What’s happening to our manners?
It begins innocuously, with an angry generalization about a person. It continues, perhaps, with occasional sniffs of derision about a set of beliefs here or there.
And it is, apparently, hard not to spew invectives regularly when in a traffic jam or a political race.
Few of us would consider ourselves racist, narrow-minded or otherwise intolerant. But to Sara Bullard, the signs are unmistakable - we have become so focused on our right to the road of life that we won’t let someone merge ahead of us, much less tolerate his beliefs.
Bullard, who has investigated a decade of hate with the Southern Poverty Law Center in Alabama, has seen winds of intolerance fan into storms of hate, extremism, distrust and fear.
And at the eye of these maelstroms are children, absorbing the subtle and overt acts of intolerance adults practice.
“Being mean to each other has gotten to be socially acceptable, there’s no question,” Bullard said in an interview recently in Charlotte. “It is even apparently desirable to get on TV and scream at your relatives. How do we as families combat that?”
Bullard offers a battle plan in her new book, “Teaching Tolerance: Raising Open-Minded, Empathetic Children” (Doubleday, $21.95).
Intolerance is the seed of a growing crisis, Bullard believes. Racism and xenophobia are spreading roots in our society, signaling dark days ahead.
She pulls a sobering case in point from the headlines: Federal statistics released in September showed violent crime decreased 9 percent nationally in 1995 - but child abuse and neglect doubled from 1986 to 1993.
“This is not a coincidence, folks,” Bullard said. “The people who were in the age group that commits the most violent crime, 16 to 24, are now parents. And the children are now the victims of their hatred and anger.
“Our society is going to see some rage coming out of these families, these children. And the way they are going to express it is to take it out on those who are different from them, or who are weaker - immigrants, the poor, other races.”
Intolerance is not a newly developed trait, or even an unusual one. “We are all in some ways intolerant,” Bullard said. “It’s part of the human personality.”
Bullard calls it being “hard-wired” to think in certain ways. “Studies have shown that one of the earliest skills young children learn and use is how to categorize things,” she said. But it doesn’t take much to extend those skills into stereotyping and distrust of those who are different.
Young children learn first and foremost about how to deal with the world and its messages from their families.
“A child’s (moral) sense of himself or herself comes from the way they are treated in their family. That’s the most important,” Bullard said. “The influence of the media, for example in portrayal of violence all the time, cannot be overlooked. But children can grow up with a sense of respect and tolerance of others if their parents live that way.”
“It’s not a matter of just telling children how to be or how to act. All the sociological research shows you have to live it in your own life to make it work in your kids.”
Preaching the tolerance gospel isn’t easy or overly popular these days, Bullard admits. Political righteousness seems to be peaking, with bloodshed around the world and black and white churches burning closer to home.
“Intolerance seems overwhelming sometimes,” said Bullard, who is taking a break from fighting extremism herself with a sabbatical from the center.
“But I believe the solution is going to come - one child, one family at a time.”
MEMO: This sidebar appeared with the story: ‘TEACHING TOLERANCE’ Some thoughts culled from “Teaching Tolerance: Raising Open-Minded, Empathetic Children” (Doubleday, $21.95), by Sara Bullard: When your kids are being intolerant (name-calling, belittling or excluding someone, for instance), what should you do? Step in calmly and say, “It’s time to talk.” Remind them disagreements are allowed but meanness is not. In the case of name-calling, ask the victim to describe how she felt. Then say, “It’s not OK to say things like that.”