"If I was King of the United States, I would make it so that there was no popularity -- everyone would be equal. I am somebody." - Tyler, a teenager who committed suicide, from the movie Bully.
Anyone who sees the movie Bully has to be touched to the core and thoroughly appalled by the brazen kid-on-kid meanness -- the hitting, name-calling and humiliation of kids who were different, gay or just less socially "cool." But what jumped out at me were the feelings of superiority declared by the bullies and the feelings of inferiority felt by the bullied. The feeling of humiliation was heroically captured by Tyler, quoted above, but despite his assertion he was not able to overcome the despondence within him that the bullies activated.
In another segment of the film, a bullied kid's father buys into the belief that his family is inferior, admitting to the camera: "We're really nobody." In other words, why should anyone care about him and his family?
What the camera doesn't capture is that this kind of disregard for others is accepted in America, long after middle school, high school and college are over. A culture of disregard, like the elephant in the living room, is tolerated, insidious and obvious in America. We've all been in homes, schools, religious institutions and offices where people are referred to behind their backs as "losers," "retards," "idiots" and other caustic code words used in adult bullying behavior. The labels allow the labelers to feel superior while the unwitting victims are portrayed as inferior. The hidden costs to our country and culture are enormous.
I saw this attitude in action a few weeks ago as I was meeting with a Hollywood executive about Purple America's mission of bringing America together again by showcasing our shared values. People who feel that they have common ground are able to talk more openly and respectfully with each other.
This individual declared that America will continue coming apart at the seams. He believes that culturally, educationally and in many other ways, with its vastly divergent priorities, America is bound to implode. He supposes that our country is declining because "70% of Americans are morons." I thought (but wish now I had said): "And those 'morons' are the ones who are watching your TV shows, buying your DVDs, and making you rich!"
His "moron index" was not based on scientific measures, but on arrogance and disregard. He referred to the fact that only 30 percent of Americans have college degrees and that approximately half the country is opposed to gay marriage. He felt comfortable spewing his brand of hate because he believed I was like-minded since we come from similar backgrounds. Instead, my mind flashed back to the days when I heard from a prominent banker that my black friend, himself a prominent financier, "probably got where he got just because he's black." I thought those days were gone.
You can wrap it in a fancy package and put it in fancy places like clubs, boardrooms or Hollywood, but hate is still hate and disregard is still disregard, whether spoken by a liberal or conservative, a child or an adult.
My Hollywood friend is not unique. Whether fueled by arrogant talk show hosts, ranting that their opinion is the only right opinion, or by politicians championing their way as the only way, the idea that people who disagree with us are "idiots," "morons," "un-Christian" or in some other way inferior is prevalent in America.
Unfortunately, we don't call the people who do this bullies when they are adults and especially when they are powerful and accepted in their own social, business or political circles. The latter are the same reasons bullies have power among groups of schoolchildren.
The expressions of superiority and disregard are also the same. In the workplace, where 30 million Americans are bullied each year, disrespectful or arrogant bosses are often referred to as bold, assertive or determined. Because they're successful, they're not shunned. In the political arena, while Mayor Cory Booker on Meet the Press declared that negative campaigning and character-bashing "turns his stomach," few in media or politics are condemning those who in school settings would be called bullies.
My dentist, who served as a Marine in Vietnam, recoils at the notion that ordinary Americans are "morons." He values them, though he may be in a different social or economic class, because, "These are the people who fought side by side with me, who risked their lives for me." If you hang out in the same fox hole, where differences disappear, it's hard not to appreciate each other. Arrogance and disregard aren't helpful when you're relying on each other to stay alive.
Maybe we need a mandatory year of public service to dissipate disregard and build a nation where everyone matters. In Israel, where there are vast economic, social and religious differences, leaders credit the mandatory military service for holding the country together.
Recently Ted Turner, receiving the "Citadel of Free Speech Award," was asked how America could become more civil. He said the key to ensuring civility is "to raise our children so they have respect."
This is easier said than done if the very adults who are raising the children do not speak respectfully, hold all Americans in some regard and stop the hate-speech, even if it is acceptable in their social circles. In our founding documents, our Constitution declared that in America, nobody is "a nobody." That radical (for the time) concept was based on the truth, which our Founding Fathers declared to be self-evident, "that all men are created equal," enshrining a basic respect for the dignity of every human into the fabric of our nation. Sadly, for Tyler and for all of us, as of today that promise is yet to be fulfilled.
It's time we stopped letting our childish notions of superiority continue. It seems to me that anyone in the media, in politics or behind closed doors who refuses to respect the dignity of another ought to be called out as a bully, a narcissist, a hate-inciter or all of the above. Let's not repeat the mistake we made with Senator Joe McCarthy by calling people like this "leaders." Instead, let's wake up to the fact that we are all in the fox hole together. Then maybe we can turn incivility, disrespect and disregard around.
How do you show respect for the opinions of others who disagree with you? Send me your thoughts at Facebook/purpleamerica.us.
Follow Stuart Muszynski on Twitter: www.twitter.com/purpleamericaus