My Simple New Year’s Wish for 2021: Less Nastiness

At New Year’s I usually try to pass on a note of hope that goes beyond the policy issues I usually address. This year I’ve had a lot of trouble coming up with a message, watching as a rising tide of nastiness has been sucking the life out of the very soul of our nation. The attack on the Capitol represents a culmination of President Trump’s attempt to weaponize nastiness; hopefully, it’s also the nadir of the dysfunctional government we’ve come to expect. But, as one of my wise friends, Frances Michalkewitz explained, a culture of nastiness has been expanding for some time now. The challenge for us is what can we do about it. I don’t have all or even most of the answers, but here are some thoughts.

You might think that I pose an unfair challenge. Like children growing up in the same family with an abusive father, we can easily divide into two camps: those who seek to appease and become more dependent on the abuser, and those who live in continual anger at both him and those who live in denial of what he has wrought. Both approaches threaten to take us further down dark alleys and extenuate the pain. Our psychological health and that of those around us requires more: an ability to turn outward, avoid letting the negativity eat away at us, follow a moral compass, and strengthen our bonds with other parts of humanity. That, indeed, may be unfair, but it’s the best opportunity we have to deal with whatever grievance we feel.

We certainly can stop voting for nasty people. If we can’t be independent and switch political parties, at least punish the nasty people in the primaries. I’ve been amazed over my career at how much individuals, even when they switch jobs, location, or family, largely behave as they did before. We can’t let those who have shown themselves to be nasty sway us with their campaign promises; we must also look to their records and how they have acted toward others in the past.

While voting is a way to change the political dynamic, it often requires limited effort. To further make an impact, we also must try to tend with cultural forces that aren’t amenable to government regulation.

We can spend less time with media that uses nastiness or promotes a sense of superiority among its audience as a way to entertain us, boost ratings, and garner attention or profits. While there is no doubt that modern media plays a vital role in expanding the culture of nastiness, we are the ones who provide the incentives for it to be that way. When we spend more time watching nasty people or reading their Twitter feeds, whether with their real or fake personalities (as on reality TV), we effectively pay for them entertain us with their nastiness. Let’s take away their paychecks or, for some, the positive reinforcement that fuels their nasty and often nihilistic behavior.

Language needs attention as well. Whenever we make any claim about any group, whether Black or White, Republican or Democrat, male or female, police or social worker, we tend to speak in generalizations. It’s an unavoidable limitation of language that we generalize to simplify and summarize, but no one in any group is average, so that adjectives or summary conclusions applied to a group are almost certainly incorrect for some members of that group. That resentment follows shouldn’t be surprising. This is a much larger subject; the point here is to recognize how any generalization will be received by its members.

As Gabby Giffords recently explained, there’s no magic recovery in store for us as a nation. Of course, fight for justice. But much of our power, particularly over culture, lies within what we do, not what we try to force others to do. We need to remember what our parents and grandparents taught us about seeking, as Lincoln so eloquently expressed it, the better angels of our nature. Random acts of kindness, more donations to charity, welcoming for everyone, getting to know and befriend those different from us, and challenging ourselves to learn new things. When it comes to culture, the good more displaces than defeats the bad.

Less nastiness. That’s my New Year’s resolution for myself and my hope for you. Let’s win this battle.