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I once read an article about a study on road rage.
Researchers wanted to know why people behave in their cars in ways they typically wouldn’t in person. If someone cut in line in front of me at a theater I may or may not say something. But if they were to cut me off in traffic, I am liable to react with angry gestures and foul language. If the other driver were to see my reaction, he might launch into his own tirade.
Researchers determined that people felt safer to react in the relative protection and anonymity of an automobile. As drivers surrounded by metal and moving away from the conflict, they knew they would likely never be held accountable for their actions. We see this same theory at work in so-called “social media.”
It is easy to spew angry words from the relative anonymity of a keyboard. Even the most minor political issue or social question can provoke a vitriolic response. Many a Facebook or twitter stream has become a sea of poison with strangers assigning the worst possible motives to people they don’t know and who are limited to responding in 280 characters or less.
I must confess, I have fallen prey to such passions.
But I believe the problem goes much deeper than just the ability to hide behind a computer. It is manifested in our day-to-day interaction.
I was taught to address people as Mr. or Mrs. My parents demonstrated how to meet new people (a firm handshake, look in the eye, speak clearly in a friendly tone). One of the reasons Chick Fil A has survived so many boycotts is that its staff is trained to treat everyone with courtesy and respect. But respect has become something we feel entitled to receive but not obligated to give.
The most minor perceived slight is a reason to attack. No thought is given to the humanity of the adversary. It is the reduction of people to nothing more than obstacles to be overcome in pursuit of an agenda.
People in Durant are reluctant to run for public office because they become targets. It’s not just honest criticism, it is venomous hatred spewed with no regard for the facts. It is the assignment of motives while ignoring the truth. It hasn’t always been this way and it shouldn’t be this way today.
The simple fact is that we all want basically the same thing. We want a safe and secure community for our families and friends. We want to live in harmony with our neighbors and we want the freedom to live our lives as we see fit. I don’t know of any normal person who truly wants harm to come to others. So why do we behave as if those we disagree with are the enemy?
In an article in the Dec. 25 issue of The New Yorker, Louis Menand writes about a 1954 letter Albert Einstein sent to author Eric Gutkind. Gutkind had written a book entitled “Choose Life: A Biblical Call to Revolt.” Einstein disagreed with the book so strongly that he felt the need to send a letter outlining his problems with the work. Einstein was not necessarily an atheist, but he viewed organized religion as superstitious attempts to make sense of the physical world.
His letter to Gutkind, which sold for $2.9 million at auction recently, was generally a critique of traditional Judaism. Based on Menand’s article, the letter was strongly worded and forceful. But the ending paragraph, especially when read in light of current social media culture, was refreshing and restorative.
Menand begins the last section of his article quoting Einstein’s letter.
“’Now that I have expressed our differences in intellectual convictions completely openly,’ he writes, ‘it is clear to me that we are very close to each other in the essentials, that is, in our evaluations of human behavior.’ He thinks that if he and Gutkind met and talked about ‘concrete things,’ they would get along fine. He is saying that it doesn’t matter what our religious or our philosophical commitments are. The only thing that matters is how we treat one another. I don’t think it took a genius to figure this out, but it’s nice that one did.”
Hear, hear Mr. Menand. Wouldn’t it be nice if we all figured that out, and very soon?