Michael Ryan

Peace of our private lives oddly absent in our public ones

You get up, kiss the family, pet the pet and go to work.

You have dozens of interactions throughout the day, at the office, at lunch, at the store, maybe a movie or play or concert or dinner out at night. And every one of them is civil, if not warm. If there’s an uncivil one, it’s rare and it stands out.

For most of us, that’s our world. We navigate work and society 9-to-5 while looking forward to shared times with our friends and family on evenings and weekends.

Then we turn on the TV or go online. And often, it’s the complete opposite. Cable’s talking heads explode. Threats and insults are all over “antisocial” media. Politicians paint each other as the devil. Someone delivers bumbled bombs to political foes. Someone else slaughters 11 innocents at a synagogue out of naked hatred.

How in the world can our public lives be so completely, dismally, appallingly different from our private lives?

It’s a simple question with what is likely a complicated answer.

Poor parenting may top the list. Then there’s the constant drumbeat of conflict and negativity on TV and the web. And have our national leaders ever been worse role models?

Moreover, much like getting in a car separates us from each other’s humanity, computers and modems and anonymity on the information superhighway encourage their own sort of road rage. As we’ve become more wired, we’ve become less connected.

It’s an awful lot to process. But the first step might be to take our hands off our neighbor’s throat.

I’ve been listening a lot lately to the Forrest Gump soundtrack, which is filled with great ‘60s music. I’m much too young – really, I swear – to have fully grasped the roiling angst of the time. But I have a fairly good recollection of the era’s anxiety, and it’s captured neatly and permanently in that music.

It strikes me that the mood and message of the songs bounce between anger – at the war, at social injustice, at the assassinations – and pleas for peace and love.

Half a century later, that’s our choice today, too.

How are we doing?

Kindness is clearly the preference in our private lives. Maybe it just takes a little more work to ply it in our public lives. But it’s never been more urgent to do so. Republicans were shot at last year on a ball field. Leading Democrats have just been sent two handfuls of bombs or replicas of them. Eleven fellow Americans were gunned down because they were Jewish.

Incivility may sound relatively innocuous, but it’s a poison — and it’s the gateway drug to hatred. You think maybe we’ve taken this incivility thing a little too far?

Yet, Hillary Clinton recently said it’s impossible to be civil to the other side right now. Former Obama attorney general Eric Holder said if the opponent goes low, “we kick ‘em.” Rep. Maxine Waters has urged supporters to angrily confront Cabinet members in public places.

Meanwhile, a conservative friend laments to me that “I don’t think there is an appetite for civility right now. There is a ‘war’ in this country that has to be fought before we can get there.”

Really? Is that what we want? The line between figurative and literal bomb-throwing may have just been crossed.

There’s an old James Bond movie called You Only Live Twice. Well, we kind of do. One life for our family and friends, and the other for our community, nation and world. How can we be so good at one and, as a society, so pitifully awful at the other?

Whatever the shape of our private lives, we’ve got to do better in our public ones. And we sure as heck can’t give up on civility. Have we truly considered the alternative and its ramifications?

After a day of encountering pleasantness almost everywhere we go and coming home for a cherished evening with companions and companion animals, we see the alternative in the news.

Far from being not pretty, it’s as ugly as can be.

Michael Ryan is Opinion Editor of the Star-Telegram.
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