Why Are People So Mean?
Sometimes traumatic events bring out the good; sometimes the bad. Driving home shortly after the terrorist attacks on the morning of September 11, I noticed a difference. The crowded freeways, usually a showcase for selfish maneuvering, was strangely slow—everyone in shock. The days, weeks and months following this devastating attack fellow citizens worked together with compassion and kindness. This year has been a doozy.
We struggle with much more than an epidemic and racial injustice; common decency, kindness, and compassion have become unfashionable. Seething hate is bubbling to the surface. While this nation can survive the epidemic, and work together to address systemic practices of racism, we cannot survive the internal rot of indifference.
An Example of Meanness
This week in the news, a woman erupted into a racist and demeaning rant, verbally attacking a public outreach worker at a city park closed in response to the recent spike in COVID-19 cases. Her cutting attacks, fueled from hate, echoed a primitive US-against-THEM mentality. “We,” she self-righteously vented, “pay taxes.” She punctuated this assault with “go back from where you came from” as she stormed away. Her tirade earned her the dubious title of a “Karen.”
“We struggle with much more than an epidemic and racial injustice; common decency, kindness, and compassion have become unfashionable.”~T. Franklin Murphy
We shouldn’t infer a global epidemic of indifference from a single incident. Unfortunately, this story isn’t unique, repeatedly played out in countless examples across this great nation. Perhaps, seething hatred and intolerance is nothing new. Many can attest to that. However, the hidden ugliness is now exposed through video testimonies, captured by smart devises. Our inner darkness that we prefer to deny is brought to light.
Meanness and Lack of Empathy
The internet notoriously coaxed meanness with a promise of anonymity. We attacked others while dodging normal social sanctions. But notably, there seems to be a shift from chatrooms to brazen attacks in broad daylight, meanness expressed while looking into the eyes of the victim—and the agitator feels nothing. The lack of empathy is the hallmark characteristic of mean people.
Have our sensitivities been dulled? Certainly, many felt the pain of George Floyd as they viewed the last minutes of his life, pleading as he struggled for air. Yet, in the aftermath, demonstrations sparked by righteous indignation were quickly tainted with violence. Many cities have suffered from chaotic anarchy instead of productive dialogue.
The opportunity for coming together to resolve troublesome divisions quickly devolved into opposing philosophical camps, distracting issues with an onslaught of anonymous violence and destruction. America is more divided than ever. And it saddens me.
Carl Jung wrote, “the high mountains, the rivers, lakes, trees, flowers, and animals far better exemplified the essence of God than men with their ridiculous clothes, their meanness, vanity, mendacity, and abhorrent egotism” (2011). Perhaps, the example of nature may cure our hearts of the toxicity of meanness.
Psychological Bases For Meanness
In psychology, we understand that meanness doesn’t just magically appear. There is always a cause. It would be easier just to say, “he is a bad person.” Of course, after years of psychological research, I know this is woefully oversimplified. Meanness usually is associated with personality trait groupings. Some people with diagnosed disorders (such as psychopathy and narcissism) are more likely to also express meanness.
“3 defining features of psychopathy, the personality trait characterized by lack of remorse, inability to feel empathy, and a certain amount of ruthlessness. Specifically, the so-called “triarchic” model of psychopathy proposes that this trait is made up of a combination of qualities that include impulsivity, boldness, and, lastly, meanness” (2021).
Narcissism also has a long history of expressions of meanness. Not every mean person suffers from a diagnosed illness but most share some of the characteristics that contribute to meanness. Perhaps, we all have a few streaks of meanness. A trait that may contribute to survival at some level.
Labeling and Grouping Individuals
Our propensity to assign others into identifiable groups of ‘thems’ ignores the individual. We need to reach beyond bias labels. I shudder when I hear faulty labeling, projecting broad characterizations based on race, religion, or political party. Unscrupulous politicians utilize our human propensity to fear others. They depict the “democrats” or “republicans” as a collection of deplorable others, magnifying the outliers of the group, painting a fearsome collective unity rather than a diverse group of individuals with differing opinions. We shouldn’t extract the absolute worst from any group and project it on every individuals that we haphazardly assign to that group.
This practice of mental heuristic shortcuts exposes laziness of mind and stupidity of judgement—and, by the way, rationalizes our meanness.
Of course, being mean to meanies isn’t the cure. It just perpetuates the problem. The nastiness of people, like the woman at Delores Park, stem from a complex intertwining of many conditions, mental illness being one of them (a closer examination of this ‘Karen’ video suggests mental illness).
Emotional Reactions and Mean People
Low frustration tolerance, anxiety over the future, inability to explain internal disruptions, childhood models, ignorance, and many, many other biological, psychological, and environmental conditions influence emotional responses. But we must remember that having a reason for a behavior is not a license to act. We shouldn’t tolerate socially damaging behavior because we think we identified the cause. If you can’t play nice in the sandbox with others, get the hell out, and play in your own corner.
As a society, we should invest in solutions to factors that invite meanness. Punishment is never a sufficient response without corresponding resources dedicated to identify and alleviate conditions precipitating meanness. As individuals we must protect ourselves from unwarranted attacks, while honestly examining our behaviors, free of rationalizing justifications.
Individuals populate groups—individuals with thoughts, feelings, histories and hopes. We can intelligently express care and humanness; the attributes missing from the bigoted fools bantering non-sense from self-righteous haters.
I can’t foresee a day when kindness extinguishers the world of malevolent actions. We can’t change the world with idealistic hopes, creating an imagined paradise of goodness. We can, however, change ourselves. Accordingly, we can be kinder. We can cultivate compassion. We can accept the opposing opinions without spiteful attacks on character. And almost magically, as we change ourselves, our changed selves begin to change the world.
Jung, Carl Gustav (2011). Memories, Dreams, Reflections. Vintage; Reissue edition
Whitbourne, Susan Krauss (2021). What Makes Some People So Mean? Psychology Today. Published 8-28-2021. Accessed 5-7-2023.