I think most of the rudeness in life is caused by a simple lack of awareness. We don’t mean any disrespect, but we get wrapped up in something or ourselves and make a mistake.
I see evidence of this just about every time I drive. Most of the time when someone cuts you off, slows you needlessly or almost causes a crash it’s because they weren’t aware of you or the changing roadway or even their own actions.
The proof is available to anyone who drives. We’re all occasionally inconsiderate and even rude drivers, not on purpose but because we didn’t see something or realize how the traffic was meant to flow.
Yes, some drivers want to annoy or challenge others, but they are rare. Even overly aggressive drivers don’t intend that, they’re just more blinded by their focus on getting ahead.
I bring this up because I think the conditions are similar when we venture onto the paths of public discourse. Most of the offensiveness, even in this era of acute partisan divide, results from insufficient awareness of others, ourselves and the world we share.
As a newspaper editorial page editor, I’m constantly immersed in the advocacy of many people — letter writers, columnists, analysts, cartoonists. I get to know many of them a little through years of reading their views and sometimes talking to them. They seem to have much more in common than their disagreements might suggest.
On every side of issues, there are people pursuing their own interests and others pushing what they think is best for all. Most offer their understanding of a matter, while some are more interested in attacking those who think differently. People often seem bewildered that others could be so opposed to their views and not see what seems obvious to them.
People have a need to form a full mental picture even when they only have a little sensory input or information. We literally do it all the time just to keep a useful sense of the ever-changing world we move through. Doing this with other people, though, tells us more about what we think of others than what they are truly like.
We can have no substantial understanding of a writer of a column, letter to the editor or respondent to a poll based simply on their views on a tiny aspect of human life. We can’t know much at all about their aspirations, frustrations, needs and desires — let alone the joys and tragedies, successes and failures, or the upbringing and accidents that have shaped them.
It’s a wonder we get along as well as we do in this nation of 325 million, which has doubled in population in my lifetime.
The media and newspapers have helped by informing the public about issues and providing a way to express their views to the community and beyond.
They could do more, especially to expand our meaningful awareness of each other beyond the simple opinions we express in a letter and the rare times we turn up in a newsworthy event.
I see few stories anywhere that show how people’s views about government and politics fit into and emerge from the context and experience of their lives. Such stories covering the full spectrum of American opinion would do much to encourage civility in the public discourse by showing the humanity of all involved.
Open public platforms such as Voice of the People letters help. If you read them carefully, you can get glimpses into lives and views different from your own but just as authentic.
Much more could and should be done. In this age of increased public engagement, the wonderfully differentiated people of America are a big story that remains largely untold. And the more we all have a full and genuine awareness of each other, the better we’ll proceed traveling the information highway to the compromises and details needed to govern ourselves.
Kevin Post is editorial page editor.