Our American Way

I have a few ideas that I’m going to throw out there, and see if they are as related as they seem.

A few years ago I noticed a recurring theme coming out of the letters to American advice columnists, the main gist of which is this (I paraphrase all of the following questions): “Dear Advice Columnist, my close friend/sister-in-law/co-worker always does x which offends/hurts/makes me question this relationship. How can I get him/her to change? I don’t want to confront this person because s/he will get mad and things will be awkward.”

“Dear Advice Columnist, I have been seeing someone special, and everything was wonderful and we were talking of moving in together but now s/he seems distant. What do you think is going on?”

Dunno, have you asked? You’re sleeping with this person but you’re afraid to ask an intimate question?

“Dear Advice Columnist, my boyfriend and I have been together for a year and my friends tell me that if I he doesn’t propose by next Christmas, I should break up with him. What do you think?”

I think we are losing — if we ever had it to begin with — our ability to communicate how we really feel. We are afraid of confrontation because we don’t know how to navigate through conversations without escalation with people who may disagree with us. Perhaps we are not even able to put our feelings into words even for our own thoughts. Why even think of “confrontation” before simple “discussion”? Because we let things go on, afraid to say anything lest we start an argument. Because we are not prepared to hear certain things, perhaps. We do not know how to argue without quarrel.

So I look at this lack of communication and see aggression filling the void. People stay inside their houses and allow the radio, tv and internet to work them up into outrage. A life removed from one’s neighbors, friends and family begins to get comfortable with that, and avoid social intercourse. It’s the social contact which keeps us in shape socially, and supports our general mental health (have you heard of any mass murders or other violent crime in Italy? Italians don’t like doing anything alone. Maybe there’s a connection there?) People seethe from inside their cars* and hurl insults (and even death threats) in anonymity online. The television network news can hardly go a day without mention of some dangerous thing (natural disaster, child’s toy, tainted food, medicine, shooting, shark attack,) which could kill you or harm your children. Guns, of course, need to be delicately discussed because… well, because. But watch out for that banned French cheese or raw milk. It could kill you.

Police in many areas are using tasers almost with abandon on unarmed civilians. They are no longer able to talk a suspect down, de-escalate a situation. Again, communication. It’s just easier to whip out the juice and knock ’em out. It has led to several deaths.

When I first began to walk around the streets of European cities alone, I remember how my back stiffened when I found myself approaching any handful of young men, walking my direction or loitering on a corner. I expected some kind of response to my presence — a leer, words, or the simple statement of standing their ground and making me walk around them. In other words, I expected aggression. And I remember that it never happened. Without exception, they politely moved to the side without incident when they realized they were blocking someone’s way. These days, I happen to live near a building which houses some kind of place of assistance for the chronically homeless. Every weekday many of them are gathered outside, either coming or going, some with their dogs, many of them rough street types. I have never once witnessed any kind of aggression to or from other passers-by.

This is not to say there is no violent crime or prejudice or xenophobia in my town. Of course there is. But the general level of aggression to other people is much, much lower. I am still trying to work out the reasons for that. Not only are there strict gun laws, but I fail to see any group pushing to change that. No letters to the editor arguing that we need firearms to protect ourselves from the foreign criminals in our midst. It’s possible I’m just not reading the right newspapers, sure. But as it’s that far below the radar, the European unrestricted-guns movement (if it exists at all!) does not color the national dialogue to any extent that it does in America.
I guess what I am getting at here is that, while an American nationwide ban on automatic and assault weapons for the general population is much needed, immediately, it will not immediately remove the tension which is making people feel the need to have them. This is something we desperately need to talk about, and yet, we continue to fail to communicate.

* although I have to say, I’ve been on the highways around Philadelphia lately and drivers all around me have been courteous, law-abiding and non-aggressive, which was a pleasant surprise.

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