Thoughts on Intemperance… Don’t Kill the Messenger!

By Lance Chilton

Don’t kill the messenger; don’t even curse at him/her/them.  It’s not her/his/their fault.  Most of the people calling the Department of Health Coronavirus Hotline (1-800-600-3453, if you need help) are very pleasant, even grateful; all of the people answering those phones are pleasant, glad to be able to help people.  But there are some of our callers…

What is it about the current time that makes people so angry?  What makes it okay to yell and curse at people we don’t even know?  I have several theories: people are tired of COVID-induced isolation; some may have even forgotten how to act around anyone else.  Media outlets, especially talk radio, encourage intemperance – it’s like a lurid banner headline, expressing the frustrations of other listeners and increasing listenership.  And I believe that the excesses are fed by the remarkable intemperance of the previous inhabitant of the White House, whose rants in person and by Tweet made excess and self-indulgence the norm rather than the exception.

We’re not the only ones getting hate speech, of course: if you’ve “attended” our governor’s weekly coronavirus updates, you have seen in the “chat” all sorts of scurrilous attacks on her.  Her re-election candidacy announcement on June 3 was marred by protestors yelling four-letter words, imitating a Nazi salute, and attempting to drown out the invocation by a Pueblo governor.  And I’ve been screamed at for wearing a mask and screamed at for not wearing a mask as I head north or south on the Bosque bike trail.

Albuquerque Journal columnist Joline Gutierrez Krueger wrote on just this subject June 5.  “One wonders,” she wrote, “whether we’ve been away from civilization so long that we’ve forgotten how to be civil.  This rage also appears to be an unfortunate slopover from our already divisive politics… [That] in large part, is because many Americans are just plain angry for myriad reasons they’d be more than happy to share if you ask — and even if you don’t.”

I’ve asked several friends, some of them mental health professionals, to comment on their observations of recent human (or inhuman) behavior.  I got back a knowledgeable and valuable series of theories and therapeutic suggestions, some of which I’ve included below:

  • We know we are living in a time of increasing divisiveness – the sense of “us” and “them”.    I think humans have probably always experienced a sense of “us” and “others” which has manifested itself in various ways, often to the detriment of those we consider “others”.  It seems to take much extra work to overcome this tendency. We’ve seen a history of this kind of tension from the earliest days of this country.
  • In the most recent decades, much of our population has felt increasingly stressed – economically, demographically – subject to an ever increasing sense of rapid change with so many unknowns.  Many people have felt a sense of loss of control and external threat. 
  • The advent of the internet age with its social media platforms, the loss of traditional sources of journalism, the lack of regulation of campaign financing – all have had a tremendous impact on swaying public opinion and channeling anger toward  “them” -those targets deemed “evil” – “big government”, “abortion”,  “women’s rights”, “gun control”, “civil rights” – and now “masking” and “vaccination”.  So here we are. 
  • My simplistic answer [as to] why people are currently so angry is that they are very fearful.  I think the pandemic has contributed to what seems like a loss of control over one’s very existence and the fear that accompanies that.  
  • Listen reflectively; ask the angry person for permission to rephrase what s/he has just said in a non-judgmental manner and then ask for concurrence with the rephrasing.  As hard as it is, doing reflective listening so the fearful person feels heard, in spite of possible falsehoods they are spouting, can bring down the temperature sometimes.
  • Read High Conflict by Amanda Ripley.  She does a great job describing how we all can get pulled into the “us vs. them” variety of disputes with the abusive outbursts because so many people are feeling under attack all the time.  She also provides hopeful ideas about getting out of that kind of conflict.  [May be helpful when talking with Trumpist friends and relatives.]
  • The isolation led folks to feel disconnected and edgy, with no feedback loop that generally does a lot to help self-correct.

“That said,” one friend wrote, “no one has the right to abuse, curse at, or yell at anyone regardless of who they are.”   We are better than that, despite what late-night Twitter storms did to the political discourse during the last four years.  Let’s leave incivility to return to civilization, and not just with the coronavirus hotline.  As Michelle Luján Grisham said of the demonstration at her re-election announcement, “This is not New Mexico. This is not who we are. We are a resilient state full of kind and hardworking people who want the best for their families.”

Many thanks to my informants: alphabetically Michael Biernoff, Julie Kilpatrick, Bo Miller, Kathleen Miller, Kathleen O’Malley, Mary Beth Thorn, and Skip Thorn.