The Other

I repost here a piece I wrote many years ago but which still seems relevant. At the very least it helps us alter our focus from the pandemic and the protests — not to mention the upcoming election.

The latest item in the stack of daily horror stories that we call “news” is about students harassing and even threatening bus drivers, teachers, and administrators. As a recent Yahoo story tells us,

The most recent school safety report from the National Center for Education Statistics, the data branch of the U.S. Department of Education, found that 5 percent of public schools reported students verbally abused teachers on a daily or weekly basis. Also, 8 percent of secondary school teachers reported being threatened with injury by a student, as did 7 percent of elementary teachers.

And we wonder why our education system is on the ropes! We refuse to pay teachers what they are worth and complain when they want to make enough to live on while at the same time we expect them to raise our children for us. It is clear even from this small sample (and we have no idea how many people refused to respond) that many of our children have no idea what the word “no” means. They suffer from an enlarged sense of “self” fostered by unlimited time in front of the TV and playing video games (which help isolate them and convince them that they are the center of the world) while their parents are off somewhere else trying to make enough money to pay the bills. The parents, accordingly, are being irresponsible by ignoring their children and refusing to teach them such elemental things as “manners.” What they are teaching their children are lessons in irresponsibility: do your own thing and the hell with others. It’s hard to determine which is the “cause” here since there are multiple factors involved.

For some time now as a culture we have rejected the notion of authority as a bad thing — even the authority of expert opinion. Now everyone has an opinion about everything and all are equal. As Ortega y Gasset pointed out some time ago,

“Today the most average man has the most mathematical ‘ideas’ on all that happens or ought to happen in the universe. Hence, he has lost the use of his hearing. . . There is no reason now for listening, but rather for judging, pronouncing, deciding. There is no question concerning public life in which he does not intervene, blind, and deaf as he is, imposing his ‘opinions.’” [Ignoring the fact that some opinions are more reasonable than others is a part of our preoccupation with self.]

We have also rejected notions such as discipline and discrimination, both of which are now regarded as bad things, taboo.  Both are, however, essential to a responsible, intelligible, well-ordered, world. Contrary to popular misconceptions, none of these things causes repressed egos. When properly guided they merely cause a redirection of energy into productive avenues of expression.  However, as long as we continue to read and hear on all sides that the self is the only thing that matters, reject even legitimate authority as bogus, and identify freedom with lack of restraint, simply, we must learn to expect our kids to pick up on the hints. They take their clues from what is going on around them; they are not stupid. Unschooled and self-absorbed like their parents, yes, but stupid, no.

I recall a good friend of mine who was the school superintendent at our local school. The gym was located in the school building near the classrooms; he went out to the gym one day not long ago because a student was shooting baskets and making a racket instead of attending classes; because of this he was disturbing those students who might have wanted to learn something. He told the boy to stop and go back to class. The boy turned to the man (the school superintendent!) and told him to f$%# off — and he continued to dribble the basketball and shoot buckets! My friend didn’t know what to do: he wasn’t strong enough to physically manhandle the young man and the local police weren’t an option if he wanted to avoid a scandal (which he did). If he suspended or expelled the student he would have to deal with the parents who would invariably take the boy’s side (because he is their son and can do no wrong). But he decided to suspend the boy anyway. As expected, he was severely criticized by the boy’s parents and their friends (it’s a small town) and was eventually “let go.”

Anecdotal? Yes. But symptomatic of the larger problem: our kids are learning to be irresponsible because they are surrounded by irresponsible adults. Clearly the parents should have supported the superintendent here. We are in danger of reverting to barbarism where the strongest (and loudest) rule. But “might” does not make “right.” The kids must learn, and we all must recall, that “civilization is above all else the will to live in common,” to quote Ortega once again.  We need others in order to become fully ourselves: we cannot go it alone, no matter how brave or audacious we think we are. But the first step is to acknowledge and above all respect the legitimacy of others’ interests even when they conflict with our own. We seem to be losing that and it is in danger of tearing us apart.

The “R” Word

Much has already been said about Ann Coulter’s ill-advised (and repeated) use of the word “retard” to describe Barack Obama after his debate with Mitt Romney. I will not add fuel to that particular fire, but would prefer to take a different turn and ask the question: what ever happened to respect and civil discourse in this country?

Ann Coulter, of course, reports “news” for Fox “News.” I put scare quotes around the words here because this is a show that just pretends to give us the news when in fact they are simply passing along right-wing propaganda. Most people know that. But apparently there are many people in this country who don’t know this and that is why the programming on that station is worrisome: these people mistakenly believe they are getting actual news reporting when they are not But I digress.

Coulter has borrowed the colloquialism that turned a perfectly good verb into a pejorative noun. Presumably it is vulgar slang for “mentally retarded,” which is not regarded as politically correct even in its extended form. Her comment is disturbing to those who feel the pain of people who are intellectually challenged, as we now say. And this is disturbing indeed — especially since Coulter has been alerted to the fact that the term is offensive and yet she continues to use it. But what about its use in describing the President of the United States? Does no one else find this disturbing? Is there no line that those in the public eye should not cross in voicing their political opinions? It would seem that those who hold the highest office in this country are deserving of respect just by virtue of their office — even though we don’t happen to agree with their politics, or even if we have a personal grudge against them for some reason.

There was a time when this sort of slur would be regarded as more disturbing than the fact that this woman used the “R” word, a time when mutual respect was the rule and there was a sense that certain types of comments are inappropriate. We have lost that sense of propriety. It went out the window with good manners and the other Victorian baggage we were convinced would cramp our style, such things as duty, honor, and respect. But civil discourse lies at the core of “civilization,” and is one of the key factors separating us from the apes. If we must live together in crowded social groups it’s not enough to know how to speak; it requires that we know how to speak civilly to one another as well.

It’s not just bad manners to shout at one another, interrupt, insult, and toss offensive words about at random; it’s offensive and at the very least disrespectful and it even hurtful. Mutual respect lies at the heart of our moral system. The lack of respect we show in the way we speak to one another very easily translates into abuse and even violence to others we regard as inferior to ourselves. We should respect one another enough to at least listen and reply to what the other person has to say, to let them finish their sentences, and to respectfully disagree from time to time. We can even ignore them…..politely. But to address your President as a “retard” takes the problem to a new level. And this is especially so for a newscaster on a public show that is watched by millions who mistake it for the news. I think we know who is the intellectually challenged person here.