At the end of his life, Fred Rogers – completely distraught over the attacks on 9/11 – was losing hope. Sensing the divide within his nation and facing a fatal illness, there was very little left for him to do besides look back and contemplate; had his life’s work been successful?
I don’t know what Fred’s answer might have been, but when I watched the recent documentary “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?” I was struck by one very solid conclusion: Fred Rogers’ legacy of kindness and acceptance is being defiled by the very society he looked to improve, mostly via social media.
His message is and has always been the same: love yourself and be kind to others. But in this technological age where you can hurl the deepest, darkest insults at anyone from behind the relative anonymity of the computer screen, how long does it take for those words to become feelings or actions?
We’re seeing it more and more; people airing out their opinions like dirty laundry, as though the world is hanging off their every word. Worse yet, it seems that this unlimited freedom of expression has gone hand-in-hand with a divided political climate, and the exhausting vitriol of endless Twitter threads is beginning to leak out into the real word.
There are hundreds of videos posted to social media every single day of the racist, misogynistic, homophobic, ablest, classist, acts being perpetrated in the big-wide-world. And while there may always be an outpouring of support in the comments, they are merely the “thoughts and prayers” of a generation who fails to put into action the way they truly feel.
Thought Experiment: When was the last time you were kind to your neighbours?
The thing is, the neighbourhood is bigger than it ever was. There are more than two billion Facebook accounts out there, one for every three people on the planet. There are 6,000 tweets sent out every second. YouTube says there’s 300 hours of content uploaded to their server every minute. Instagram claims 95 million photos and videos are uploaded every single day*. In these astronomical numbers, our media have become strategic experts of finding exactly what you are inclined to watch, listen to, consume and share just so you will do exactly that. And just as the news has often appealed to this macabre sense of negative bias, we too have become entangled by the minute to minute dramas that crop up on our own personal, algorithmically generated dashboards, conveniently located in every single pocket in America.
*Statistics taken from THIS Website and are indicative of social media usage as of January 2019.
Thought experiment: Social Media, as we know it, has been around for 16 years. Has this uninhibited expression of our thoughts and feelings in a safe digital space made us more cruel? Tell me why or why not in the comments.
The thought leaders amount us – which is to say those who find themselves squarely in the “prime adult” bracket of 25-55 – grew up watching wholesome children’s television that was rife with positive and educational characters, imagery, messages, lessons, and music. We grew up watching Sesame Street, Reading Rainbow, School House Rock, and of course, Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood. And yet while reflecting back on our P’s and Q’s, it’s kind of easy to see where it all went wrong. All the lessons we were taught by Fred Rogers fell on deaf ears.
We all got older, and while Big Bird, Elmo and yes, even Mr. Rogers were telling us to be kind, and be curious, to ask questions and listen to answers, the rest of the world was training us to be quick to react, quick to anger, and quick to ignore.
We have almost completely stopped listening to each other, and the world responds with frustration, at the rate of 6,000 tweets a second. Instead of using the tool of social media exclusively for good, the vast majority of users have had to deal with some form of cyber-bullying in the last few years, centering around social issues (like race, religion or economic status) or politics*
And this is where we all fail. We live in a time now where social ignorance is screamed at, rather then educated; where people who have been twisted by a crumbling educational sector or inherited the intolerance of their family, has given license to every progressive to incite a screaming match. Now we punish those who didn’t have a Mr. Rogers’ in their lives by finding their employers, getting them fired, sometimes even having their children taken away before leaving them to rot in the aftermath. As it turns out, feeling hated or being ostracized by your own countrymen only pushes intolerant or ignorant people closer towards radicalization and extremism.*
Fred Rogers – whose own children never even saw him get angry – preached tolerance, and gentle reeducation against intolerance. As an overweight child, he understood bullying all too well and did his best to get people past their misconceptions to see the truth. That kid you pick on in a wheelchair? He was a baby when he contracted a disease in his nervous system. That African American man you won’t let swim in your pool? Mr. Rogers got in a pool with him. He even acknowledged the misplaced frustration and anger that we all sometimes felt, and for many was an introduction to mindful meditation by explaining breathing techniques in ways children could understand.
Despite all this, he himself was filled with doubt about how to mend moral division plaguing the world today. I believe the answer is simple in theory but far too difficult in practice.
We need to stop talking. We Need Silence. We need to listen more. We need to calmly communicate to get to the root of the problem. We need to stop being so quick to anger. We need to state our case. We need to use empathy. We NEED NEED NEED to start respecting the people we share our world with.
If we can manage that, then maybe there’s a place for all of us in Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood.
“Mister Roger’s Neighborhood” premiered on PBS 51 years ago, today! Here’s a great video of some of his most heartwarming moments. Today, make an effort to be kind to your neighbour, in honour of Fred Rogers.