City

Whatever Happened to Cutting People Some Damn Slack?

There’s plenty to be mad about these days, but somewhere along the way, people started turning everyday issues into sanctimonious ire, pitting Philadelphians vs. Philadelphians as never before. Where do we go from here?


We’re in the age of rage and cancel culture. Where do we go from here? Illustration by Tim Gough

In Philadelphia, for obvious reasons, schoolchildren certainly get more than their fair share of Revolutionary War history. Where I grew up, though, the lore and the landmarks revolved more around the Civil War, so that was the American historical drama in which I was steeped. My classmates and I attended earnest, elaborate battle reenactments, toured historic homes-turned-hospitals with floors still blackened from bloodstains, wrote God knows how many papers on the lead-up to the fight. The whole shebang, year after year.

But despite all that, it’s only been in the past few years — in a moment in which the idea of our nation turning viciously against itself hasn’t felt nearly as much like ancient history as it used to — that I’ve given much thought to what came after that conflict.

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It’s hit me lately how improbable it was — miraculous, even — that we ever managed to pull ourselves back together again. That Abraham Lincoln pleaded with his fellow countrymen to move forward, to offer charity for all and malice toward none — and that it actually worked, at least in that we tamped down enough animosity toward each other to lumber on as a single nation. (Thank God nobody had invented Twitter yet.)

Seriously: Can you imagine any of that happening today?

We’re not thinking much about charity lately — at least, not in the way Lincoln meant it, in the sense of making peace, binding up wounds, trying our best to live together. We’re pretty much doing the opposite, all the time, everywhere. Why take the conciliatory route when the combative one feels so satisfying?

One notable example here in the (heh) City of Brotherly Love and Sisterly Affection came this spring in the form of state Representative Brian Sims, who broadcast on social media a video of himself yelling at a woman and three teenagers quietly protesting outside the Center City Planned Parenthood, then offering his followers money if they could identify the protesters. A few weeks after that came another video, this time featuring Sims berating a woman who was outside the building, praying. “Shame on you!” he shouted at her, waving his phone in her face. “What you’re doing is disgusting!” The message accompanying the video begs Sims’s tens of thousands of followers to similarly “push back” against Planned Parenthood protesters:

They prey on young women, they use white privilege, & shame. They’re racist, classist, bigots who NEED & DESERVE our righteous opposition.

No matter your views on reproductive rights, it’s hard to argue that Sims’s purple-faced righteous opposition produced anything but more anger and division in an already angry, divided milieu. (Actually, it did produce one thing: A GoFundMe after the video hubbub raised $129,000 for the Pro-Life Union of Philadelphia — likely not what Sims had in mind.) Of course, it’s also possible that this episode produced no reaction whatsoever in the vast number of citizens whose Twitter feeds and newsfeeds, Slack channels and family gatherings are full of this exact type of take-no-prisoners non-dialogue.

So it goes in the Age of Rage.

On the one hand, it’s easy to understand the surfeit of fury out there. People are fed up. In the past year alone, we’ve seen mass shootings and #MeToo and the Kavanaugh hearings and children in cages and Mueller and Russia and white nationalism and climate change and rape allegations against a sitting president and hateful Facebook rants from our own police. And so much more. If you’re not morally outraged, are you even human? And this is, arguably, as it ought to be: Moral outrage, considered, organized, and channeled into action, is what this country was built on — No taxation without representation! — and what’s driven every bit of its progress, from the end of slavery to child labor laws to women’s suffrage to civil rights.

But there’s a difference between action-oriented outrage and self-righteous fury, no matter how much we like to blur the lines. And I’d say it’s the latter that’s pulling us under, splitting us into micro-nations of the like-minded, all of whom are defenders of What Is Good and Right in a never-ending series of achingly repetitive, self-defeating civil wars. I’m not just talking about the fights between Trumpers and anti-Trumpers, or capitalists and democratic socialists, or the pro-life and pro-choice crews. That would be simpler. It’s also cyclists vs. drivers; the woke vs. the not; urbanists vs. people who liked Stu Bykofsky; centrists vs. progressives; progressives vs. not-progressive-enoughs; boomers vs. millennials; you vs. all the idiots on the Schuylkill Expressway; and so on, toward infinity. The guiding principle when it comes to principles now is this: Everyone Who Is Not With Us Completely Is Against Us. And we respond accordingly and predictably, meeting rage with rage, not to mention public denigration, dismissiveness and straight-up venom.

I don’t need to tell you that this animosity all takes a toll, and not just on the Republic. Anger, the saying goes, is poison; it’s no coincidence that the Oxford Word of the Year in 2018 was “toxic.” Americans’ happiness ranking has dropped for the third year in a row, according to the World Happiness Report. Stress levels are up. Loneliness is up; depression up; suicides up.

Amidst all this general misery, one of the most popular coping mechanisms to have sprung up is the concept of “self-care,” a phrase, as NPR pointed out, that hit a five-year high in Google searches right after the contentious 2016 election. The modern understanding of what, exactly, self-care consists of is almost comically wide-ranging: Self-care is taking mental health seriously; it’s exercise; it’s a face mask; it’s a snack. But no matter what we’re talking about, it’s almost always framed as a salve for this anxious, unpeaceful moment. Well-meaning self-care memes abound, sounding a bit like Stuart Smalley from ’90s-era Saturday Night Live:

“Your needs are valid.”

“Your mistakes don’t define you.”

“Go easy on yourself.”

All of these principles are right and fine, but as far as binding our bigger wounds, I think we’re looking in the wrong place. If we’re interested in fixing our war-torn, exhausted souls, it’s not about going easy on ourselves. It’s about going easy on the other guy, who also has needs and makes mistakes. It’s about more charity, less malice.

In other words, my fellow countrymen, I think it’s time we try to cut each other a little slack.

You’d think Philadelphians would be better at getting along, given our Quaker forebears, who were raised to see divinity in everyone, who saw value in just being quiet, who literally called themselves “Friends.” But times and cities change. By 2016, the Philly pendulum had swung all the way over to “angriest city in America,” according to people who rate such things.

It’s strange to think of warm, scrappy Philly as an angrier place than aggressive New York or car-clogged Los Angeles, but a friend of mine recently theorized that our smaller size and parochial tendencies — everything here feels so personal — mean that, well, everything feels so personal. And it’s hard to live and let live when it’s personal.

You’d think Philadelphians would be better at getting along, given our Quaker forebears. But times and cities change. By 2016, the Philly pendulum had swung all the way over to “angriest city in America.”

Take for instance, the activist, artist and public-space cheerleader Conrad Benner, who this winter took issue with a Starbucks kiosk going up in Dilworth Park, at the base of City Hall. He made several convincing points against it in a well-written Inky editorial and also wrote a post about it for his blog. In the latter, which made the rounds in several of my circles (indeed, it was at that point his most popular post of the year, Benner said), he called City Hall officials “incompetent” and the Center City District leadership “greed-fueled.” This project was an example of “bad leadership” and public space “sold off … for profit.” The post ended: “Fucking do better.” Several Tweets echoed these sentiments. A petition launched from his site has since garnered 8,000 signatures.

I happened to agree with Benner and company about the general meh-ness of the plan, but the blog rubbed me the wrong way. Wasn’t it possible that the president of the CCD, Paul Levy — a.k.a. the original Center City cheerleader, the man responsible for Dilworth Park’s actual existence — deserved a little benefit of the doubt? Or at least that we might allow that he wasn’t willfully “putting corporate interests over public good,’’ as one Tweeter phrased it? All this accusatory acidity over some coffee in a park?

I know, I know: It’s not just coffee. There’s principle here. There’s always principle in 2019.

For his part, Levy argued in the Inky that the kiosk was also intended as a green, leafy traffic buffer so people could better enjoy the space; that a locally owned catering firm would operate the shop; and that, hey, making money helped keep the park running.

Eventually, the two men met for a real-life conversation, marking a détente of sorts. The kiosk was still happening, Benner would write in a much milder post on his site, but he was happy to report that Levy agreed the CCD would work to improve transparency in its decision-making processes. Levy joined Benner in a “joint statement” clarifying that the shop was leased out, not sold, and also that the passion surrounding the place was heartening as a sign of the park’s great success, even if people sometimes “disagree on specifics.” This was a charitable note to end on, I thought.

It’s no small thing, giving people — especially people we don’t know well — the benefit of the doubt. Our brains aren’t really wired that way. We’re inclined instead to cut ourselves a great deal of slack while attributing other people’s failings (or perceived failings) to fundamental character flaws. That guy in the Lexus who cut you off? An entitled, selfish moron. But when you do the same, it’s because your five-year-old just told you he’s going to throw up in the backseat. You’re not a jerk — your sin was circumstantial.

cancel culture

Illustration by Tim Gough

Psychologists call this not-so-generous habit of ours the “fundamental attribution error,” and it’s one factor that can affect the way we perceive the world around us, says Deanna Geddes, a professor at Temple’s Fox School of Business. But Geddes, whose research revolves around workplace anger, believes there’s something more common and even more powerful at play in most of us when it comes to expressing anger and processing other people’s these days. She describes her “dual threshold model” for understanding how we give — or not — the benefit of the doubt for so-called in-groups and out-groups. “If we see someone as an in-group member — you’re my sister, my co-worker, my friend — then we tend to cut them more slack,” Geddes says.

We set thresholds for other people when it comes to their emotional expression, she explains, particularly anger; when someone crosses our threshold, the anger is seen as deviant, overly aggressive, incomprehensible. But our thresholds adjust depending on whether the actor is one of us — that is, someone white, someone black, a Republican, a Kardashian — and our judgment of the acceptability of expression varies wildly. “We have so much slack for our in-groups, and no slack for the out-group,” Geddes says. This is true everywhere, from corporate offices to social media feeds to our president, who, the very week I spoke to Geddes, told four brown-skinned Democratic Congresswomen who critiqued his policies to “go back” to where they came from.

In-group and out-group tribalism was a major theme in Jonathan Haidt’s and Greg Lukianoff’s The Coddling of the American Mind, the 2018 best-seller that explored the origins of a certain type of intolerance endemic on college campuses today. The authors argue that when we’re in this sort of tribal mode, we tend to “go blind to arguments and information that challenge our team’s narrative.” Also? They assert that more and more, we’ve been falling prey to the “great untruth” that life is a zero-sum battle against the other tribe. And it’s not just Us vs. Them; it’s also Good vs. Evil. In this framework, mulling nuance and context looks like making excuses; polite disagreement feels like surrender.

Of course, there’s been no shortage of books beyond Coddling (and articles, and TV commentators) fretting over what this type of binary thinking has done to intellectual argument, the marketplace of ideas, and our anxiety levels. (Nothing good.) Also, as Times columnist David Brooks wrote last spring, “We’ve all clenched up … fearful of saying something ‘wrong’, fearful of provoking a Twitter backlash.” This is what the callout culture — or is it the cancel culture? — hath wrought. Better to just zip it and stick to self-care memes.

But for all the handwringing over the college kids, the rest of the country doesn’t look to be doing much better. You know what I mean: Instead of curiosity or empathy, we offer an eye roll. We type “LOL” as an insult. We tell people to delete themselves. We inform them that they hate America or hate freedom or hate everything, that they’re snowflakes and fascists and libtards and bigots and bleeding hearts and old and stupid and disgusting and sexist and dangerous, and whenever possible, we do so publicly, full of the righteousness that comes with absolutism. We’re less like our Quaker predecessors and more like the Puritans, the original virtue signalers, whose preferred method of public punishment for brothers and sisters who strayed was the stocks, not smart phones. Same difference, really.

But besides the stifling of conversation and the censoring of ideas and the sheer exhaustive, predictable dullness of all this, another problem with our current way of treating each other, as Jamelle Bouie wrote for Slate way back in 2014, is “that this doesn’t give you a material win. It doesn’t ameliorate any actual injustice. And it might, in the end, harm efforts to make change.” There’s a reason some of history’s most effective change drivers — say, King and Gandhi and Mandela — warned against bitterness and embraced love: They wanted to win peace in the long run, not just score points in the moment.

This summer, as tens of thousands of fed-up Puerto Ricans took to the streets, I watched with a knot in the pit of my stomach, not because I wasn’t moved by them, but the opposite: Their crusade put into harsh perspective the relative lack of such collective effort elsewhere in our country lately. It’s possible, as many people have suggested, that more of us in the 50 states aren’t taking to the streets because there’s simply so much moral outrage that we don’t know what to do with it, how to organize it. But the fear that hits me with increasing regularity is that we’re just so tired from the constant battles over differences in specifics — that buzzing, bitching background noise of all of our lives — that we’re running out of steam and focus and a sense of unity for any big, vital crusades. And also that we’re too busy crafting the perfect comeback tweet to even consider the difference between the two.

When I was growing up, my parents took us to an easygoing Methodist church, but I still knew plenty of hellfire-and-brimstone types, people who saw the Devil in everything. It’s been surreal to watch entirely different demographics embrace a similar hardness, seeing the world and fellow man through sin-colored glasses, even though their concepts of sin differ wildly.

In their book, Haidt and Lukianoff write about a college student at Claremont McKenna College (CMC) in California. The young woman, of Latino descent, was troubled and hurt by a campus climate that she felt was grounded in “western, white, cisheteronormative, upper- to upper-middle-class values” and sent an essay to that effect to school administrators. In response, the dean of students sent the young woman an email. The dean agreed, she wrote, that the college had a lot of work to do, and this was an important issue to her, personally. Could they meet, the dean wondered, to discuss how the school might “better serve students, especially those who don’t fit our CMC mold”?

The student, already feeling excluded, took the phrase “our CMC mold” as a further hurt and didn’t go talk to the dean, but instead … well, you’ve read enough of these stories to know what came next. There was a Facebook post, then campus protests, marches, demands that the dean resign, a couple of hunger strikes. In one public gathering of students, the dean apologized for her “poorly worded” email, swearing that her intention had been to affirm the student’s feelings and support her. The demonstrators didn’t accept the apology; eventually, the dean resigned.

What’s missing in this scenario, the authors argue, is any benefit of the doubt from the student or student body toward the dean, who had nothing in her history indicating that she meant harm with her email. The so-called principle of charity in philosophy — what the Methodists called generosity of spirit, what you and I might call showing good faith, cutting some slack — is the concept that we ought to interpret people’s words in their “best, most reasonable form,” rather than their worst. The college kids Haidt and Lukianoff look at aren’t doing a whole lot of this. Then again, neither are the rest of us. The us vs. them (good vs. evil; victim vs. oppressor; smart vs. stupid) mind-set doesn’t leave much room for charity. Neither does a social media feed.

Besides that, let’s be honest: Owning the other side just feels good, and can be hilarious. I lost the better part of a day in July binge-reading angry tweets from David Simon — executive producer and writer of the The Wire and former Baltimore Sun reporter — in the frenzied aftermath of the President’s ugly characterization of Baltimore (“disgusting, rat- and rodent-infested mess”) and its Congressional representative. A few choice examples of Simon’s Pulitzer-level Twitter insults to Trump’s defenders:

Being a squib who thinks The Wire attributed Baltimore’s ills to the performance of a lone US Representative rather than 60 years of the myriad forces arrayed against American urbanity, it’s clear you laugh easily at many things. Simple puns, farts, clowns in Volkswagens, etc.

And:

The capital letters convinced me: Not only can’t you read or think but you can be outmaneuvered By the fucking caps lock on a keyboard.

And on it went, and on I read, along with the initial vitriolic comments that prompted Simon’s own vitriol. Anger is contagious, research has shown. The original tweeters’ furious posts made me furious even as I laughed. Fury all around; wash-rinse-retweet. You can see how we’ve gotten ourselves into this mess.

And yet, unbelievably enough, we still have reason to be optimistic that there’s a way out of this hell. (No, really.) Last year, when an organization called More in Common released a study about American polarization, there were — no surprises here — extremely stark differences between the far-left “progressive activist” wing of this country and far-right “devoted” and “traditional” conservatives. But, the researchers noted, those groups made up a relatively small proportion of us: roughly 33 percent put together.

Our political landscape, they noted, is “much more complicated than the binary split between liberals and conservatives often depicted in the national conversation.” Most of us aren’t one or the other, caricatures or cartoon villains; most of us fall within “the exhausted majority” of people tired of the fighting — people with a range of viewpoints and behaviors that don’t fall neatly into boxes. Problem is, the study says, even those of us in this tribe of the tired have “absurdly inaccurate perceptions of each other,” because the loudest voices are the ones on the far edges. Even so, the study found a few hopeful statistics: Half of us believe that the people we agree with politically still need to listen to others and be willing to compromise; 60 percent of us believe we need to heal as a nation; and 77 percent of us believe that this country can still come together despite our differences. Seventy-seven percent!

What, then, to make of everyone else? What to do with people who don’t seem to mind swimming in contempt? With the TV opinion-slingers who profit from the rancor, the politicians who use it to amass power, the trolls and hate-mongers who keep its fires burning? I think we denounce them, often and in no uncertain terms, and refuse to confuse them with the general populace. Same, too, the Harvey Weinsteins and Martin Shkrelis of this world, the neo-Nazis, the white nationalists, and all the rest of those whose guiding light is what most of us recognize as darkness. It isn’t the anomalies who need our benefit of the doubt; it’s the rest of us. The people to focus on now, to go easy on and try to get along with, are each other, the exhausted majority, and whoever might be willing to listen on the wings.

This summer, in a rare, brief moment of patriotic unity, we all lost our minds as the U.S. Women’s National Team won soccer’s World Cup. It was glorious, as was the joyful victory speech at the subsequent ticker-tape parade from co-captain Megan Rapinoe, who has been leading the team in a years-long campaign for equal pay with its (less successful) male counterparts.

“We have to love more, hate less,” she told the cheering masses. “There’s been so much contention in these last years. I’ve been a victim of that. I’ve been a perpetrator of that. With our fight with the [Soccer] Federation, I’m sorry for some of the things I said — ” The crowd laughed; she paused. “Not all of the things. But it’s time to come together. This conversation is at the next step. We have to collaborate.”

Have we reached the next step yet? The reaction around the country to Rapinoe’s words would seem to indicate yes, we’d like to escape the rage tunnel to something better. The findings in the More in Common study suggest this, as do all the searches for absolution through self-care and the self-imposed “social media breaks” all your friends are taking and the endless barrage of Change.org petitions that land in your inbox. Fact is, the Oxford Word for 2018 was “toxic,” but Merriam-Webster’s was “justice.” That’s the hope, isn’t it? That we can fight without fighting dirty, and be angry without aggression — or with less aggression, anyway? Americans have managed it before.

So maybe we can channel Martin Luther King Jr., who appealed to our common humanity, as we lumber on. Or Mandela. Or Gandhi. Or maybe we can just decide not to dwell on the personal offense — to be more generous of spirit and less quick with a burn. Charity of any sort involves sacrifice. Let us renounce the eye roll, refrain from the retweet. Let’s check our malice, our smugness, the self-righteous screeds, and lay off the horn, Philly. Even if you’ve somehow made it through life without watching a single battle reenactment, we’ve all seen what despising one another leads to. Let’s try not to go there.

Published as “We Are All Puritans Now” in the October 2019 issue of Philadelphia magazine.