“Tis the season to be jolly!” Or so we hope.
Reports indicate lately that many people have been anything but. We’re hearing more and more of verbal and physical abuse suffered by flight attendants, restaurant staff, health care professionals, teachers, and lawyers.
Hospitals are establishing security procedures; restaurants are installing surveillance cameras; the Federal Aviation Administration is upping fines for unruly passengers to $37,000; businesses are posting information on mental health services in their break rooms. And employees are asking themselves if the work is worth the harassment.
There’s a temptation to see the increase of bad behavior as the result of inconveniences caused by the pandemic wearing out people’s patience. Every day we’re all struggling with rules about masks, shortages of day care workers, longer wait times, a sense that this should all have been over by now, heavy traffic and higher prices.
If that’s the cause of rudeness and violence, we can just be patient a little longer and trust that things will get back to normal. We can resist the instinct to answer rudeness with rudeness, practice being calm under duress, breathing deeply and answer politely. Our mantra could be, “I’m sorry that I can’t do as you ask. I’m sure you are sincere, but I am doing the best I can under these circumstances.”
But, for some, the problem has grown beyond impatience.
Psychologist Bernard Golden points out that “isolation, loss of resources, the death of loved ones and reduced social support,” alone or in combination, lead to anxiety, depression, and post-traumatic stress disorder.
According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, “more than 140,000 children in the United States lost a primary and/or secondary caregiver” during the pandemic. Considering there have been 770,000 deaths in this country, it’s certain that even more children have had their worlds shaken by seeing a grandparent or mentor die.
We need to bring the stress level down for those afflicted, but there is no clear way to do that. As Golden points out, “Half the people fear Covid and half fear being controlled.” Solutions for some would heighten anxiety for others.
There’s every possibility, however, that this problem was accelerated by the pandemic rather than caused by it. It may reach deeper and result from societal changes going on for decades.
We once expected leaders to remain in control of themselves, to be wry and ironic, yet respectful, under pressure–gentlemen like Cecil Andrus. Even President Reagan, who said “extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice,” was unalterably genial and polite.
Now, many want leaders who can arouse emotions, give direction to anger, and make them believe that, by threatening, they can make a significant difference.
They equate bullying with power.
Seventh grade students asked to write a letter of complaint immediately plan to threaten a lawsuit. They couldn’t imagine another approach until seeing that letters that got the best response were those saying, “I am a loyal customer and only want this one little wrong made right.”
But many never recognize a second option. They feel safer by abetting a bully, graduating to bullying online, and then joining a group like the ones that went door to door harassing shopkeepers that honored mask mandates.
They don’t learn other ways of coping. When a nurse won’t administer ivermectin, they bully more, even to the point of violence.
Too often bullying works. Would people have listened to Martin Luther King’s peaceful protests if mobs hadn’t burned entire neighborhoods?
If we can’t restore the importance of treating others well, we may be seeing our new normal.