The phone rang in my office on a Monday in the summer of 2011 as I grappled with a very difficult personal issue.
Answering the phone wasn’t a priority.
But I did.
An elderly gentleman started the conversation with: “Shame on you.”
No, “Hello, my name is. …” Just, “Shame on you.”
“Shame on me for what?”
“Shame on you. You don’t care. Two more soldiers died in Afghanistan. That should be front-page news.”
He wanted confrontation. I didn’t want the conversation at all, but responded along these lines:
• Unfortunately, Americans die almost daily in Afghanistan and Iraq.
• We can’t put them all in our paper, let alone on Page One.
• If the person is from our area, we make a sincere effort to recognize that person.
He was passionate, arguing that the media lacked concern for American military. “American lives are being wasted in Afghanistan for no good reason, and you don’t care.”
He had no idea that the pauses between my professional responses were growing longer to cover my emotion.
That personal issue?
Two days earlier, I learned that my son had received his orders. On Sept. 11, 2011, he would board a pre-dawn bus in central Ohio headed for Camp Shelby, Miss., then deploy to Afghanistan.
The boy with whom I had camped, rafted, hiked, attended concerts and church, would don armored clothing, pick up a machine gun and head halfway around the earth, where people would shoot at him.
So this guy was suggesting I don’t care? I shared my personal stake with the gentleman.
He responded, “Well, still,” and hung up.
Isn’t it interesting that this man and I shared the same concern for soldiers, yet our conversation went miserably?
That is my story of how, sometimes blinded by anger and pre-conceived notions, we unintentionally inflict pain on one another.
What is wrong with us?
Personal emotion is news
Our behavior toward one another threatens the very fabric of our country: Our innovative spirit is at risk, and more important, our faith in humanity has been compromised.
For more than a year, the Beacon Journal and three universities in Northeast Ohio have been exploring the ways we act toward one another and the reasons behind that. Convinced that something unique and troubling was at work, we asked people to relate their different life experiences so that the entire community could understand better how we approach major issues from a variety of perspectives.
The assumption is that if we can appreciate each other’s experiences, perhaps we can coexist in the same room long enough to find solutions to what is ailing us.
The question arose, then: Is this destructive behavior any worse than usual? Hasn’t incivility, or lack of respect, been a part of our culture forever?
John Green, director of the University of Akron’s Bliss Institute of Applied Politics, began to explore this idea about two years ago. He formed a consortium of Cleveland State, University of Mount Union and UA to create the Ohio Civility Project.
His answer: An emphatic yes and yes.
Incivility has always been with us, and it is at one of its worst levels in American history. People are finding new ways to be mean.
And here’s the question he would ask back: Just because it has been with us forever, is it a behavior that is acceptable?
This community is blessed with an ability to look inward. Green has a national reputation for research regarding deep-seated beliefs.
Reporters at the Beacon Journal have dedicated a year to this effort, giving voice to the people of our community whose stories must be heard. Alice Rodgers, who led our delicate community discussions of race in the 1990s, returned from retirement, working for nearly a year to lead 26 focus groups exploring today’s emotions. The John S. and James L. Knight Foundation provided financial support.
And pushing and prodding has been the faith community, telling us that this introspection is imperative.
As Pastor Mark Ford has said repeatedly: “We’ve got to reset the thermostat.”
As we explored, we found these emotions:
• Blame: There are those who believe they have no responsibility for the nation’s state of affairs, and they blame others for their own situations.
• Denial: Some may call it cognitive dissonance. What’s that? There is a logical voice in the back of our minds that suggests the position we take on an issue is incorrect, yet we defy that voice. This causes internal agitation and raised voices.
• Anger: While this may be an outgrowth of blame and denial, it also has other roots. There are people in our country who made huge mistakes, and they took us all down. Some not only escaped punishment, they were bailed out. That’s a rub.
• Fear: There is a realization that something has rocked our foundation. And this emotion has been at play for years.
Numbers explain fear
It is important to understand that we have a right to be worried.
In 2001, the nation was attacked by terrorists at the same time it was slipping into an economic recession. To this day, we have yet to recover emotionally or economically.
Let’s advance to 2008. The Beacon Journal published a series called “The American Dream, hanging by a thread.” The foundation of that project was our research showing that household income had not recovered from the recession in 2001 — a unique event in modern history. Focus groups conducted by Rodgers showed that people were worried that something was amiss.
Then the crash happened.
So, in the seventh year of growing unease in the American population, we experienced the worst economic crash since the Great Depression. This has not been a four-year struggle dating to 2008 — we’re now going on year 12.
Maaslow’s hierarchy of needs suggests that as people worry for extended periods of time about the basics of life — safety, shelter, nourishment — they become more inward-focused and less creative, less community-minded, and less accepting of others.
How bad is it?
Early in this year’s America Today series, a young woman emailed that she had worked three part-time jobs trying to make ends meet. None of those jobs offered health insurance. She could not afford the premiums so she lived with the hope that she did not get hurt or sick. In the midst of her insecurity, her father stunned her with an email that was copied to his conservative friends and critical of people who wanted a national health care solution. Her own father, she said, had no compassion for his own daughter’s plight.
Beacon Journal reporter Dave Scott, who has been the anchor on the America Today project, made this observation: Many believe they are successful due to virtuous living. What they fail to recognize is the amount of luck and help that contributed to their self-described success.
Medical writer Cheryl Powell delivered one of the best examples: A wealthy Republican businessman with hopes of early retirement and the good life privately changed his political allegiance this summer. He recently had been diagnosed with a long-term ailment that would make his health care costs astronomical in early retirement unless Obamacare remained in effect. For fear of retaliation from business associates, he shared none of this with them.
The Beacon Journal’s America Today series, all of which remains available on Ohio.com, offers many such stories.
The project has garnered some national attention. Jefferson Action from St. Paul came to Akron to conduct citizen panels in the Sutton-Renacci congressional race, building on the citizen engagement already at play.
A group of international journalists stopped through on Election Day to ask why civil conversation was getting so much attention when America had bigger problems: jobs, war, health care, debt, race, crime.
Our answer: If the car breaks down, tools are required to make the fix. The most pressing need for national leadership and for the people was to identify the tools to solve the nation’s problems. Only then can we make the fix.
Yet in the midst of this breakdown in America, our leaders and the media fed the divisiveness during the latest election cycle.
Ohio was the battleground. Millions of dollars were spent not to solve what ails us, but to make us even more angry.
In a conversation about community problem-solving with Eileen Korey, the University of Akron’s chief communications officer, a few days ago, she observed that “battleground state” had the feeling of Gettysburg. The dead and dying are everywhere — but perhaps, she said, this also is a turning point.
As the smoke clears
Public engagement groups have research suggesting that regular people are on the verge of seizing control. People perceive a dire need, and have little hope that leaders can act responsibly.
The research offers some troubling evidence:
• Leaders have isolated themselves. They don’t like, respect or trust the people who elect them.
• Media, to varying degrees, have become part of the leadership structure and the problem. Some media make it their job to divide, others simply have lost touch with citizens.
• If it is possible to alienate an entire population collectively and individually, we’ve succeeded.
Some people thought the election would be the end of this project — that the anger would subside after the political ads were gone. Yet, a full month after Nov. 6, a letter to the Beacon Journal’s Voice of the People suggested that those who voted for the other side were among the “mentally incompetent electorate.”
How’s that for civility?
Now, debates loom over guns and mental health. In a month we’ll have an inauguration. In 2014, we have mid-term elections and the International Gay Games in Northeast Ohio.
Rich Harwood, a longtime public engagement researcher at the Harwood Institute, suggests that we cannot cure the nation unless we “restore belief in ourselves and one another.”
To Akron’s credit, that ground has been broken. There are national organizations already viewing us as a Gettysburg.
Those who led the civility project now are asking: How do we equip this community to do as Harwood suggests by restoring belief in ourselves and one another. What issues should we tackle? Education? Race? Jobs? Continue on civility? Hold leaders and media accountable?
We’re open to ideas. Let’s hear them.
Meanwhile, civility is best done by appreciating one person at a time. Let’s try it.
I often wonder what happened to the gentleman who called more than a year ago, ready for a fight.
Perhaps, in his own way, he realized we are kindred spirits regarding military. If you’re out there, let’s have coffee.
Doug Oplinger can be reached at 330-996-3750, or firstname.lastname@example.org.