Esther’s yahrzeit will fall on August 17 this year, and as I look back time seems to have put a lot of distance in my memory from this event last year. Sadness fades, and the strongest memories of Esther re-assert themselves, replacing the later years of forgetfulness and sadness that came from her dementia. This year I was imagining having the kind of conversation with her we had in the past, and she would have a lot to say about the world we live in today. Mainly it would be about being polite. People, Esther would say, have forgotten their manners, and behave in a rude way that should not be the way their mothers taught them. And by politeness, she didn’t mean just smile and grin when other people misbehaved, but having courage, and calling them out on their rudeness, and sometimes getting them to re-think how they act.
Esther had strong opinions about kindness, and manners. She would have said that many of the mean things we are seeing in the world today are arising because we have forgotten our manners. We have forgotten that people’s feelings can be deeply hurt when we unthinkingly state our own shallow opinions, and when we forget that even the people we disagree with have feelings too.
It’s hard for me not to see, as Esther’s son, that the failure of the Vancouver transit referendum, the surprising Brexit vote, and indeed the rise of Donald Trump as a demagogue, as natural outcomes of allowing unbridled, unedited, and anonymous comments to replace reasoned, polite discourse. How many hundreds of times have I received (and sent!) email written in haste, anger, and with lack of consideration. How many times have we seen web postings accusing those who disagree with the writer as idiots, morons, and worse.
But Esther would have argued (I think), it is not the behaviour of the trolls that is the problem. Those people are needy, or angry, or haven’t been taught good manners, or are ill, and need some attention, and boundaries. The problem is with us, when we chuckle at the comments, retweet them, point and laugh, send their clickbait ratings up into the googlesphere, and generally encourage rude behaviour, making it a spectator sport, growing a market for rudeness and for schadenfreude. Then we are complicit. Then we are fanning the flames.
Esther would have said that in polite company, people who want to be outrageous – like Van der Zalm, Boris Johnson, and Trump – are embarrassing themselves, and don’t deserve the attention they crave. They are showboating, being sensational, being clowns. You’re supposed to laugh with the clowns, or ignore their antics, then move on. Not make them the leader of a country. Not follow their delusions because they are entertaining, when the fate of your city or country depends on your vote.
We live in a world that makes it oh-so-easy to be mean, and to be rude. But I remember Esther, and she would have wanted me to be as kind, and as polite as she taught me. Not to be a milquetoast, namby-pamby bystander, but to call out mean behaviour and rudeness, bring attention to it, and yes, risk telling someone they should be ashamed of themselves. To call attention to hurtful behaviour, and for many people, simply calling it out is enough to remind them of their manners, before it can grow to become fear and hatred.
“Do you mean we should eschew mean-spiritedness, Mom?” An indulgent smile, then “Yes dear, go do that, and tell your friends, and the world will be a little sweeter to live in.”
Thanks, Esther. We miss you.