When I began this blog 91 entries and 26 months ago, I hoped to find a sense of relevance despite the facts around me: the world continues to rush through changes by super-sized leaps, some great improvements, some great disappointments. I work hard to keep up with the improvements, but I am terrified of the disappointments, the backsliding that seems to be overtaking us.
Core to my interaction with people—all people—is what used to be called “common courtesy.” I was treated with courtesy and taught courtesy throughout my youth: things were explained, requests were made, even corrections were given with a sense of shared respect. People listened to me as much as they expected me to listen to them. Articles in magazines and newspapers, television and radio shows, people on the street and on the phone…courtesy was common to them all. Not that we all agreed or gave in all the time…but disagreements became a discourse and true loggerheads required persuasion! Mad Magazine was as outrageous as behavior got: Mad Magazine was daringly impolite!
But common courtesy has “backslid” to become completely uncommon. Some burning need to be aggressive and to act superior to others has driven widespread attacks at any target at any opportunity. Trump’s Twitter attacks on people or institutions are crude, but met with equally insensitive, vulgar, or even libelous verbal attacks. Roseanne Barr’s infamous tweet was ignorant, but met with tremendous venom, the cruelty of which often surpassed the original ignorance. Sarah Huckabee Sanders was asked to leave a restaurant and the response was both self-righteous “moral superiority” on one side and caustic outrage on the other. Recently, a member of Congress said that opposition to Trump’s immigration policy should be delivered as “public harassment.”
Even away from the spotlight of fame, every day on Facebook or Twitter I see torrents of angry, racist, mean-spirited, dangerous commentary. Post even a mild-mannered opinion and chances are someone will attack it. Online news headlines often feature reports/photos/videos of intolerant people demonstrating their worst behavior…only to become quickly “viral” with volumes of venomous, self-righteous commentary both in defense and opposition. Anger generates anger, insults stimulate insults, “our” self-righteousness is opposed by “their” self-righteousness!
Yet I know that courtesy gets us so much further than harassment or defiance. Some will shout me down; the kind ones will say, “Naïve and irrelevant!” and the rude ones will shout, “Ignorant! Stupid! Shut up!” But at the heart of courtesy is simple respect—not always agreement or acceptance, but a basic respect that acknowledges other’s needs, other’s ideas, other’s opinions. Courtesy assumes a sense of equality between and among all people, and meets them with sensible behavior. Especially when there is disagreement or unacceptance, courtesy is usually the best bridge.
As a perfect example, on June 10 at the Tony Awards, Robert DeNiro used his fame to shout an obscenity at President Donald Trump; most, if not all, of the audience stood to applaud. But I’m convinced it accomplished nothing…DeNiro’s attitude toward the President is well known and the vulgarity of his anger simply generated anger: DeNiro supporters were reminded of their anger, and Trump supporters were angry with DeNiro. Shortly later and in sharp contrast, when Tony Shalhoub was named the year’s Best Leading Actor In A Musical, he took the stage to deliver an eloquent message against Trump’s policies—without ever mentioning Trump’s name. He delivered a strong, positive lesson about his father's immigration while remaining courteous to his audience, respectful to the Tony Awards and to the nation. DeNiro got all the headlines, but viral venom flooded the internet pro and con for days; conversely, Shalhoub’s courteous message met ignorance with intelligence, blindness with vision, hatred with love. I’m convinced that Shalhoub used his two-minutes to raise us up, to bypass our anger, maybe even to think for a moment. That’s what courtesy can do.