A participant in one of my programs confided that she no longer spoke to her brother. They were on bitterly opposite sides of the recent US Supreme Court nomination battle over Judge Kavanaugh.
She was not the only one. There have been many others and some battles have pitted even closer persons against each other and become more rancorous.
The nation is torn. The world is divided.
And the chasm is widening, and vitriol is increasing.
How did we get this way?
There are many factors but here is a really important one that we don’t consider.
Back in the early seventies, when I was a doctoral candidate at Columbia Business School, the Morningside Heights area was not very safe. Several of my classmates were mugged. One was hit on the head with an iron rod and I saw her still bloody wound when she came to school.
That was the time the original Death Wish came to the screen and it was an instant box office hit.
I saw it and enjoyed it hugely. I cheered lustily many times as the protagonist went about his mission with deadly accuracy.
For those not familiar with the 1974 movie, it was about a mild-mannered architect whose wife and daughter were assaulted in a robbery. The wife died. The daughter had to be institutionalized.
There were plot twists, but the architect takes to the streets with a gun and shoots various criminals. Some he catches in the act. Some he entices to attack him.
It felt good to see those crappy, crummy, sleaze bags get their due with no delay. That movie transformed Charles Bronson from a well-known actor to a super star and is his defining role.
I watched Death Wish again recently but had a different take on it this time around. Movies like it are a HUGE part of the problem.
There are thousands of movies – Payback, Kill Bill, Revenge, etc. – with the theme of a valiant hero(ine) demolishing the evil-doers.
Mega popular TV serials – Homeland, 24, Fauda, etc. – have the same story line.
They are entertaining, so we watch them and are enthralled by them.
We don’t pause to think that they are also conveying a message that is getting more and more deeply embedded in our psyches.
1) There is a duality. There are ‘good guys’ and ‘bad guys’ and we identify with the former.
2) The ‘bad guys’ are truly evil and we need to stamp them out by any means. Violence is not just acceptable – it is highly desirable.
3) Persons not ready to engage in such fighting are ‘wimps’ who frustrate us ‘good guys’.
4) Anger is good. Revenge is sweet. We must persist till we annihilate those dastardly rascals.
There is not a lot of nuance and the world is black and white. This makes it simple to spot our ‘enemies’ and easy to figure out what to do with them.
Constant bombardment with such ideas means that we start seeing the world in this manner. Virtual Reality and massive multiplayer games blur the distinction between real and entertainment.
We see the world a tussle between ‘us’ and ‘them’ and we root for our side and are ready to do anything to win.
Unfortunately, the ‘real world’ is morally ambiguous and has a lot of grey with fringes of black and white.
But we cannot deal with this so we force-fit everyone into the boxes we create and deal with them as we have become conditioned to do.
We are not yet at the stage of rampant physical violence, but we sure have reached the stage of tempestuous emotional assault.
Sex, violence and extreme views expressed vociferously grab attention. And attention is the currency that enriches our new media giants Facebook, Twitter, and Google.
We may not be swayed by any individual story. We resist being ‘manipulated’ by a particular news account.
We don’t understand that we are being influenced at a much deeper level. That we see the world more and more as a contest between ‘them’ and ‘us’.
That it is OK to do dirty on them because ‘they’ started it.
And it goes downhill from there.
The tech companies mouth pious platitudes about cleaning up their act. But their business model is based on grabbing your attention, so they will not make any significant change.
And they will continue to bring up the right to ‘free speech’ to show that they are really being high-minded.
I don’t have the answer for what should – or can – be done societally.
But I do know what you can do.
Each time you watch a movie or read a book or engage in a heated discussion, you are going on a journey.
Ask yourself, “Is this a journey I want to take? Does it take me to a place that I want to spend time in? Do I feel more serene and full of love for my fellow human beings? Or am I more agitated and alienated from others?”
If you ask these questions seriously and sincerely, your life will change. The books you read, the movies you watch the conversations you have and people you have them with will all be different.
If enough persons do this, the world will also change.
As Gandhi said, “Be the change you want to see!”