Life in the Box: Addicted to Mean


I sent the following two paragraphs to my local newspaper this morning: 

Today’s conservative “news” sources spread unfounded conspiracy theories and take character assassination to a new level. But it is nearly impossible to convince their viewers that what they say isn’t true. And it is impossible to get that audience to stop listening. They are like addicts: they get a “high” from mean-spirited commentators.

So, I propose that America needs to do an intervention. We need to offer incentives to get people off their bad news source addictions. Maybe, like Andrew Yang’s idea, we should offer $1,000 per month for everyone who goes into a recovery program and stays away from this criminally fake news. That’s the only way we can make Americans start believing in reality again.

That’s the short take on where my mind has gone this week of impeachment declarations. The longer version follows. It’s based on my experiences of the last year trying to understand why people watch Fox “news” and how dearly they hold its teachings.  See what you think: 

Something hit me recently, maybe it’s obvious to everyone else, but there’s a whole side to human nature that loves being mean. Let me zoom in on just one aspect: saying mean things to and about other people.

Teen movies always have the “mean girls” crowd, where the “popular” girls grind other less fortunate girls’ egos into the ground. I never knew girls like that in high school, but apparently Hollywood knows all about it.

Then there’s the whole aspect that Alice Roosevelt Longworth supposedly said, “If you have nothing good to say about someone, sit here next to me.” The phrase has also been attributed to others, like Dorothy Parker, and it is quoted in the movie Steel Magnolias.

Those of us who prefer being polite, being helpful and encouraging, and seeing the best in others, know that being nice can take a lot of effort. It can also conceal the truth. Perhaps someone really can be too fat, too ugly, too dull. There’s a sense of relief when the white gloves come off and the boxing gloves go on.

But the opposite is also true: mean statements can conceal the truth that we all are trying our best and are worthy of love and respect. And there are some very real, deadly consequences when large groups of people embrace their snide side. I’ll get to that later.

There have been movements in my lifetime to try and find polite and supportive words to describe minorities of all ilks. Back in the 90s, we nudged each other to say: “hearing impaired” instead of deaf, “mentally challenged” instead of retarded, and so on. Immediately, there was a backlash and the term “political correctness” was created to show that many people were reluctant to use the new terminology; they just said the words to gain favor, not from any heart-felt longing. Many of us read “Politically Correct Bedtime Stories” and other joke books, and laughed a bit, but cringed more.

Efforts to use language to show people in a positive light and to be as inclusive as possible can definitely can go to extremes. There’s a 2018 opinion column about alleged excesses that I’ve included in the links, below. It was published in the conservative New York Post, which, according to Fact Check is on what I would call the mean side:

“They [the New York Post] often publish factual information that utilizes loaded words (wording that attempts to influence an audience by using appeal to emotion or stereotypes) to favor conservative causes.”

The above opinion columnist also tried to deny the argument that if speech is used to threaten people, it can be an act of violence, in itself. Is urging someone to a violent act part of the ensuing violent crime? Serious people could prove a good argument for that case. But seriousness isn’t the point, apparently.

What I’m noticing these days, in the America of two realities, is that the anger about political correctness has become a love, a joy, a rapturous embrace of politically spiteful language. It’s underlying that way-out-of-line-with-reality laughter that we see at Trump rallies. It’s “Lock Her Up” chants that belie the ugly truth that she didn’t do anything worthy of such treatment. It’s the hilarity at the candidate’s jokes about getting away with murder. Murder is not funny. No one should want to murder, nor should they think it’s funny to get away with it. But the crowd laughs.

Long ago, a friend of mine explained that she listened to Rush Limbaugh because he made her laugh; he was like a clown. I was floored that she thought this. The experience of listening to him made me want to throw up and break out in hives simultaneously: I didn’t ever consider that people thought he was funny. 

I guess I’ve been concentrating so much on the content of their words that I didn’t pay attention to the laughter, the lilt behind it. The snort that goes along with “Ha, it’s snowing out. So much for global warming!” “Ha, Trump isn’t racist, Obama is.” “Ha, impeach Trump? They’re just jealous that he won.” The unbearable untruth of these statements is where I instinctively want to respond, but the emotional message, the laughter, is important, too. It tells us that the people speaking these words are enjoying themselves.

What are they embracing, really? They are finding relief in being able to just say anything, without facing any consequences. They love spreading rumors and innuendo without doing their homework to see if it’s true. “Nothing bad will happen to us,” if we say something impolite or intemperate. “The President said it, why can’t I?”

It’s like smokers who think they won’t get cancer. It’s like drinking all night and thinking there won’t be a hangover. It’s like owning all kinds of loaded guns and thinking your kids will never find them. It’s like driving without a seat belt; riding a motorcycle without a helmet; racing across a railroad track in front of a train. Nothing bad will ever happen. It’s a crowd on opioids. They think they’ll always feel this good. And nothing anyone can say will prevent them from continuing on this path.

I’m worried about this. Addictions are bad, and Trump followers seem like addicts to me. They are high. They are high on the freedom to be mean. If you tell them that all highs are followed by a big crash, they respond, “You don’t know what you’re talking about.”

Reasoning with them doesn’t work. And when the bad consequences arrive, the Trump followers will crash, and unfortunately, so will the rest of us. In fact we already are.

Those of us on the ground know that our government is collapsing: any government employee standing up for lawful and ethical behavior is being purged; at the same time, lawless and greedy people are being given incredible power. Government scientists have been removed, their work undone. The educational system is being “privatized,” which means unfunded.

Government agencies are being instructed to seize immigrants and are sending them to their deaths in other countries; laws about clean air and water have been trashed. So many aspects of government that used to protect us have been turned into weapons against us. It is a harsh reality.

The President is already seemingly an autocrat, someone whose power is going unchecked, and he looks for the worst people to fill jobs around him. He is an autocrat surrounded by people who don’t care about public service, the law, or human decency. They have narrow agendas and unlimited power as long as they hail Trump.

Which brings us to the impeachment efforts against Donald Trump. Despite all the stacks of evidence against him, detailing his many different kinds of malfeasance and probably criminal behavior, those Trump followers have ignored it all and they still say, “He’s such a good guy!” That wouldn’t matter so much except that there is a whole unified party who call themselves Republicans who are flying high on the power of unreality. They apparently have no qualms about ignoring and supporting the many untruths and unveiled hostility of Trump. They don’t care that they are letting the Constitution lose its power. The Republican party has gone all-in for this Autocracy. They may not love their dictator, but they love being mean. They think their high will never end.

Will it? The consequences of this administration’s actions will go far beyond mean and cruel speech, they have been enacting cruel policies. But mean and cruel speech has been fueling those who vote Republican. By gathering a crowd that loves to hear and repeat hateful, mean words, the President has led his Party into power. Is the power of cruelty without consequences? We’ll see.

Nancy Heather Brown is a retired, Emmy Award-winning television producer whose career has included interviewing, writing, narrating and editing for a span of four decades. Today, she enjoys learning new things and reflecting upon the creative process and life issues, both inside and outside the box. Her opinions are her own, and are not necessarily those of this web site. 

Conservative (and maybe not all true) column against the “PC police.”

Rachel Maddow on Colbert: the simple case against Trump “He did it.” 

Rachel Maddow summarizes the Impeachment Report

Visual credits: NBC News, Pixabay image by John Hain