Friendly Smiles?

Jacob Schor ND, FABNO

October 22, 2016



Maybe it’s my Costco sunglasses?  I have been running, or more recently walking, laps around Ferril Lake in Denver’s City Park for a solid 25 years now.  In those early years, the neighborhood was a bit rough around the edges and most of my fellow walkers were armed, not necessarily with guns, (though given the level of gang activity in the park back then, that might have been justified) but at least with something long such as a pool cue, a single golf club, or a solid stick.  Was the idea to ward off dogs, coyotes or foxes? I never asked.  Whatever the case, we would all exchange brisk good morning as our paths crossed and continue on our way.


Of late something has changed.  Take this morning for example, I crossed paths with 53 people, well actually more as I counted couples only once, but was able to elicit greetings from only 4, and one of those was a mere grimace from a runner.  Two of the hellos were from a couple my daughter used to babysit for.  I don’t know how to explain this response.  I’m thinking maybe the sunglasses?  Perhaps when people can’t see my eyes I appear threatening?  That seems hard to believe.


I wonder if it could be the upcoming election that has polarized the population to the degree that we are letting go of our basic habits of civility?  That would be scary.  Or is it the ear buds that allow people to divorce themselves from what’s going on around them so they aren’t obligated to exchange greetings? 


Kimberly Meltzer and Judith Hoover, scholars from Georgetown and Western Kentucky Universities, respectively, touched on our loss of civility two years ago when they analyzed the discussions between Mark Shields and David Brooks on the PBS NewsHour as exceptions to the new norm for modern opinion journalism because these journalists still have the capacity to engage in political discourse while maintaining what Meltzer and Hoover describe as exemplary civility. [1]  


These two may be the exception to the rule; in February of that 2012, Allegheny College, one our nation’s oldest liberal-arts colleges, had presented Shields and Brooks an award, what the school calls, a “Prize for Civility in Public Life”. [2]   


This reminds me of a 2011 column Brooks wrote for the New York Times the year before, which I will paste below as part of the endnotes to this newsletter. [3]


How do we cultivate civility?  Research suggests it is remarkably easy to cultivate the opposite behavior.  By the time children start kindergarten, they already demonstrate many of the implicit racial attitudes that adults in our culture hold, already associating some groups with higher status than others.  [4]


Kids are remarkably fast learners; in just a few minutes in a lab setting if exposed to information about fictional groups that differ in socioeconomic status, kids can figure out which group is wealthier and as a result decide those groups of people are more likeable. [5]  Gender attitudes are also learned quickly through seemingly subtle cues from adult behavior. [6]  


Children, it seems are particularly sensitive to bad behaviors and have a tendency to pick them up quickly.  When kids hear about or witness people committing antisocial actions, they remember those behaviors in greater detail than they do when hearing about comparable positive behaviors. [7]  Children, you could say, have a better memory for ‘mean than for nice.’ [8]  Perhaps this isn’t such a new discovery, as the scientists would have us think, perhaps this lies beneath the past cultural efforts for civil public discourse?


It’s been a number of years since our daughter has lived in Colorado and during her brief and not frequent enough visits to Denver, she has usually commented about how friendly people are here, that they say hello or howdy (though that has faded) on the street. I hope that she won’t be disappointed on her next visit by our new public behavior.  Tomorrow I’m going to try leaving my sunglasses at home.  Hopefully that will help.







1. Civility in News Discourse: The Case of PBS’ Brooks and Shields. Kimberly Meltzer, Judith D. Hoover.  Electronic News September 2014 vol. 8no. 3 216-235 doi: 10.1177/1931243114557598




3. Tree of Failure by David Brooks.  NY Times. JAN. 13, 2011

[full text below]


4.  The development of implicit intergroup cognition

Yarrow Dunham, Andrew S. Baron, Mahzarin R. Banaji.  Trends in Cognitive Science. Volume 12, Issue 7, p248–253, July 2008


 5. Horwitz, S. R., Shutts, K. and Olson, K. R. (2014), Social class differences produce social group preferences. Dev Sci, 17: 991–1002. doi:10.1111/desc.12181


6.  Hilliard, L. J. and Liben, L. S. (2010), Differing Levels of Gender Salience in Preschool Classrooms: Effects on Children’s Gender Attitudes and Intergroup Bias. Child Development, 81: 1787–1798. doi:10.1111/j.1467-8624.2010.01510.x


 7. J Exp Child Psychol. 2012 May;112(1):102-10. doi: 10.1016/j.jecp.2011.11.003. Epub 2012 Jan 28.

Children show heightened memory for threatening social actions.

Baltazar NC1, Shutts K, Kinzler KD.


8.  Kinzler KD, Shutts K. Memory for "mean" over "nice": the influence of threat on children's face memory.Cognition. 2008 May;107(2):775-83. Epub 2007 Nov 14.



Tree of Failure by David Brooks.  NY Times. JAN. 13, 2011

President Obama gave a wonderful speech in Tucson on Wednesday night. He didn’t try to explain the rampage that occurred there. Instead, he used the occasion as a national Sabbath — as a chance to step out of the torrent of events and reflect. He did it with an uplifting spirit. He not only expressed the country’s sense of loss but also celebrated the lives of the victims and the possibility for renewal.


Of course, even a great speech won’t usher in a period of civility. Speeches about civility will be taken to heart most by those people whose good character renders them unnecessary. Meanwhile, those who are inclined to intellectual thuggery and partisan one-sidedness will temporarily resolve to do better but then slip back to old habits the next time their pride feels threatened.


Civility is a tree with deep roots, and without the roots, it can’t last. So what are those roots? They are failure, sin, weakness and ignorance.


Every sensible person involved in politics and public life knows that their work is laced with failure. Every column, every speech, every piece of legislation and every executive decision has its own humiliating shortcomings. There are always arguments you should have made better, implications you should have anticipated, other points of view you should have taken on board.


Moreover, even if you are at your best, your efforts will still be laced with failure. The truth is fragmentary and it’s impossible to capture all of it. There are competing goods that can never be fully reconciled. The world is more complicated than any human intelligence can comprehend.


But every sensible person in public life also feels redeemed by others. You may write a mediocre column or make a mediocre speech or propose a mediocre piece of legislation, but others argue with you, correct you and introduce elements you never thought of. Each of these efforts may also be flawed, but together, if the system is working well, they move things gradually forward.


Each individual step may be imbalanced, but in succession they make the social organism better.


As a result, every sensible person feels a sense of gratitude for this process. We all get to live lives better than we deserve because our individual shortcomings are transmuted into communal improvement. We find meaning — and can only find meaning — in the role we play in that larger social enterprise.


So this is where civility comes from — from a sense of personal modesty and from the ensuing gratitude for the political process. Civility is the natural state for people who know how limited their own individual powers are and know, too, that they need the conversation. They are useless without the conversation.


The problem is that over the past 40 years or so we have gone from a culture that reminds people of their own limitations to a culture that encourages people to think highly of themselves. The nation’s founders had a modest but realistic opinion of themselves and of the voters. They erected all sorts of institutional and social restraints to protect Americans from themselves. They admired George Washington because of the way he kept himself in check.


But over the past few decades, people have lost a sense of their own sinfulness. Children are raised amid a chorus of applause. Politics has become less about institutional restraint and more about giving voters whatever they want at that second. Joe DiMaggio didn’t ostentatiously admire his own home runs, but now athletes routinely celebrate themselves as part of the self-branding process.


So, of course, you get narcissists who believe they or members of their party possess direct access to the truth. Of course you get people who prefer monologue to dialogue. Of course you get people who detest politics because it frustrates their ability to get 100 percent of what they want. Of course you get people who gravitate toward the like-minded and loathe their political opponents. They feel no need for balance and correction.


Beneath all the other things that have contributed to polarization and the loss of civility, the most important is this: The roots of modesty have been carved away.


President Obama’s speech in Tucson was a good step, but there will have to be a bipartisan project like comprehensive tax reform to get people conversing again. Most of all, there will have to be a return to modesty.


In a famous passage, Reinhold Niebuhr put it best: “Nothing that is worth doing can be achieved in our lifetime; therefore, we must be saved by hope. ... Nothing we do, however virtuous, can be accomplished alone; therefore, we are saved by love. No virtuous act is quite as virtuous from the standpoint of our friend or foe as it is from our standpoint. Therefore, we must be saved by the final form of love, which is forgiveness.”


A version of this op-ed appears in print on January 14, 2011, on page A27 of the New York edition with the headline: Tree Of Failure.