Back in the old days (aka: the 1990s) there was a public meme that grew out of the evangelical Christian community. This meme manifested in a lot of paraphernalia that read “WWJD?” (What would Jesus do?). It was, theoretically, a reminder to folks who wore the wristbands, t-shirts, hats, sweatshirts, and what have you to act in a way that would demonstrate their love of Jesus and his beliefs. Human nature being what it is sometimes this reminder worked better than others. But that’s not the point of this essay.
The point of this essay is to try to embrace the idea that many memes you may not agree with entirely may still have something of value embedded in them, for what is American culture but a series of rapidly changing memes some of which stick (democracy, meritocracy (even though we don’t really have that)) and some of which don’t (slavery).
The “What would Jesus do?” meme carried embedded a couple of concepts key to American thinking: leading by example and hero worship. These are things Americans say we value. Unfortunately, these values and behaviors when not supported by other key concepts like equality, compassion, and patience tend to lead to the impatient, resentful, harried, fragmented, fractious culture currently on vivid display to the rest of the world.
I feel I should inject at this point that I’ve recently spent a week in Canada, Montreal and Toronto to be specific. Some things I took away from my time in Canada:
- Yes, Canadians really are that polite, even the native French speakers.
- Mostly plastic currency is never going to feel natural to someone who grew up handling currency that is made of cotton and linen.
- If you extrapolate from Montreal and Toronto, Canadians must take a lot of photographs (3 camera stores in Montreal and 6 in Toronto that I saw (that’s 8 more than we have in DC)).
One thing that I found interesting about being in public in Canada has to do with public politeness. Politeness requires one of two things to be in play: social opprobrium or social security.
In the case of social opprobrium someone is polite because they fear the consequences if they aren’t. Typically this applies in small towns. It plays out in what a friend of my mother’s who lives in the Tidewater area of Virginia, which is really more Southern than you might expect, the “Bless her heart” face.
“Mabel’s hair is such a nice color this week, bless her heart.”
It’s an insult wrapped in cookie dough, rolled in sugar, and baked all in a second; sweet on the outside but bitter in the middle. Opprobrium-motivated politeness fears people noticing when you don’t show up at church or you didn’t mow your lawn for a couple of weeks in the summer for no good reason other than you just didn’t feel like it. In a large city environment, there’s no way this can be a motivator.
Social security based politeness, on the other hand, seems to be based on the amazing idea that you have a legitimate expectation your public needs will be met. Public needs being things like space to walk down the sidewalk or being able to enter a building or deal with a clerk at a business and take as much time as you need to get your issue resolved. This type of security gets doors held and people who have strollers thanking you for stepping over instead of acting as if their spawn are the end all and be all and how dare you attempt to occupy the space they need for the child’s conveyance. Social security based politeness is borne of expansiveness which is not something that we have a lot of culturally in America.
I realize my perspective may be jaded living, as I do, in the self-importance capital of the world. Everyone in DC is incredibly important and their needs must take precedence over yours because you are clearly a peon. Do I exaggerate? Maybe a little but the truth about my home town is we have just enough crowding to pinch but not enough crowding for people to have to drop their bullshit and deal with the fact that they aren’t alone on the planet. All of this creates a “I’m going to get mine and screw you” atmosphere that is clearly rooted in insecurity not expansiveness. It’s small and hard and bitter and not at all compassionate. It’s why people who look like they are the same age as my mother are surprised when I offer them my seat on the Metro even if I’m not in one of the restricted use seats. It’s also why people are surprised when I won’t step into the gutter so they can walk three abreast on a sidewalk that only accommodates three abreast.
What does all this have to do with Mr. The Frog? Deanna Zandt is a social media technologist and activist who firmly believes we can change the world with social networking. While I’m not sure I agree entirely and why is for another blog entry, she gave an amazing talk three years ago at IgniteNYC about how non-profit organizations can succeed on social media: Ask “What would Kermit do?” The talk is only five minutes long and is totally worth watching.
The main point of her thesis is Muppets in general are earnest, honest, and trusting. Kermit in particular looks for the best in people. He follows his dreams and his mission in life is share those dreams with like-minded people. While I realize the Muppets live in a scripted world where good is always going to triumph over evil and just about everyone is at base reasonable and this is imminently untrue of the real world in which we must live there are still some things to be gleaned from using Kermit as a behavior model.
One of the things Kermit does, which I am wholly and thoroughly bad at, is finding the upside in a situation. I’m not talking about the “Well, it could be worse. At least it’s not raining.” approach. Recently TGF and I took an extremely long train trip part of which took us from Toronto, ON to New York, NY. For a 12+ hour trip TGF booked business class, which was really only about $45 more per ticket than coach. Unfortunately, it wasn’t all it was cracked up to be.
Our seats were in the back half of the cafe car which, to keep everyone in the train from walking through our space, they put on the very end of the train. If you’ve never ridden a train I’ll tell you that being the last car when the train is moving at anything over about 50 miles per hour is exactly like being at the end of a whip. You get jerked back and forth and every jolt in the rail bed gets magnified by about a 1000 in intensity.
The other sour notes in this were that while we had easy access to the cafe to get the free soft drinks, tea, juice, and coffee that came with our higher priced tickets we also had to spend 12 hours smelling everyone else’s food as it was prepared. The curtain that should have been hanging between us and the service area was missing which meant that once the sun went down there was zero opportunity to see out the window because of the glare from the overhead light in the cafe area And, the real kicker, because everyone kept opening the door to come into the cafe area the thermostat for the cafe car kept thinking it was hot which meant our seating area was freezing cold. Overall, we would have been more comfortable and would have ultimately spent the same amount of money after factoring what we saved on beverages vs. the increased price of the ticket if we’d bought coach seats.
In this particular instance they key to element of “What would Kermit do?” is concentrating on the good things – we were on a train; the scenery was beautiful; we met some lovely Australian tourists on walkabout; we were close enough to the cafe that when TGF and I wanted to get up and play cards it was easy to get a table; did I mention we were on a train? – rather than on all the things that weren’t exactly just so.
Am I able to do this all the time? Not after a lifetime of concentrating on the bad shit. Finding the good amid the bad is sometimes hard enough even when you’re not fighting against habit.
I also know I’m not going to be able to embrace the “trust everyone” part of the life strategy. That same lifetime of experience has taught me that people generally aren’t trustworthy. Cynical and small, I know, but backed up not only by hundreds and hundreds of personal examples but also by people’s general behavior.
And I know I’m not perfect and I’m not the nicest person all the time. Sometimes I’m just as selfish as everyone around me; like yesterday when TGF and I were the literally first two people to show up at a movie so we could pick exactly the seats we wanted then we would not move when people who showed up during the previews (the previews!) had five and there were only four seats on either side of us (Um, why don’t you ask the people on the ends to move over? They’d end up with better seats since we’re actually sitting in the center point of the screen which I kinda need ’cause I paid $13.25 for a 3D movie and I have no f**king parallax. No, just asking us? Piss off then.) But I am trying and I suppose I have to take the leap and some point and be nicer than those around me if I’m going to follow The Frog’s example. Will this always be pleasant? No, but I’m starting to no like the way I feel when I act selfishly.
Maybe I just need to literally ask myself “What would Kermit do?” when these opportunities arise. On the other hand, that might just get some people to go away and leave me alone, which wouldn’t be so bad either.