As a neighborhood council member I’m seeing some of this breakdown in the neighborhoods as so many of Spokane’s homes are now rentals. This means that new people move in all the time, so long-time residents sort of withdraw and stick to themselves. Absentee landlords rent to anyone and the ‘point the finger’ relationship between landlords and tenants leads to a downward spiral of poorly maintained homes. Rising crime rates can result from these kinds of situations and all of this seems to justify ‘righteous’ anger and a ‘they are doing it to us again’ attitude.
The other force that I see working against a culture of basic friendliness is a national cultural change that is impacting all of us. One of the ‘gifts’ of the Republican party has been a public permission to hate. Their language and rhetoric over the past few years has made it permissible to show public disrespect for anyone (including the President of the United States) that they don’t like. It has fostered people like Donald Trump, who actually garners greater public approval by his public bashing of immigrants and even public figures (John McCain) he doesn’t like. For now many people have been outraged by these statements, but once statements like these become the ‘new norm’ Trump will be joined by many more and the tone of public discourse will hit a new low.
This culture has prompted some Republicans to bring in heads of state from other countries to undermine Presidential policies. This kind of behavior would have been seen as traitorous in times past, but it has raised barely a hiccup in the media. Where is public outcry? Perhaps the culture of disrespect is further along than even I imagined.
I see this culture of hate as one of the most pressing issues we face. Not only does it make public discourse problematic, it fosters a disrespect of law and due process that is very damaging to the roots of our democracy. What is most insidious about it is that once these new ‘norms’ get established, everyone contributes to that ‘normalizing’ process. Every time a public figure acts or speaks with anger and hatred, those ‘norms’ get reinforced. Every time a public figure disrespects another public figure, the need to respect each other becomes undermined.
As I observe public meetings and news events, I have seen people exhibit behavior that does not seem to be in alignment with what I perceive as a democratic value system. It doesn’t matter if the subject is one that supports the sick and needy if the discussion and presentation of it is filled with anger, name calling and recriminations, that anger shuts down discourse and the mistreatment of fellow participants undermines respect and by extension all participants.
I don’t believe that anyone intends these consequences, however each of us, in our own way, either works to create a culture where open and free discussion is safe and valued or not. Our actions in every meeting we are in and in every public forum we participate in can reinforces this negative kind of culture or dampen it. My hope is that by bringing this to your attention you will see the importance of reinforcing respect and fostering unfearful and free discussion – I believe that our democracy depends on this! You, dear reader, have the unique opportunity of becoming a public leader in reaffirming these two basic values: free and open discourse and mutual respect, if you have the courage to apologize publically when your own habits get in the way.
Changing habits is hard work! Doing so publically requires immense courage. This is how leaders change culture and help others gain an awareness of their own lapses in behavior. This is how great leaders give others the courage to make their own changes in habit. I fervently hope you are up to the challenge.