We live in a truly strange and unsettling time in America. Never before have I seen ordinary, hard-working Americans so on edge, so angry, so spoiling for a fight -- about anything or with anyone, even people they recently considered personal friends.
A couple years ago, I asked Charles Murray, author of Coming Apart, if he could think of anything that would unify Americans other than a direct attack on our soil, the Olympic games, or some form of Divine intervention. He could not; neither could I. Soon, Olympic athletes became a source of political division, too.
In the past, Americans usually were usually able to agree to disagree on most matters. Today, every disagreement becomes a line in the sand - a reason to boycott, terminate or excommunicate. Seeking common ground, even where readily available (e.g., defending freedom of speech), is viewed as weakness. Rather than work through a problem, we immediately choose up sides and declare our rightness or wokeness, while decrying others' inability to grasp the truth as we know it.
In the past, if you had something snarky to say about someone, you might mention it to your spouse or a couple friends. Having aired your grievance, the flames of anger died down.
If especially agitated by something in your community or in politics, you might write a scathing letter to the editor. But you tried to sound rational, rather than self-serving or vindictive; you thought to express yourself in a way that would persuade others. If your letter sounded nasty or unhinged, it probably wouldn't be printed. Either way, that was the end of it.
Today, we can instantly speak our mind - or vent our emotions - to a much larger audience on social media. We choose words for their power to destroy not to persuade. Readers instantly feed our ego by agreeing with us. But the ones to whom we react most fiercely are those who dare to disagree, especially if they fire back with their own vitriol.
When we vented only to our close circle of family and friends, the targets of our contempt rarely heard what we were saying about them. On social media, not only can they read our spiteful attack, but if they don't, others will surely call it to their attention.
Some justify this as "fighting fire with fire," a tactic favored by a growing number of politicians and entertainers. The problem with fighting fire with fire is that sooner or later everything gets burned. Then what's left?
Social media brings us "together" in an online location, but it tears us apart in every other sense. It cultivates our ugliness, but it's still our ugliness. We can't blame anyone else for our choice to be ugly, and most of us know better ("Do not repay evil for evil or insult for insult." I Peter 3:9).
In Love Your Enemies, conservative author David Brooks describes contempt as saying, "You disgust me. You are beneath caring about." That's what the person on the receiving end hears, often leading to retaliation: "If you want to destroy me, then I want destroy you first."
Facebook's first "director of monetization" told a Congressional committee that social media was designed to be addictive, affecting the brain similar to gambling. Social media platforms "have served to tear people apart with alarming speed and intensity," he said. A former Facebook vice president expressed tremendous guilt because social media is ripping society apart.
Other Americans are exhausted by this constant bickering. Some 80% who follow politics either casually or not at all have wisely tuned out.
Our country and communities will be damaged if the cycle of contempt continues. Our real enemies in other countries know this, too. If we weaken ourselves, they are emboldened.
Contempt-driven social media is not the creation of Donald Trump or any other politician or entertainer. They merely perform for their audience - us.
We are the problem. It's up to each of us rediscover our better nature by overlooking an offense rather than retaliating. Our mothers' advice was simple but wise: "If you can't say something nice, don't say anything at all."