A columnist of heart and mind

A columnist of heart and mind
Interviewing the animals at Children's Fairyland in Oakland. L-R: Bobo the sheep, Gideon the miniature donkey, me, Tumbleweed Tommy the miniature donkey, Juan the alpaca, Coco the pony

Sunday, October 16, 2011

Rodney King Was Right

(Above: Rodney King at the press conference following the riots that broke out after the cops who beat him up were acquitted.)

Last week I was talking with a woman whose job is handling customer complaints for a local business. I asked if she's noticed any change lately in the tone of the phone calls.
"Absolutely!" she said. "People are angrier - a LOT angrier. Sometimes I go home after work shaking from the abuse."
I've been hearing the same thing from other people who deal with the public: sales clerks, bus drivers, telephone operators - you name it.
On the other hand, I hear from my friends that when they call a business, the people on the other end of the line are getting snippier, too.
I've also noticed this growing testiness in interpersonal relationships - stupid fights over stupid issues that at another time might have been chalked up to a simple misunderstanding and quickly forgotten.
And I see it on Facebook, listservs and other social media, where the rhetoric is getting meaner and more confrontational.
People are quicker to flip you off in traffic or to blast their horn if you're even a split-second late hitting the gas pedal after the light turns green.
In short, we're getting grumpier. A few weeks ago I wrote a column lamenting the rising anger in our political discourse; and, predictably, I got a lot of angry emails in reply.
But I think the problem goes way beyond the current political nastiness, although that isn't helping matters.
We have been suffering from this terrible recession for more than four years, with no end in sight.
Those who have lost their jobs, their homes or their retirement savings are clearly under a lot of pressure. But even those who have been able to hang on to their jobs are filled with anxiety, and with good reason: There's no telling where the next pink slip will land.
It's not hard to figure out. In high school biology class they taught us that if you put rats in a Skinner box under a lot of pressure, they'll start biting each other.
And when people are put under pressure, they react the same way: by turning on each other. Divorce and domestic abuse rates rise, and the scapegoating and finger pointing - usually at the most vulnerable among us - starts. The history books tell us that the national mood was pretty sour during the Great Depression, too.
I'm no exception. I'm becoming too quick to take offense and too slow to let it drop.
It's all very understandable, even excusable. But is it wise? Things are tough enough without us making it worse by being at each other's throats.
Yes, we feel powerless to change the world. But we can still change the tiny part of the world immediately around us.
We can start by realizing that every person we encounter is a human being, too. The next time someone is rude to you, be generous and don't respond in kind. You don't know what kind of awful day they might be having.
We all need to slow down, cut each other some slack and not sweat the small stuff. Otherwise, we end up becoming part of the problem.
I'm sorry this column isn't very profound. The best I can offer is the question posed by Rodney King: Can't we all just get along?