In late April, thousands of mourners said their goodbyes to Freddie Gray, the 25-year-old black man who died of a spinal cord injury while in police custody in Baltimore. It was not a peaceful day of mourning. Teenagers pelted police with rocks, boards, and blocks of concrete, accusing them of discrimination and brutality. By nightfall, 15 officers were left injured as the city plunged into its worst racial unrest since the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr.
The uprising was more purposeful than crime of passion: According to the New York Times, a flier circulating on social media issued a call to action and said when and where the rioting was to begin. Vandalism and other shows of violence had broken out a few days earlier, too, now seemingly par for the course in matters of racial tension and police behavior.
Not that other aspects of our lives these days are any less tense: politics, international affairs, women’s rights, even pop culture headlines talk of tension and animosity. In the hours after Bruce Jenner’s revealing late-April interview with Diane Sawyer, NBA player and former Kardashian spouse Kris Humphries unleashed a snarky, downright mean tweet: “Man, I’m glad I got out when I did. #Gottadoyou.” He ultimately apologized, claiming that his mistake was in being vague and that he, in fact, supported Jenner. Perhaps that’s true. Perhaps we’re so accustomed to expecting nastiness that, when given a choice, we “read mean” or otherwise jump to the worst possible conclusions. Or perhaps Humphries’s immediate response was to be a jerk, and only once he realized that there would be backlash did he seek to “clarify.”
Rodney King famously asked: “Can’t we all get along?” Nearly a quarter of a century later, I wonder if maybe the answer is no. Maybe in spite of our best efforts and our most optimistic hopes, a new age of permanent animosity has settled in. The aisle that politicians used to reach across has become a current-day line of demarcation. Political hopefuls won’t be elected with a message of cooperation — because cooperation equals conciliation, and conciliation means giving in to people with evil intent. This is also one reason why certain leaders — Rush Limbaugh, Al Sharpton, and Ted Cruz are three that come to mind — have actively sought out polarization instead of collaboration. Polarizing views often attract the most people, if only because the views are clear and unquestionable. A show of animosity has somehow come to equal a show of strength.
That said, when it comes to politics in an age of distrust, we refuse to see politicians as anything but divisive anyway. As Mark Leibovich wrote recently in the New York Times Magazine, politicians aren’t polarizing because of any specific action on their part, necessarily. They’re polarizing because that’s what politicians are — or, at least, that’s what we expect them to be. We have come to expect disagreement and unrest and dissent.
The talk show universe, meanwhile, is full of animosity. Contradiction is proof that you have a different, unique point of view. More importantly, it sells. So when Keith Olbermann calls for a boycott of the NFL draft, he knows he’ll stir up controversy and generate hate letters. If he didn’t, that would mean no one was paying attention. Have you ever taken the time to read the comments sections of most online news stories? They skew nasty. Sure, some people go on with the intention of engaging in meaningful debate. But others just want to hurl insults at the writer, the other commenters, and the world in general. The more negative they are, it seems, the more attention they get. Social media works this way, too. “Mean tweets” generate press. See: Kris Humphries.
Oh, but only if all the meanness were confined to the World Wide Web. We know it isn’t. If the killing of young black men and the limiting of women’s rights and the bans on same-sex marriages (or, ludicrously and cruelly, on providing services to same-sex couples) weren’t enough to convince you, science might. A 2014 poll by Weber Shandwick and Powell Tate in partnership with KRC Research found that most people think America has a raging anger problem, and that it’s only going to get worse. Could be because a study published in the journal Social Psychological and Personality Science found that the ruder or more disrespectful someone acts, the more respect he commands in others? How can such behavior not be contagious? We’re living in an age of where the emotional domino effect follows the slogan, “Do unto others first, before they do unto you.” Be the bully, lest you be the victim.
It’s hard to imagine continuing to function in a world like this, or at least feeling good about doing so. Who really, truly wants to get ahead with bully tactics? Which is why my prediction for the next 10 years is that widespread animosity will breathe its last nasty breath. It has to. Family problems might persist, the divorce rate may keep rising, economic issues may not be favorably resolved. There will undoubtedly still be geopolitical problems and cultural shifts. But the one-sided sense of entitlement that seems to be going around now will stop. The bad behavior that’s hurting our fellow citizens will end.
It has to. We’re better than this.
This post is part of a series commemorating The Huffington Post’s 10 Year Anniversary through expert opinions looking forward to the next decade in their respective fields. To see all of the posts in the series, read here.
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