Normally, wakes are sad but civil. Pay respects to the deceased and offer compassion to the family. I'm afraid, though, that even wakes and funerals will no longer be safe havens against meanness, intolerance and incivility. Giving the benefit of the doubt to our president-elect, and perhaps unintended on his part, incivility is on the rise as people say whatever they want to say -- politeness be damned.
Take my recent experience at a wake. A prominent woman whom I had met before approached me with the initial traditional pleasantries. How are you? How is your family? Didn't she (the deceased) have a nice life? Then came a torrent of long-repressed feelings that has become acceptable in the new era of incivility.
"Stuart, we're gonna take back our country," she said. "Who is 'we' and what are we gonna take back?" I asked.
"I'm Evangelical," she replied. "It's a new day in America. And we're gonna take back our country for God! There's no stopping us now."
Engaging her in conversation, I tried to explain my point of view.
"I applaud your intentions -- especially because I also feel devoted to my relationship with God. But being pragmatic, and recognizing that there are certain trends -- especially with Millennials -- that are gravitating against organized religion, might it be more effective to advocate that we all can be God-like and live God's values by how we treat each other every day? By living the Golden Rule. By doing acts of kindness."
The torrent spilled over into an attack: "No, it has to be God. People have to acknowledge God. Values aren't good enough. I'm sick and tired of being lectured by people like you, and I don't have to take it any longer. I'm out of here." And she ran out of the room in a huff.
She definitely made an impression on me, but it was that of an angry, intolerant, mean-spirited ideologue who has been given license by Donald Trump to say whatever she feels to suit her agenda, however "grating" that may be to others. Her's was not win-win; it was a zero-sum game about winning only for her particular ideology. Conversation and conciliation were not in her wheelhouse.
We have been accustomed to seeing bitter partisan wars in our politics, but are we prepared for religious wars, economic wars, ethnocentric wars and culture wars among acquaintances, friends, allies, co-workers, students and leaders? Will conversation devolve into conflict at every level of American society, including at wakes and funerals, confirmations and weddings? And what about business meetings -- will they be exempt?
I fear that this kind of incivility tsunami will force a tipping point onto an America that has already been leaning that way. According to a report by The AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety, 80 percent of American drivers engage in acts of road rage, ranging from non-verbal gestures, to purposely tailgating, to yelling, to ramming other vehicles, to shooting at other motorists. The report states that approximately eight million U.S. drivers engaged in extreme incidents of road rage in 2015, with male and younger drivers ages 19-39 leading the way. Nearly two-thirds of American drivers believe that road rage is a serious concern for their personal safety.
Another example is the spate of recent teen-driven mall fights that simultaneously broke out across the country in at least fifteen major malls. As reported by the New York Times, police suspect that the skirmishes were loosely organized, like flash mobs, through social media. Some police blamed the incidents on teens having too much time on their hands.
I believe that teens are mirroring the trend line of incivility. Teens have had too much time on their hands for decades and social media has been around for several years. But organized mob-like fighting across the country is something new to post-election 2016.
Teens are the canary in the coal mine. Having co-founded a teen kindness and anti-bullying program 23 years ago, I have studied teen issues for at least that long. One principal explained teen behavior to me like this: "Whatever malaise is going on in the adult world, teens absorb it like sponges and then they copy and amplify it."
Increased road rage, election and post-election violence, teen fighting mobs, political protests, and riots on college campuses are some of the more obvious spikes in incivility that are overlays to already-tense police and racial relations in many communities.
These -- and my encounter at the wake -- are symptoms of an out-of-the-closet incivility that has been sanctioned by the antics of the most recent presidential election. It continues, fueled in part by a "Twitter-in-chief" who insists on lashing out without tact or filter, as he did recently to Vanity Fair because its culinary reporter wrote a negative review about the Trump International Hotel's new restaurant in Washington, D.C.
During the Holocaust, prominent psychiatrist Dr. Viktor Frankl, in his seminal work Man's Search for Meaning, wrote that there are two races of mankind: the decent and the indecent. The indecent come in all shapes, sizes, genders, political leanings, races and religions. So do the decent. Our country currently teeter-totters between the two. And as political, cultural and social influencers toggle between both, social norms about how we treat each other precipitously hang in the balance.
Jerry Falwell, Jr., president of Evangelical-Christian Liberty University, said it best last week on Fox News Sunday when he declared that, "God wants us to love our neighbor as ourselves. If we each lived our lives that way, the world would be a different place."
Something for all Americans -- and political leaders -- to think about as we enter 2017.
Muszynski is Founder of Purple America, a national initiative of Values-in-Action Foundation to re-focus the American conversation to a civil, productive and respectful dialogue around our shared values. To see America's shared values and get involved, go to www.PurpleAmerica.us. Project Love is a school-based character-development program of Values-in-Action Foundation. To see information about Project Love school programming, go to www.projectlove.org.
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