Unless our heads are buried in the sand, it goes without saying that respect is in short supply. Many eulogies were respectfully rendered upon the deaths of John McCain, the senator from Arizona and former candidate for president, and Aretha Franklin, the queen of soul. But a large number of Americans have lost their way with the respect and solidarity that represent the practice of our self-ruled good citizenship and the management of our biology. The hounds have been released and the politeness, manners and goodwill that help shape our individual freedom and public communication are in retreat.
Hate-filled thoughts and angry prejudices—what used to be very private, indigenous or homegrown—are now aired via the Internet and social media to fuel the viciousness and spite of others, producing a radical change in public communication. Violent threats, character assassination, deliberate lies and false accusations are commonplace. Normative virtues such as decency, civility, kindness, courtesy and fair play are often ignored. But we Americans passionately want respect, and it is this desire of ours that makes our reputation or sense of self-worth so vulnerable to insult, activates our aggressive impulses and provides the incentive to weaponize rudeness.
We who study the philosophic perspective of autonomy and life in America believe this is the time to get our house in order and are committed to transcend this meanest, basest expression of who human beings are. Yes, of course, we recognize the involuntary nature of our determinism—the instinctual fears, hates, anger, passions and selfishness by which we are often herded and exploited.
Moreover, we know that these urges are inflamed reflexive defenses. It is not unnatural or shameful that we have unruly and antagonistic feelings or that we are easily incited by the rhetoric designed to provoke their meanest expression. We also know that these urges are not easy to change. It takes planning and disciplined hard work to make our dreams come true—to excel in any field of endeavor and to be acknowledged for it. And it also takes hard work to transcend urges and lifelong habits of crude thinking, offensive speaking and menacing behavior.
In fact, it has often been said that America’s individual freedom—the freedom to be an individual—may be incompatible with what can reasonably be expected from human beings. This is because it asks that we rise above our unconscionable and ill-mannered communications and actions. It asks us to elevate ourselves by acquiring the discipline to do unto others as we would have them do unto us.
In my opinion, when we don’t respect others, it is not because we have carefully considered the consequences of repugnant behavior and still chosen to act badly, but because we are yet incapable of holding ourselves to account for an ennobled and ennobling expression of being alive, of being one among many involved in the American experiment with individual freedom.
Still, as I said, without regulative and humane ideals in place, we are unwitting brutes, rounded up by the most powerful among us to be cruel or reflexively timid, coarse, irresponsible and irrational and convinced that our belligerence is a mark of individuality rather than a failure of same.
We who study autonomy and life accept the obligations of the regulative matrix that shapes the thinking, speaking and doing responsible for enacting America’s individual freedom. This freedom depends on solidarity—on our commitment to try to moderate the visceral antagonism that protects what we think is our self-interest—so we can find a common ground on which to carry out America’s ideals.
And, of course, America’s individual freedom is also a function of the statutory rights of the citizen in America. In the universe of America, indeed, for all but the most cowardly, narcissistic or ignorant, we allow the demands of our culture to transcend our passions and fears. In other words, we permit our culture to define the space in which we are to respond as autonomous individuals to the call for the transformation of the uncivilized primate. No matter how compulsive our angry feelings, we are always responsible for the ends we choose and the means we employ to make our way in the world.
As we read the progress of history, we can see that succeeding with our individual freedom is dependent on our ability to temper mean-spirited and predatory unsocial feelings. Who of us doesn’t want the space to live a life of our own design, to love and to be loved, to protect those who depend on us and to contribute to a better world? Does our own fulfillment really depend on our “right” to give harsh expression to the cruel, the base and the unjust, to attack the dignity of others, to ignore the respect with which they wish to be treated?
I’ll end this post with a few open questions. Can we get our house in order? Can we manage this governing philosophy that we share in common—that is, the burden of responsible self-rule upon which the creation of our individuality depends—as was intended some 230 years ago? Or will we surrender the opportunity for our individual freedom, settle for top-down governance and be forced to live and die the collective life of the beast? Do you know people who would enjoy my blog? Please share this post and encourage them to subscribe. Thank you.
Arnold Siegel is the founder of Autonomy and Life and the leader of its Retreat Workshops and Advanced Classes. Visit autonomyandlife.com for more information.