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.