“Stop living in fear,” he shouted as I returned to my car. “Libtard!”
It was Friday morning, and I had just stopped for gas before leaving for work. I decided to go into the convenience store and grab a drink to take with me, and that must have been when I provoked the exchange. It was early, but the store was busy with customers grabbing their coffee and other supplies to get through their Friday duties. We were a mix of masked and unmasked customers. I did my best to stay more than six feet from any customer–especially the unmasked variety–and I chose the line with the cashier who chose to wear her mask properly instead of the other who wore it tucked under her chin.
Eyes reveal a lot, and I must have communicated some nonverbal disapproval earlier. Maybe he noticed my intentional distancing while inside the building, and he was offended. Perhaps he noticed my choosing the longer line to avoid the cashier with her mouth and nose fully exposed to customers. Most likely, however, it was my mask. Far too many people consider it has a symbol of fear instead of a sign of trusting science and an effort to protect self and others.
Libtard, I thought as I drove away. That’s a word I haven’t heard for some time. I don’t like labels, but I don’t let them, how erroneously they might be derived, define me. I’ve become accustomed to being mislabeled throughout my life. Honestly, I can easily brush off the current preferred pejoratives snowflake, boomer, and Karen. I even occasionally embrace an epithet or two.
We like to blame our uncivil discourse and name calling on social media, but our national problem has a long history leading up to today. I will begin in the ‘80s–a time that saw a drastic changes socially and politically. Mass media was evolving, and AM radio was in a dramatic decline. Listeners were switching to FM stations for their listening pleasure, and the AM radio channels were struggling. In 1987, the FCC approved a repeal of the Fairness Doctrine, and that led to the birth of conservative talk radio, and our civil discourse has dramatically changed as a result.
In the beginning, we saw the kindler, gentler conservatives who already had significant followings, such as Paul Harvey, become centerpieces of building the talk radio format that we see today. It wasn’t until Rush Limbaugh came into the picture, however, that the movement became a prominent force that changed politics in the United States. Limbaugh was controversial, brash and unapologetic, and his audiences loved it.
More liberal-leaning personalities attempted to match that success with progressive talk radio, but they were unable capture audiences and advertising revenue the conservative radio personalities did.
Technology has evolved, and we now have streaming services that bring us a more diverse group of thought leaders. Unfortunately, it seems like the more extreme and divisive voices are, the more successful they are at building large, loyal audiences.
Because of this, we have become a less kind and less gentle society. The Internet is full of memes and animated gifs singularly intent on trolling others. A simple web search will reveal hundreds of websites that sell t-shirts or bumper stickers to own the oppostion. You will find thousands podcasts and video channels to support your personal biases. Division has become an easy way for people to earn a living, and we are currently experiencing an existential crisis because of it.
I soon forgot the early Friday morning exchange. Working with students helps center my thoughts and emotions. I realized later, however, that the combination of my t-shirt and face mask must have triggered the stranger’s comments. It wasn’t until a co-worker mentioned she liked my shirt. I looked down to see the words BE KIND in bold white letters. Two words. According to both political extremes, those two words are considered a sign weakness. We must destroy the opposition, they say, and we must do it at all costs.
Are we beyond kindness? It requires empathy. Developing empathy requires effort. We must talk with people, and we must do it by practicing active listening. We must listen to understand, break out of our comfort zones, explore the hearts of people with different beliefs and question our own.The Other KLM
We need to demand better from our thought-leader celebrities, and we must lead by example. It’s too easy to resort to the easy online cheap shot when confronting disagreements. I do it. I commit to be better and provide stronger examples of how we can build bridges instead of dig deeper trenches. We must be better. Our survival depends on it.