The impetus for this Musing came from two disturbing clips I heard on National Public Radio’s This American Life program. Each on its own is minor, but I wonder if, together, they do represent a larger issue.
A little background. My preferred exercise class is a twenty minute drive from our house. This travel time is perfect for listening to podcasts and This American Life is in my rotation. Each week’s episode has a specific focus and listening for few minutes usually tells me if it will be a worthwhile investment of my time. The show gives me insight into the lives of Americans I might not otherwise meet and topics I might not encounter.
Two of the shows I recently heard revealed a common problem. It didn’t have to do with the topic of either show, but each show included a throw-away statement that caused me to gasp. Both shows were repeats having first run a few years ago, but I doubt that the troublesome attitude has improved over the intervening years.
The problem was insufferable self-centeredness. Most troublesome was that the hosts interviewing each of the individuals involved didn’t seem in the least bit troubled. They seemed to accept their subjects’ words as perfectly reasonable and possibly even amusing.
Show #1: The idea here was to place reporters at a rest stop on the New York State Thruway and have them interview drivers utilizing the rest stop as well as employees of the various franchises. At the time of the taping, the franchises brought in foreign students to work. While they weren’t paid much, they were provided with housing and their visas allowed them time for a month of travel after working for the summer, making it an appealing deal for these young adults.
In the specific portion that troubled me, one of these employees was talking about wild parties taking place in the lodgings. He seemed completely unfazed by the neighbor’s complaints. His interviewer asked him if he was worried that the apartment complex where he and his peers were being housed might not accept temporary workers the next year. His casual response? Why should it worry him since he isn’t planning on coming back?
Show #2: The next extract that bothered me came from a show about Americans living in Paris. A very articulate and professional-sounding lawyer was interviewed who expressed shock at how people in Paris objected when she jumped to the front of the line at a movie theatre. Why did this shock her? Because, she explained, as a Black woman in America, she regularly intimidated white people in line when she jumped to the front and they hesitated to call out her bad behavior. She went on to say how she appreciated the lack of racism in Paris, sounding completely unaware that her behavior back in the States relied on and exasperated dissension between the races. Having used her race to unfair advantage and specifically to cause fear among those of other races, she seemed blithely oblivious to the idea that she was among those causing others of her race to be viewed negatively. The interviewer chuckled at her story.
What do these two snippets have in common? Utter self-absorption. Not caring that your behavior is going to make things more difficult for other people. Not caring that rowdy late-night party behavior interferes with neighbors who depend on getting to sleep or that students just like you who hope to come to the United States on a similar arrangement will be less welcome. Not caring that people waiting in line will need to stand around longer if you jump the line and not caring that others who share your skin color might be viewed with suspicion and distaste because of your behavior. Other people are irrelevant; only you matter. And in neither case did the interviewer express the slightest bit of discomfort with these stories.
I am quite sure that traveling students and African-American readers of this Musing might be squirming with discomfort. These stories do not represent them. They probably feel the way my husband and I felt reading the article about Americans of Jewish descent advocating abortion and that led to our writing this week’s Ask the Rabbi column. Wouldn’t it be better to ignore this bad behavior by those with whom we are instinctively identified and hope that no one notices? That is one approach and it has a lot in common with the proverbial ostrich whose head is in the sand. I’m choosing to point it out because without awareness there can be no change.
Apathy to “the other” is not commendable but it is understandable. Refusing to recognize that our behavior affects those with whom our lives intersect is unfortunate, but it is human nature. Having it pointed out to you and simply not caring, or boasting about it, seems to be another level entirely. In a world that has excised, “Love your neighbor as yourself” from the education of our youth, what can we do so that self-absorption doesn’t reach a new low?