It used to be a safe assumption that pretty much everyone's default setting was "kind" and "polite," except for those people who had hatred and malice seeping from their pores, but they were a small bunch.
We were taught to say "please," "thank you" and "you're welcome," and kids always called the grownups "Mr.," "Mrs." or "Ms." So-and-so (I still have trouble calling some people who were grown when I was a kid by their first names unless they allowed us to call them by that name then). We didn't assume that everyone else was evil and/or out to undermine us; that was just rude. And that wasn't us. We were nice people.
Unfortunately, it seems nice people are getting a little harder to find nowadays, having been overtaken by people who've been given license to be as loud and obnoxious (especially when wrong) as they can, and they're using it. Good lord, are they using it. The nice people are still the majority, but they're too nice and quiet to defend themselves.
The genie's out of the bottle, and we can't stuff it back in.
It's not like treating each other with kindness is really a lot to ask. Though every religion has some form of the Golden Rule, many supposed adherents treat those who don't share the same beliefs like so much trash on the side of the road.
I was asked the other day if I considered myself an optimist or a pessimist. I said I'm a realist; I hope for the best, but prepare for the worst. Call it realistic optimism if you must. Knowing human nature as I do, I realize that asking people to be kind is asking too much of some.
So, please ... just don't be a jerk.
There are some jerks we deal with every day. There's the driver who wedges in and cuts you off, then flips you off when you honk at them, or rides your bumper until being able to merge into another lane to ride someone else's bumper trying to pass you ... and flips you off. And the person who sees you running for the elevator and presses the close button, or who closes the door in your face as you try to enter a store behind them.
We could all stand to remember what we were taught when we were growing up. Mind your manners and the rules. Hold the door open for someone, especially if they're disabled or carrying something. Observe not only the rules of the road, but manners and common sense (you are, after all, in a hulking piece of metal that could kill someone if you're not careful).
Is there one piece of cake left and someone else besides you is eyeing it? Rather than just grabbing the piece and stuffing it in your gullet, maybe cut it in half and share. Or do as we often do in the office when someone brings in baked goods, and ignore that last piece; hey, maybe the baker didn't grab a piece.
Did someone give you something you can't use or don't like? Don't roll your eyes and scoff; thank them, and quietly find someone who wants it. There's always someone.
On social media, it's far too easy for jerkiness to take over, especially where anonymity makes people say things they wouldn't if they had to use their own name. Some might say that anonymity reveals the jerks as jerks in real life, but I have to hope that in real life they exercise at least a modicum of self-control.
I know that I can sometimes come off a little jerky when I'm snarky and sarcastic on social media (I'm snarktastic!), but most people who read me understand my weird sense of humor, and I rarely mean any harm in remarks I make. That doesn't mean I won't call out trolls, despite the entreaties of my friend Snek Man, trolls being the exception to my "do no harm" rule. I simply can't abide those who spread misinformation, attack others rather than the issues, and misrepresent what people have said, and I'm far from the only one.
Back in 2021, this newspaper closed comments on most online material, except for opinion, because the comment section had become, as now Publisher Eliza Gaines said, "a place where a small number of people spent a large amount of time leaving negative messages. Many of these comments were intolerant, homophobic, transphobic, racist and misogynistic. Instead of engaging in respectful debate, commenters attempted to shut down conversation with personal insults."
She also said that subscribers deserve better, and that's very true. It's possible to have actual discussions online. The only real requirement: Don't be a jerk.
Pastor and author John Pavlovitz wrote on his blog in 2018 on what people dealing with life's travails need: "The thing these wounded and weary human beings most need from you as you share this space with them--is for you not be a jerk.
"It's really that simple.
"They need you to not contribute to their grieving, not to compound their sadness, not to amplify their fear, not to add to their adversity. They need anything less than contempt from you. They need you to embrace the vow of doctors and caregivers, of trying to do no harm to them."
Like he said, it's simple. Surely that's not too much to ask.
Wait. I already know the answer. Sigh.
Assistant Editor Brenda Looper is editor of the Voices page. Email her at firstname.lastname@example.org. Read her blog at blooper0223.wordpress.com.