The airwaves, newspapers and blogosphere were abuzz this week with the fiasco involving Shirley Sherrod, the USDA worker forced to resign over a fabricated racial controversy. The original slur was initiated by a blogger who posted a misleading video clip of a speech by Ms. Sherrod. Ultimately, Sherrod was cleared of any racist leanings, and we must now hope for some genuine soul-searching among all those who failed the most elementary tests of fairness, accuracy and decency in responding to the original charges.
But the other day, amidst all the commentary on Shirley Sherrod, a short article buried inside the Sunday New York Times caught my eye. Innocuously entitled, “No Air-Conditioning, and Happy,”1 the article concerned a certain agricultural scientist and his wife who “…do not use air-conditioning as a matter of personal preference and principle — even on the most hostile days.” The scientist, Stan Cox, recently wrote an op-ed piece for the Washington Post, in which he questioned the excessive use of air conditioning in modern society.
And what does this have to do with the Sherrod debacle?
Well, according to the Times report, Mr. Cox has “faced death threats” since publishing his op-ed, which was followed by “…sixty-seven pages of cringe-inducing email messages”, one of which “threatened to shoot Mr. Cox.” Shoot someone? Over an opinion piece questioning the use of air conditioners? Mr. Cox’s response was a blandly good-natured shrug: “Maybe enjoyment of thermal variety isn’t for everybody,” he opined. But Mr. Cox may not have appreciated that, like Shirley Sherrod, he had been the target of what I call our “Gotcha-Pounce Culture”.
The gotcha-pounce ritual begins when a particular individual is “caught” in some alleged crime, scandal, or indiscretion (“Gotcha!”). Then, long before the facts are fully known, the unfortunate person is pounced upon by various bloggers and pundits, often to the lasting detriment of his or her reputation. And whereas most commentaries on Ms. Sherrod depicted such character assassination as an “inside the Beltway” blood-sport, I believe the problem is far more pervasive in this country. The gotcha-pounce maneuver has become the default mode for much of our internet and broadcast communication, and for what nowadays passes as journalism.
The anonymity of the internet is no doubt a major catalyst for our growing tendency to “flame first, ask questions later.” What could be easier–and more satisfying–than hurling a blazing, nameless email out into the blogosphere, verbally incinerating one’s enemy? I suspect (but can’t prove) that this anonymous, gotcha-pounce messaging is accompanied by a massive flood of dopamine in the “reward circuits” of the sender’s brain—the same circuits that are activated by cocaine, alcohol, and other substances of abuse. A recent article by Neil Swidey in the Boston Globe Magazine2 highlighted the problem of “…people who are allowed to name-call without any obligation to reveal their own names.” To be sure, there are pros and cons to such anonymity, as Swidey points out: “On one side, anonymous comments give users the freedom to be completely candid in a public forum. On the other, that freedom can be abused and manipulated to spread lies or mask hidden agendas.”2
But the underlying problem can’t be reduced to one of internet anonymity. After all, the “attack video” that caused so much pain for Ms. Sherrod was released by a well-known blogger, Andrew Breitbart, who did nothing to conceal his identity. Rather, in my view, there are forces at work in our culture that go well beyond the internet, and have to do with fundamental shifts in the way Americans relate to one another in the past few decades.
By now, it is a truism to claim that there has been a “breakdown in civility” in this country — my Google search using that phrase turned up 44,800 results. Much of the commentary on this trend has focused on the abysmal level of political “discourse” in recent years, particularly since the beginning of the Obama administration — for example, the infamous “You lie!” outburst by Rep. Joe Wilson. But “civility” has to do mainly with courteous and considerate social behavior. The profusion of venomous personal attacks — and the “gotcha-pounce” phenomenon I have described — goes well beyond incivility. We need an explanation of why decency itself seems to be in decline.
But is this impression well-founded? To be sure, there are still millions of decent and caring people out there. And, in casting stones against our own times, we risk sounding a bit like Miniver Cheevy, the embittered character in the E. A. Robinson poem who longs for “the days of old/when swords were bright and steeds were prancing.” True: there has always been hatred, libel and slander—but there is evidence that certain kinds of hateful behavior have been on the increase in recent years.
For example, between 2002 and 2008, reports of “cyber-bullying” — defined as the “willfull and repeated harm inflicted through the use of computers, cell phones, and other electronic devices” — have increased from about 15% to more than 30% of respondents, according to research by criminologists Sameer Hinduja and Justin W. Patchin.3 Even more disturbing, Human Rights First (HRF) — a non-profit, nonpartisan international human rights organization — reports that in the U.S. and in many other countries, violent “hate crimes” are on the rise. In a recent survey of 56 European and North American countries, HRF found that “…violent hate crime — individuals or property targeted with violence on account of race, religion, ethnicity, sexual orientation, disability or similar status — is occurring at historically high levels in many [surveyed] countries.”4 More specifically,
People of African origin, regardless of their citizenship status, were subjected to some of the most persistent and serious attacks, and were among the principal victims of racist and xenophobic violence in Europe and North America…African Americans continue to be the largest group targeted for hate crime violence in the United States… In the United States, recent debates on immigration have polarized society and provided the backdrop for a surge in reported violent assaults against people of Hispanic origin, both citizens and immigrants, in the last several years…4
Perhaps there is no unifying theory that can explain why hate crimes world-wide are on the increase, or why people as diverse as Shirley Sherrod and Stan Cox should be subjected to vilification and abuse. As a psychiatrist, I am trained to look primarily at individuals, not whole cultures and societies. So it is merely informed speculation when I suggest that, in the U.S., the decline of decency may be driven by at least three confluent forces:
- Increased rates of cultural narcissism, with an accompanying sense of overweening personal entitlement5;
- Increased strain and fragmentation within the American family, with a consequent loss of basic trust in other people; and
- Increased religious, political and economic upheaval, with its attendant pitting of one interest group or extremist faction against another, all competing for scarce resources.
These factors are certainly not meant to be exhaustive. But we as a people must begin our self-examination somewhere, lest we wind up in a Hobbesian society where life is “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short.” Indeed, as Franklin D. Roosevelt reminded us, “If civilization is to survive, we must cultivate the science of human relationships — the ability of all peoples, of all kinds, to live together, in the same world at peace.”
1. Saulnay S: No air conditioning and happy.
2. Swidey, N: Inside the mind of the anonymous online poster
3. Hinduja S, Patchin JW: Bullying Beyond the Schoolyard: Preventing and Responding to Cyberbullying. Corwin Press, 2008.
4. Hate Crime Survey: Overview.
5. Pies R: Have we become a nation of narcissists?