I don't know about you, but I've been noticing for some time now that our society seems to be getting meaner. And I don't just mean that the "bad guys" of our society are getting more predatory and sadistic, I mean that the attitudes of society's "nice people" and "good citizens" are becoming more and more unkind. I'll give a couple of trivial examples of what I'm talking about.
Back in the days before the Dirty Harry movies, when TV cop characters were more human and humane, police dramas would now and then do an episode that focused on the emotional aftermath for an officer who had killed in the line of duty. In these episodes the cop who had killed a perp would be shown going through some psychic pain and a moral crisis about taking a human life, even though his action had been ruled a "good shooting". These TV cops had decent human feelings about depriving even "scum bags" of life.
But then I think it was in the 80s that this turns around, and more and more TV cops became chips off the new Dirty Harry cultural archetype. Their approach to police work and their attitudes seemed to be modeled more on insensitive Inspector Harry Callahan and his take-no-prisoners (literally) mentality than on the mild-mannered Dudley Do-Rights of 50s and 60s cop shows. The "good guys" of the boob tube and the big screen became more unabashedly callous, more like the villains, except that they reserved their brutality and deadliness for those dregs of society who supposedly deserved it.
Sure, this is only TV, but it seemed to jibe with and pander to the mentality of a large audience, of a large and representative cross section of the public. It seemed to be an indication that our attitudes were hardening, that we were growing more disdainful of the human worth and rights of anyone we deem to be beyond the middle-class pale of propriety.
Today there seems to be no doubt left that this is the case, that as a society we've become seriously more unpitying. More contemptuous of the idea that the homeless are worthwhile human beings who are entitled to society's help, that immigrants are just desperate people seeking to escape the poverty created in their countries by our corporate fat cats, that black people are still the victims of the system's racism, and that crooks still have some human rights that should be respected.
In fact the "angry white man" who has only hostility for the notion that women and minorities have some legitimate gripes has become a familiar stereotype. In the "angry white man's" book everyone else is just a "whiner", he lacks the self-awareness and honesty to realize that he's just projecting his own inner whiner, his own sense of having been shafted by the status quo. Tragically, instead of joining in solidarity with women and minorities to challenge and change an unjust status quo, "angry white men" succumb to identity politics and unproductively focus their disgruntlement on powerless fellow victims rather than the power elite that's truly responsible for the raw deal their lives have become.
The other item of evidence pointing to the fact that society is getting meaner that offhandedly comes to mind is a program on TV that I recently stumbled across while channel surfing. The show is called Nancy Grace. It features an unpleasant person with what seems to be a permanent snarl on her face who exploits crimes and family tragedies that have made it into the news for fodder for her "legal analysis". Ms. Grace typically gloms onto the cases of molested and murdered children and other vile crimes and milks them for all the judgmental venom she can spew. Recently she sank her claws into the Zahra Baker case and just exploits it ad nauseam every night. Such cases merely serve as a sanctimonious soap box for her mean-spirited, moralistic demagoguery.
She also has a court show, Swift Justice, on which she provides her audience with a high tech pillory of people who've screwed up in one way or another. The chief entertainment value of such courtroom shows does seem to be that they subject "litigants" to a tongue lashing from judgy judges so that viewers can vicariously get their own judgmentalness off. In the Middle Ages they put naughty folks in stocks in the public square so that their holier-than-thou neighbors could stroll by and enjoy a sense of moral superiority to the lowly drunk or blasphemer, today we have the likes of Nancy Grace and Judge Judy providing the same release for our cruel side and petty egoistic need to feel superior at someone else's expense.
That our society eats up such television programming rather than being turned off by its unkind nature is what's so disturbing and damning in my view. What we like to watch on the idiot box says a lot about our mind-set, and what it's been saying for a while now is that we're growing increasingly unsympathetic, cynical, illiberal, and yes, downright mean in our opinions and sentiments.
Nancy Grace uses the slogan "We want justice", well, it seems that for her and for many of us nowadays justice is just an abstract concept that we use to legitimize our malicious desire to judge, rebuke, punish, and inflict violence. Moral cowards that we are we pay lip service to justice to conceal from ourselves the real nature of our impulses, to camouflage our cruelty.
The shameful truth is that as a society and as individuals we're less concerned about social justice and more keen on ruthlessly enjoying power over others. We'd rather narcissistically empower our egos by judging our neighbor than help him/her become a better person. We'd rather brandish the power to lock criminals up than rehabilitate them. We'd rather use law enforcement as an instrument of control over the populations of our ghettos than practice economic justice toward them. We'd rather demonstrate our system's power by cracking down on undocumented workers than address the immigration issue with intelligence and compassion. We'd rather inflict our military might on the innocent civilians of Iraq and Afghanistan than justly deal with the righteous reasons why the teeming masses of the Third World resent the rich nations. Etc., etc.
This self-pleasing pursuit of power of ours is leading us into mean behavior and attitudes that undermine our society's ability to achieve greater social progress and justice. If we genuinely care about grounding our society in the ethical and progressive values we profess to hold dear then we urgently need to wake up to the corrosive and corrupting effect that being power-proud, hardhearted, angry, and uncompassionate is having on our civilization's soul.