, bad bull; it just means we’re naturally wired to be wary or afraid of whatever got the bull scared enough to loose its bowels and paw the ground. And then there’s the psychopathic bull that likes to snort and paw at the ground just to see if the herd will quake with fear and gather up behind him so he can fart in their faces. Beware that bull; he’ll eat up all the grass, devour a few of the herd just for fun, replace oxygen with methane, and leave nothing but your friends’ bones and a big pile of bullshit in his wake. For fun.

Only the most vapid individuals have no opinion on anything. That said, we needn’t have, and we needn’t publicly proclaim, an opinion on absolutely everything. And if we do, it needn’t always be contrary. Think about that – if I say the earth is round, Mary Q. Contrary will say it’s flat. She won’t offer any evidence – she just loves to argue and thinks it makes her sound smart. In fact, it’s easy to manipulate Mary Q. Contrary into sounding incredibly stupid. Just make a factual statement, and she’s compelled to argue against it. Don’t be Mary Q. Contrary.

If I say that the sky above is blue, you don’t need to point out that it’s actually cerulean, covered in drab gray wisps of clouds, or that it’s all an illusion caused by the reflection of the sun’s light on atmospheric impurities. If I say that the sky is blue, I am telling you that, in my experience – today – it is a clear, sunny day. It’s also hot enough to melt your face off, but I digress. When I say that the sky is blue, I’m communicating something about the weather and the beauty that surrounds me. Your sky may be lemon yellow, polka-dotted in white cotton candy. Perhaps I could have expressed myself better, more vividly. or less hyperbolically. It’s just hot enough to make your face feel like it’s turned to melted goo. You, perhaps rightfully, expect more from me as a writer, a poet, a friend to those who have no sky of their own to share. But some will merely take it as a suggestion to be silent, and that’s a shame. No one should be afraid to speak, unless they’re just using free speech to literally hurt other people.

If you point out that  that the golden, purple richness of the sky’s hue is merely the result of smoke from fires in a goldmine in Mexico, you’re distracting from my message. Don’t get me wrong: It’s interesting, and I’d want to know. But if it’s framed as an argument – as an implied statement, like, “What a childish thing to say. It’s actually not ‘pretty’ or ‘clear’ or even ‘blue’ at all. It’s due to all those pollutants we keep pumping into the air, and we’re RUINING the PLANET for our KIDS and people with allergies can’t @#$%ing BREATHE!” it gets tedious (even if I’m inclined to agree with you) and misses the point: It’s a beautiful day, today, right here where I am. Even scientists have their own brand of the Jesus Juke. If I say, “Good lord, why is the sky ruby red tonight?” I might want an answer and a scientific discussion. In fact, I’d love one, especially during hurricane season, but not everyone’s all that interested in the science behind a fiery sunset. Sometimes, it’s enough to just look up and think, “WOW.”

Not everything has to be a “cause,” either. I read, earlier today, that Lean Cuisine has come under fire for its latest campaign. If they’re not employing forced child labor or depriving indigenous people of water rights or telling women they need a skin lightening potion to be attractive to the opposite sex or some other heinous thing, I just can’t get worked up over it enough to criticize them for not knocking the ball out of the park in their “experiment.” Never mind that I’m not entirely sure what it has to do with choosing Lean Cuisine meals – or not. Not a one of us is batting 1000 all the time on every front. When people are not allowed the freedom to make mistakes, they stop trying to be “outstanding” or even “excellent.” They play it safe and start hiding behind the smelly, old, bad-tempered bull. This is what the bull wants, of course. They become cynical, convinced that’s their lot in life, to kiss a bull’s behind when the herd pushes in. Allow people, even companies, to have a swing and a miss, now and then. Lean Cuisine isn’t wrong: we all do better when we’re supported and lifted up by our friends, whether it’s women or men. Do we want to be the reason someone else is stuck at “mediocre”? Are we really that afraid they’ll beat us at something or do something cool and we’ll be envious we didn’t think of it?

There is a difference between a political statement and a political opinion. “The Second Amendment should be abolished” is a statement. While no one is seriously suggesting that, it’s open for discussion and debate. “I hate guns, and I wish the NRA would burn in the hot, sulfurous fire-lake of Hell,” is an opinion packed with emotion. Sometimes, it’s best to let opinions be – without debate. Sometimes, it’s best just to let people have their feelings and not try to argue them out of emotions by telling them they’re wrong or stupid and throwing semi-reasoned arguments at them. That’s not how feelings work, so don’t waste your breath.

That said, a political statement tossed into in a public forum is always fair game for debate – even if those making it would prefer to think otherwise. Imagine you walked into a local community center and found a town meeting in one room, where proposed firearms legislation was being discussed, and in another room there was a support group meeting for people who’ve lost a loved one to gun violence. Which door would you open to argue against stricter background checks at the annual gun show?

To be clear, we lose points with anyone whose opinions might matter, when we begin from a point of hostility, or mindlessly perpetuate negative stereotypes, or make demeaning jokes and comments about a person’s race, ethnicity, or appearance. If I lead off with, “You cretinous, mouth-breathing, loudmouthed, repugnant scum, I can’t believe you chose to drive that gas-guzzling homage to bad taste,” then I can hardly fault you or your friends for responding in kind. But until then, strive to be kind and express yourself rationally so that more people can hear you without hating you. There’s a huge difference between righteous anger over a situation, an issue, or a policy and impotent rage misdirected at people who might agree with it, but have little power to influence it in the first place. Righteous anger gets things done; impotent rage destroys everything in its path or – at best – leaves us spluttering unintelligibly, killing ourselves on our own stomach acid.

You may not think it matters, showing a modicum of decency to your sworn mortal enemies, but it matters to the silent, contemplative fence-sitters. It matters to the herd that’s still cowering in fear, but growing very tired of staring at the angry, flatulent bull’s behind.

Holly Jahangiri

Holly Jahangiri is the author of Trockle; A Puppy, Not a Guppy; and A New Leaf for Lyle. She draws inspiration from her family, from her own childhood adventures (some of which only happened in her overactive imagination), and from readers both young and young at heart. She lives in Houston, Texas, with her husband, J.J., whose love and encouragement make writing books twice the fun.

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18 Responses

  1. […] to this one from my house, if it were cooler. I think I mentioned, in my last post, that it was hot enough outside to melt your face off? Well, when your face is sliding down to your chin, like melted candle wax, it’s damnably […]

  2. rummuser says:

    I am not running a popularity contest and don’t have to accept someone tearing me down particularly when I don’t tear anyone down. I don’t do it on my blog nor in day to day life. It simply is not worth the bother.

  3. Flatulent bulls and melting faces are interesting book-ends for your very thoughtful piece. It is time to break away from the herd when the flatulence engulfs your face. Unfortunately, in the stampede for fresh air, rational thought flees in the opposite direction.

    Many well-meaning people do waste their breaths on trolls, ignorants and pompous bulls. I used to be one of the breath-wasters, until I learned that some people just are never going to be persuaded to reconsider their opinions.

    Cheers,

    Mitch

    • It’s sometimes hard to know, though, and I think it’s like any addiction – trying to reason with flatulent bulls leads to a dopamine rush. Because sometimes, just often enough to feed the reward centers of the brain, we WIN one. It must be what the uber-religious feel, when they score a convert for their particular brand of faith. It’s a kind of high, and makes you want to go out there and do it again – even if the risk of getting your face melted off in a cloud of noxious gas is pretty high. OMG, have I just figured out the secret to life, the universe, and everything? Are religious fanatics addicts, in the SAME way as gamblers, video game addicts, and others who need the dopamine hit? Is that what drives their relentless need to score souls – not just the notion that they are leading the flock back to Godly goodness, but that they need to “score one more”? Ish. It would make a lot of sense, and explain why some hold faith to be a personal, quiet quest for understanding, an exploration of their own beliefs, and others are willing to kill for “the cause.” Are religious terrorists just going through life playing Grand Theft Souls? Crap.

      • Okay, this is provocative. As a relapsed Baptist, I can tell you this: my rush was simply the intense desire to belong, to be accepted. If those are indeed the same neural pathways that light up and addict’s brainpan, then yes, you’re absolutely right.

        Cheers,

        Mitch

      • You know, re-reading this, you were the lock. I was talking about the key. Each needs the other, feeds the other. Bullies and “peer pressure” in school are similar. People who are happy in their own skin, confident and comfortable with no company but their own, are relatively less easy to recruit, convert, etc. But when the dopamine kicks in, we’re all locked in…

  4. You are quite right about people taking a stand just to stand out or make a point. We do not always have to point out the error in others’ ways.

    • And it so rarely works, you know – throwing insults at someone just means you’ve given up on your own skills of persuasion. We’d all like to think it means we’ve given up on the other person, that they’re “too stupid to get it” or “too stubborn to admit it” or whatever. But it really means (a) we’re just too tired and worn-down to continue debating, we’re throwing in the towel, but not before we wrap a brick in it and lob it at the other guy’s head; or (b) we’ve run out of persuasive arguments. We’re angry with them that they’ve brought us to this low point, and angry with ourselves for letting them do it. I’ve come to realize, lately, that the people I truly despise are the ones who bring out the worst in ME. Not the ones I can smile and walk away from and refuse to give “free rent in my head.”

      My friend Mitch Mitchell once complimented my handling of a near flame-war on Twitter. Thing is, I didn’t so much “handle” it as grow bored with it. I literally fell asleep at the open PC, took a nice nap, woke up an hour or two later, vaguely remembered I’d tweeted something logical and sane, and checked for replies. By this time, the others involved had realized they’d not read something closely enough and had been arguing with themselves — flaming ME for something they’d misread (and something one of the OTHERS had said), and apologized. Sometimes, the best thing to do is to go off and take a nap, and give the other guy a chance to think calmly. It’s hard to remember in a “fast-paced world” that we don’t always make our best decisions – at least not our non-binary, more-complicated-than-a-yes-or-no decisions – in a matter of seconds, while all eyes are on us, waiting, watching. People, like a good stew, need time to simmer and play things out in their imaginations. Sometimes, they still come to wrong-headed conclusions. But at least then, we can at least say that they had a bit of time to think about it.

      • I used to have a lot of those types of conversations on Twitter but I’ve found that I don’t enjoy them anymore. I’d rather talk about “nothing”, if you will, that have those long debates without a resolution. Folks keep trying to drag me into them and I might give them a few messages before I demure, but that’s about it.

      • I guess… the thing is… I’d rather talk about SOMETHING. But not the topics on the board TODAY.

  5. Josh says:

    We used to be kinder and more tolerant. I like to think I am good about it now, but I don’t know that I am as often as I should be.

    • My mother used to say I’d “mellow with age.” Then she got older and admitted that was B.S. and wishful thinking. There is something to it; I think that as we get older, we’re less critical of people for being old. Or slow. Or struggling to make sense of a changing world. We’re kinder to the needy, and more tolerant of those who do their best to get by, but lack advantages from birth. On the flip side, getting older also makes some people more grasping as they grow fearful of not having enough, themselves, to get through retirement and the medical bills that seem to rise and become less predictable with age. That said, we can’t take any of it with us. It just has to last to the last moment. I think we look back and see how much precious time people waste in just BEING nasty to each other. But it also makes us less kind to those who are wasting it that way – trying to rob others of the joy they can wring from the day. Less kind to those who want to hog all the resources, keep all the GOOD toys to themselves, as if they’re entitled to them, somehow, under the divine right of kings. We see what complete and utter nonsense it is, and we grow less and LESS tolerant of it. I can’t help wondering why our kids will be out there fighting the SAME battles over and over. My mom also used to say that the things that made her angriest when it came to MY misdeeds were the ones she could see coming a mile away – the things she’d already learned the hard way, as a kid, and had to stand there in frustration, watching ME learn the hard way, because there was no way to head them off at the pass. In other words, seeing her own shortcomings in me made her a little crazy. I have two kids, now – I totally get that.

      She also spent a lot of time blaming her generation for things. I used to try to absolve her; after all, she was my mom. Her generation was my parents’ generation. It couldn’t be to blame! It was the generation I looked up to, and wanted to grow up to BE like. But now… meh. She was right, and subsequent generations have done precious little about it since – although I’d like to credit mine with making littering a capital offense, and getting rid of nasty, toxic-gas-belching smokestacks, and vehicle emissions, and… you get the idea. I spent a good deal of effort, as a kid, annoying indulgent adults into signing petitions to save baby seals and whales, surreptitiously tucking flyers on windshields, urging them not to leave their dogs in hot cars on summer days (who knew my generation would be the one leaving CHILDREN in there?), and making endless and colorful anti-littering and anti-leaded-gas posters. But I do have high hopes for this next generation. The one that’s graduating high school this year, sadly savvy to the fact that the grown-ups won’t fix things, so they’re just going to have to take the reins early and learn to ignore childish insults from those who’d make them feel too young, too incompetent, or not enough something to accomplish what they set out to accomplish. I have very high hopes, and I will support them in their quest for a better world. I will HOPE it learns to be a kinder one, along the way.

  6. I’ve gone back and forth with this sort of thing. Up until age 19 I was ready to argue with anyone about anything I cared about. At 19 I stopped arguing with anyone about anything, and that lasted until my mid 30’s… when I became argumentative again. Then a few years ago I started withdrawing again… for the most part anyway.

    Thing is, during the times when I was ready to argue (aka discuss), I went in to “crush” rather than listen. I got dirty, quoted all sorts of facts, and beat people over the head with stuff… and I was good at it until the internet came along because every good thing I’d find could be negated by a “good” thing someone else found. Didn’t mean I was wrong but link wars weren’t any fun.

    The tear down mentality has always been around, just manifested itself in different ways. These days, people are acting more like politicians; it’s the most disturbing part of society. Once Tea Baggers decided they wanted exactly what they wanted without negotiation, all bets were off, and the rest of us and the nation is yet to recover… and it’s not happening any time soon.

    • Other than indulging in brief bursts of Twitter rage and snark, I’m in a “withdrawal” phase. I’ve never gone in to “crush” anyone, but now every argument feels like life or death, and no matter who wins, my thoughts always turn to this: http://www.genocidewatch.org/genocide/8stagesofgenocide.html I feel like we’re somewhere between 5 and 6, aided and abetted by social media tools and tools like Jack and Zuck.

      Movies, video games, even dystopian novels – all seem to play into some need humans have to tear it all down and start over. They’ve given us IDEAS. Not necessarily good ones. Ideas like, “Hey, this could actually work…”

      Link wars were fun when you had to find new links. Now, it’s just the same old links, the same facts on speed-dial – never mind the endless rehashing of infinitely nuanced opinions all basically boiled down to two – and the certainty that no one you’d have to engage in link war WITH actually reads anything, anyway, and all they want is for you to wear your typing fingers down to stumps while they laugh at your intense need to share FACTS – and to separate FACT from OPINION. Their game is just to wear us out and wear us down. They don’t even have to “win” a debate on the merits.

      Whoever coined the term, “impotent rage” was a genius. Then again, some days its just a “simmering ire and ennui.” Whatever it is, it’s not good for the writing OR the soul. Lately, all that is good for it is fourteen hour workdays and new data science puzzles to work out. I feel like I’ve gone back to my roots, but with better toys.

      That said, I’d like to write again. Some day. Which is the only reason I haven’t torn down all the blogs and left the Internet in my quest to become Amish without giving up guilty pleasures, like burning through the tallow reading trashy novels after dark. I should probably leave Twitter for my mental health (it has become like CNN after 9/11 – I want to turn it off, but it’s the cobra in the room, and as long as I know where it is, I can rest. Not sleep, mind you, but at least keep it over there on the other side of my room by the sheer force of my stern glare…)

      • The thing that both Twitter AND Facebook has are tools that allow you to block not only people but things you don’t want to see anymore. I know you and others might argue that you shouldn’t have to do that but the fact is that for your sanity you pretty much DO have to. I block a lot of stuff on both platforms and it makes me happier, although sometimes Facebook feels a little barren these days… but I don’t mind.

      • I literally do not care about the advertising. I’m all for free; it’s part of the bargain. I can CHOOSE whether it’s targeted to my interests or not, and I understand how that works. It does not bother me. Nor does it bother me if you use tools provided by the platform to block what you see. It’s when you use third-party tools in violation of the TOS, causing them to come up with more and more nefarious ways to thwart you and EVERYONE ELSE who enjoys the platform for FREE, that I start to have a problem with it. That is not ethical, in my view, and I’m not sure their attempts to monetize the site are ethical, either, at this point. It never HAD to be a war between Facebook and Twitter and their users. Now, it’s a pretty adversarial relationship, if not outright war for information vs. privacy.

        It’s okay. I’m really enjoying not being there anymore. I am about two small steps from leaving Twitter, too. But there, I blame the users more than I blame management. I think Jack’s a little disingenuous, but I can understand the difficult position certain politicians and celebrities have put him in, and I’m okay with removing their audience if it comes to that. To each his own, right?

  7. Rambharat says:

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