Accusatory, nightmarish and alarmist visions front-page our printed newspapers, transmit from our airwaves and blanket our digital world. We are informed about corruption, exploitation, bigotry and a long list of other malfeasance in the corridors of local and national political and corporate power. Communication is often vulgar, hypocritical and intolerant. It goes without saying that unless our heads are buried in the sand, respect is in short supply. A large number of Americans have lost their way with the respect and decency that represent the practice of our self-ruled good citizenship and the management of our biology. The hounds have been released and the politeness, manners and goodwill that help shape our individual freedom and public communication are in retreat.
Hate-filled thoughts and angry prejudices produce a radical change in public communication. What used to be very private, indigenous or homegrown thoughts are now aired via the Internet and social media to fuel the viciousness and spite of others. Violent threats, character assassination, deliberate lies and false accusations are commonplace. Normative virtues such as solidarity, civility, kindness, courtesy and fair play are often ignored.
But we Americans passionately want respect. It is this desire of ours that makes our reputation or sense of self-worth so vulnerable to insult. It activates our aggressive impulses and provides the incentive to weaponize rudeness.
Moreover, we know that these urges are inflamed reflexive defenses. It is not unnatural or shameful that we have unruly and antagonistic feelings or that we are easily incited by the rhetoric designed to provoke their meanest expression. We recognize the involuntary nature of our determinism — the instinctual fears, hates, anger, passions and selfishness by which we are often herded and exploited. We also know that these urges are not easy to change. It takes planning and disciplined hard work to make our dreams come true — to excel in any field of endeavor and to be acknowledged for it. And it also takes hard work to transcend urges and lifelong habits of crude thinking, offensive speaking and menacing behavior.
In fact, it has often been said that America’s individual freedom — the freedom to be an individual — may be incompatible with what can reasonably be expected from human beings. This is because it asks that we rise above our unconscionable and ill-mannered communications and actions. None of us is unaware of societal expectations, whether large or small. They ask us to elevate ourselves by acquiring the discipline to do unto others as we would have them do unto us.
In my opinion, when we don’t respect others, it is not because we have carefully considered the consequences of repugnant behavior and still chosen to act badly. It is because we are yet incapable of holding ourselves to account for an ennobled and ennobling expression of being alive, of being one among many involved in the American experiment with individual freedom.
Still, as I said, without regulative and humane ideals in place, we are unwitting brutes, rounded up by the most powerful among us to be cruel or reflexively timid, coarse, irresponsible and irrational and convinced that our belligerence is a mark of individuality rather than a failure of same.
Responsibly enacting America’s individual freedom requires that we accept the obligations of the regulative matrix that shapes our thinking, speaking and doing. This freedom depends on solidarity — on our commitment to try to moderate the visceral antagonism that protects what we think is our self-interest — so we can find a common ground on which to carry out America’s ideals.
- Can we get our house in order?
- Can we manage this governing philosophy that we share in common as was intended some 230 years ago? Can we manage the burden of responsible self-rule upon which the creation of our individuality depends?
- Can we muster dignity and gravitas and extend this respect to others?
- Can we commit to being loving, decent and compassionate and extend such courtesy and kindness inclusively?
- Can we each pledge to be just and trustworthy, to harbor no hate and to practice no cruelty?
Or will we surrender the opportunity for our individual freedom, settle for top-down governance and be forced to live and die the collective life of the beast?
I’ve been teaching classes on autonomy and life for 36 years. This coursework offers a philosophic perspective, vocabulary and strategies for acquiring a life of our own design. As an American Philosopher, this work stands firmly on America’s promise of freedom, justice and equality and the opportunity for not just living our life but for owning our life. More information is available on my website: autonomyandlife.com.