Not too long ago, I remember that there were three complaints about those of us in the "silent majority." We were too: (1) "middle of the road" in our thinking; (2) quiet in expressing our views; and (3) apathetic about doing some of the hard work needed to get things done. Two out of three of those things appear to have changed, so surely we have made some progress. I think not.
Whether it is at the grocery or hardware store, the restaurant, or the airport, along with all the other public places where I can watch and listen to my fellow Americans, it seems that the views of people have moved to the extremes. For example, you can hear how lousy President Bush is on one aisle of Wal-Mart, and step into the next aisle and witness a rant against Sen. Kerry.
Extremes are the norm these days in the theatre of our everyday lives. Talking heads speak with unquestioned praise about their views, and with stinging criticism for the antithesis positions. Subtleties and nuances are a thing of the past. Instead, we have zealots who push their points of view and give little consideration to other perspectives. When did we move to these extremes? I must have been on vacation when it happened.
Just as we espouse the extreme in our views, so too do we seem to have increased the volume of our rhetoric. The majority surely cannot be accused of being silent any more, for our yakking comes with the volume turned up--way up. We also express our personal views with a full dose of anger toward any or all who may not hold our same positions.
The once quiet sanctity of public places is now filled with loud people -- yelling as if they were worried that their points were not being heard. Now, be clear that I too can be loud and inappropriate in my language, so I'm not excusing myself here. But when did it become OK to holler these words in places where there may be children? Those doing the cursing also seem to be oblivious to the fact that some of the youngsters who are within earshot are their own children.
Don't get me wrong in thinking that I want censorship. I do not. I think that the Patriot Act already has taken away too many of our rights. But why should we want to take such extreme views publicly and do so with a loudspeaker mentality? Perhaps we could impose some restraints on ourselves? The best censorship, I believe, comes from within.
Also, if these strongly held and loud views were to carry with them a passion to do something positive for the good of the many, then I would have no beef. But this is where things have not changed; we are as apathetic about doing the necessary hard work as we ever have been. Let's face it, it is not that difficult to become a fanatic and raise one's volume. That comes easy, I think, and as such we surely have shed the old label of being a "silent majority." What I see precious little of, however, is people doing the hard work of listening to other people, and being a little tolerant.
Moreover, when these days are we willing to do the really difficult work of compromising with others? Compromisers are the people who built this country. Sure, our ancestors had disagreements and could raise their voices in anger, but afterwards they could come together to plan solutions to problems, and build better tomorrows for their children. In contrast, think about our behaviors. What kind of models are we giving our children?
The middle ground is not a bad place. I think that more of us should try to meet there. I am very weary of people who seem so certain that they have the answers that they do not have the time and courtesy to at least let others speak their views. I assume that extreme, loud-talkers want to sway me to their viewpoints. Guess what? It is not working. Instead, I ignore them and their views. I think that most of us do the same.
There is one way to begin to lessen the problems I have touched upon in this essay. Imagine if each of us were to ask others, "What do you think?" Think about this marvelous little question. How long has it been since someone asked your view? And perhaps even more to the point, how long has it been since you asked others about their opinions, and then really listened to their answers?
Rick Snyder is Wright Distinguished Professor of Clinical Psychology at Kansas University.