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September 23, 2014
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My enemy (in the abstract)


“It’s not our job to toughen our children up to face a cruel and heartless world.

It’s our job to raise children who will make the world a little less cruel and heartless.”

― L.R. Knost

Every once in a while (as I may have observed here before), something comes across the Internet, amongst all the kitty-cat videos and trivial “Mmmm, nice lunch!” status updates, that make a reader stop dead for a moment.

I had one of those moments not too long ago, when someone passed the above quote along via Facebook. (L. R. Knost, by the way, is a bestselling author of parenting resources and children’s books; learn more about her at www.littleheartsbooks.com.) Knost’s words clarified something I had been wondering about for some time—a certain cultural attitude, one that I’ve noticed never fails to get my hackles up, one of those fundamental differen-ces in thinking styles and worldview that makes communication across political divides so difficult.

You’ve seen this attitude in action, I’m pretty sure. It shows up a lot in those speeches that get passed around the Net, dubiously ascribed to Bill Gates, or Bill Cosby, or Kurt Vonnegut, or some high school principal in Idaho. It doesn’t just accept the notion that life is “cruel and heartless,” it fairly revels in it. Life is rough, it says to people, especially to young people. Suck it up. Learn to deal with it. Don’t even think about changing it, because you can’t. Why not? Because you can’t, that’s why. That’s just the way it is. (Remember Sarah Palin’s famously dismissive, “Hey, how’s that ‘hopey-changey’ thing coming along?”) Life, by these lights, is a nasty affair, vicious and inherently unfair, and the sooner you accept that fact, buddy, and just shut up, get to work, and learn how to take orders, the better off you’ll be.

Sound familiar?

It’s an attitude that can’t use the word “Kumbaya” without a sneer. It regards all attempts at reconciliation, diplomacy, negotiation, or kindness as hopelessly naive at best, and potentially dangerous at worst. Force, toughness, discipline—these are the things that one needs to get ahead in the world. It regards itself as “just realistic, that’s all.” It’s the attitude that told the rest of us to “get over it” after the 2000 election debacle. It’s the attitude that triumphantly declared its interpretation of reality as the “new normal” after the 9-11 attacks. It’s an attitude that allows people to say to the less fortunate, “Life doesn’t owe you anything,” which of course, implies, “In particular, I don’t owe you anything.”

This kind of hard-edged attitude is not the exclusive provenance of the right wing, of course—certain hardcore leftists, with their emphasis on constant and perpetual struggle, have their own harsh and humorless variations—but it certainly seems to be much more visible in its conservative manifestations these days. This is, after all, the viewpoint that makes providing free lunches for poor children at school seem like a “bad thing” because it might foster “dependence on the government.”

I’m sure that my therapist and I could spend some useful time exploring why this particular point of view irks me so much. Now that I look back on things, I see that a good-sized hunk of my life has been spent trying to dispel this attitude in one way or another—trying, in Knost’s words, to “make the world a little less cruel and heartless.” Fortunately, I haven’t been alone in this effort, and I’m grateful to be among good company.