Lessons from “The Newsroom”

The excellent Aaron Sorkin created series “The Newsroom” is presently screening on Soho. In Series 2, Episode 3 (Willie Pete) the following exchange takes place between Will McAvoy (Jeff Bridges) and Charlie Skinner (Sam Waterson)

Will: There’s a third option,It involves having faith in my mission to civilize… The bitchiness has to stop, Charlie. We’re inhaling it like it’s a carbon emission blowing out the exhaust pipe of the crosstown bus we’re stuck behind… All it takes is one great man. A friend of the angels… There are things we can do, Charlie. Things that we can do everyday. Things that are free. We can be one inch nicer to each other. An inch more polite. We can be decent.”

Charlie: Maybe,but in the meantime we should just keep lying.

It was what Will said at the end of his dialogue that attracted me. The observation that we can be nicer, more polite, decent. The clear inference is that in many of our dealings with one another we are not.

This caused me to reflect. Aaron Sorkin’s shows tend to do that. In many ways “The Newsroom” and The West Wing” are idealised versions of TV journalism and US Presidential politics – not as they necessarily are, but what they could be. The reflection was not so much on journalism but upon the way that we behave towards one another and what new and mainstream media convey to us in terms of behaviour and what may or may not be the norm. (I am going to avoid the use of the words “appropriate” or “acceptable” because they come with a load of value-ridden excess baggage)

Let’s think for a moment about what Will said. Perhaps using a word like “nice” isn’t the best (A very good friend of mine used to object when it was used in the wrong way) but it conveys the message, especially when coupled with “polite” and “decent”. I don’t think that this is necessarily a matter of etiquette, but it is a question of what used to be described as good manners – something lacking in many respects these days. Good manners, treating people nicely, decently and politely all has to do with respect. Some might claim that many people are undeserving of respect, but I respectfully disagree. We are human beings together on the planet. We are social beings and irrespective of how good or bad individuals might be they all, as counsel (now a Judge) once said to me, people of worth. The fact of their existence means that in some way they may enrich the lives of others and bring something to the table. And for that every human being, every person is entitled to respect – respect for their being, for their individuality, for their identity and for their character. As I say, many people may do terrible things but we should respect them for their humanness and their existence.

I think that a lot of the problems that we see today flow from the fact that we are not taught to respect others, nor do we understand why we should. This starts from the derogatory exchange that one might have with another in a supermarket checkout to a horrible exhibition of bullying – and bullying – that most disrespectful of conduct – occurs not only in the school yard but through all strata of society.

Much of the exchange between Will and Charlie was in the context of the news media but it was more than that. It was against a backdrop of an audience at a candidates debate who booed a serviceman – a person who had put his life on the line for his country – who wanted the “gays in the military” issue addressed. But I won’t look at the news media context. I think that what Will had to say in that arena speaks for itself.

There are many areas where those who should know better respond in an ungracious way to others – who aggressively challenge, who interrupt, who denigrate, especially when they have the last word, who are abusive, unkind, disrespectful, uncaring of the distress that they might cause to others. The examples are legion – those who force their way into a lane on the motorway and who won’t wait in the queue and think that a flipped off wave justifies their behaviour. Those who insist on carrying on phone conversations while travelling on the motorway (not only disrespectful and unsafe but unlawful as well) and holding up traffic. Those who park across a driveway while collecting their kids from school and who, when politely asked to move, tell their interlocutor to F*** off. And that is just in the context of road use. The level of confrontation, of aggression that we experience in our day to day lives is quite extraordinary and concerning. Is it any wonder that our kids reflect what they see.

We have met the enemy

The only thing is that the problem with kids and their aggressive behaviour is recognised as bullying and we cry out that we must do something about it without realising that the problem lies within ourselves. We have met the enemy – as Pogo said – and he is us. We set the examples and then we complain about it when we see those behaviours reflected in our kids.

I wonder in the long run whether or not Will’s ideal of being a little nicer, more decent, kinder is just that – an ideal. And as I have been writing this – and it has been a piece that I have picked up and put down – I have struggled with dealing with a theme that requires a critical examination of behaviour in order to find a way forward for improvement. And then I came across a piece in the New York Times Magazine for 7 August 2013. It is by Joel Lovell and it is entitled “George Saunders’ Advice to Graduates”. 

Saunders has been described as a writers’ writer. In a profile published in the New York Times on 3 January 2013 the following was said

“Tobias Wolff, who taught Saunders when he was in the graduate writing program at Syracuse in the mid-’80s, said, “He’s been one of the luminous spots of our literature for the past 20 years,” and then added what may be the most elegant compliment I’ve ever heard paid to another person: “He’s such a generous spirit, you’d be embarrassed to behave in a small way around him.” And Mary Karr, who has been a colleague of Saunders’s at Syracuse since he joined the faculty in the mid-’90s (and who also, incidentally, is a practicing Catholic with a wonderful singing voice and a spectacularly inventive foul mouth), told me, “I think he’s the best short-story writer in English alive.”

Have a look at Saunders’ advice to graduates. It is not a hard read and the focus is on a very large regret. Saunders’ regret is associated with the issues that I am concerned about in this piece – lack of respect, niceness, politeness, decency, Saunders’ says that what he regrets most in life are failures of kindness. He puts it this way:

What I regret most in my life are failures of kindness. 

Those moments when another human being was there, in front of me, suffering, and I responded…sensibly.  Reservedly.  Mildly.

Or, to look at it from the other end of the telescope:  Who, in your life, do you remember most fondly, with the most undeniable feelings of warmth?

Those who were kindest to you, I bet.

It’s a little facile, maybe, and certainly hard to implement, but I’d say, as a goal in life, you could do worse than: Try to be kinder.

Now, the million-dollar question:  What’s our problem?  Why aren’t we kinder?

Here’s what I think:

Each of us is born with a series of built-in confusions that are probably somehow Darwinian.  These are: (1) we’re central to the universe (that is, our personal story is the main and most interesting story, the only story, really); (2) we’re separate from the universe (there’s US and then, out there, all that other junk – dogs and swing-sets, and the State of Nebraska and low-hanging clouds and, you know, other people), and (3) we’re permanent (death is real, o.k., sure – for you, but not for me).

Now, we don’t really believe these things – intellectually we know better – but we believe them viscerally, and live by them, and they cause us to prioritize our own needs over the needs of others, even though what we really want, in our hearts, is to be less selfish, more aware of what’s actually happening in the present moment, more open, and more loving.

So, the second million-dollar question:  How might we DO this?  How might we become more loving, more open, less selfish, more present, less delusional, etc., etc?

Well, yes, good question.

Unfortunately, I only have three minutes left.

So let me just say this.  There are ways.  You already know that because, in your life, there have been High Kindness periods and Low Kindness periods, and you know what inclined you toward the former and away from the latter.  Education is good; immersing ourselves in a work of art: good; prayer is good; meditation’s good; a frank talk with a dear friend;  establishing ourselves in some kind of spiritual tradition – recognizing that there have been countless really smart people before us who have asked these same questions and left behind answers for us.

Because kindness, it turns out, is hard – it starts out all rainbows and puppy dogs, and expands to include…well,everything.

One thing in our favor:  some of this “becoming kinder” happens naturally, with age.  It might be a simple matter of attrition:  as we get older, we come to see how useless it is to be selfish – how illogical, really.  We come to love other people and are thereby counter-instructed in our own centrality.  We get our butts kicked by real life, and people come to our defense, and help us, and we learn that we’re not separate, and don’t want to be.  We see people near and dear to us dropping away, and are gradually convinced that maybe we too will drop away (someday, a long time from now).  Most people, as they age, become less selfish and more loving.  I think this is true.  The great Syracuse poet, Hayden Carruth, said, in a poem written near the end of his life, that he was “mostly Love, now.”

I guess kindness is a term that encompasses niceness, politeness and decency – respect for others – you don’t have to like them, but they are human beings, they have their own sense of worth and dignity and are entitled, at the very least, to respect. And that respect can be manifested by a nice attitude, by polite speech and a polite attitude, by listening as well as talking and by decency of conduct. As Will said – we can be decent.  We live in hope.

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