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Meanness and Violence

A colleague and I were talking the other day about how much violence there is in American society. We both admitted that the extent of violence in America exceeded by far every other industrialized democratic society. Why is this, we asked? The pursuit of the almighty dollar was one factor, along with the stress associated with this. It stems from the “American Dream” said my colleague and we both referred to the excellent book by criminologists Stephen Messner and Richard Rosenfeld called Crime and the American Dream.

Later that evening my wife and I were talking about this subject and she made reference to a popular television show called “The Apprentice” with Donald Trump. She mentioned that in a recent episode one of the participants was subjected to the now famous Trump decision that “You’re Fired.” One of the reasons Trump gave for firing this person was that he was “too nice” to his competitors and Trump said something like “You’ll never get ahead” acting that way. In other words, in order to “get ahead” in the competitive world of capitalism you cannot be nice. Instead you have to be mean; you have to crush your opponents; you have to stomp all over them; you have to do all that it takes to “get ahead.” In the world of business – and sports too – “nice guys finish last” (to use the words of former manager Leo Durocher). In short, meanness and even cruelty are rewarded. Treating people kindly is not.

The more I thought about this the more I realized that perhaps one of the reasons we have so much violence stems at least indirectly from this tendency to reward meanness and cruelty in the world of business.

This idea is not new. Back in 1997 Nicolaus Mills wrote a book called The Triumph of Meanness: America's War Against Its Better Self where he documented numerous examples of what he called a “culture of meanness.” Here he cited, among other examples, the em,erging popularity of “serial-killer trading cards” plus displays of “public humiliation on TV talk shows,” such as Jerry Springer, among others.

More recently there was a study by three university scholars (at Harvard, Rice and the University of Utah) called "When Executives Rake in Millions: Meanness in Organizations" where the authors found that “higher income inequality between executives and ordinary workers results in executives perceiving themselves as being all-powerful and this perception of power leads them to maltreat rank and file workers.”

Bo Cutter, of the Roosevelt Institute, echoed a similar theme in an article called the “Politics of Pure Meanness: Three New Lows in American Governance.” He gives three examples: the callous behavior of the governor of Wisconsin where he engaged in cutting just about everything important in people’s lives along with “Congressman Peter King's anti-Muslim hearings, and the budget antics of the House Republicans.” As for the Republicans, Cutter says that “They are doing it out of pure meanness.”

Finally, in the Daily Beast, Ramin Setoodeh writes a piece called “It’s a Cruel, Cruel World.” Here he writes about the mean behavior of Simon Cowell when on “American Idol” he constantly brazenly berated some of the contestants openly (so all could hear him). In contrast to an earlier era of sitcoms characterized by politeness, the “Cowell model” of behavior has been “mimicked by every other judge on every other reality show (Dancing with the Stars, America’s Next Top Model, Project Runway, and don’t forget The Weakest Link). Even on Glee, the character of Sue Sylvester is essentially a female version of Simon. She cuts down everybody, and she’s everybody’s favorite character for precisely that reason.”

The recent surge in violence (including the horrible bombing incident in Boston) reflects the ultimate in meanness. Also, the explosion (killing at least 35 people) at a fertilizer place in Texas also illustrates this meanness since the company had been cited several times for violating many regulations but obviously chose to continue business as usual; the paltry fine of $2,300 was like a parking ticket! If we want to stop the violence, we must address this “culture of meanness” that has infected the country.

Keywords: Randall Shelden

Posted in Blog, Social Justice

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