We have an epidemic of rudeness and meanness in our culture. We lack empathy and compassion. Some people still have it, but it’s largely missing. We live in a place where people think that it’s okay to openly mock and ridicule other people in the cruelest ways possible. People point and make rude comments about overweight people, skinny people, gay people, short people, tall people, purple people, orange people, and blue people. Mothers, fathers, boyfriends, aunts, uncles, brothers, and sisters. We’ve all probably been on the receiving end of someone else’s cutting remark, stares, whispers, or rumors.
I’ve seen it. And I think that it’s completely wrong. After reading story after story, from one about a mother being laughed at and having sand kicked at her at the beach because she had stretch marks from her five pregnancies and chose to wear a bikini, to stories about overweight men and women being made fun of for eating, or being refused food, and being moo-ed at. I saw a picture of a model on Facebook that wasn’t quite Photoshopped the way her other pictures were, and you could see a small bulge on the woman’s upper abdomen, just under her bra, along with a small belly. Now, this woman was (is) absolutely gorgeous.
Even Especially in that less-Photoshopped picture. But I read through the comments, and one in particular caught my attention. Amidst all of the “Wow, your photographer messed up” comments (those made me mad), there was one that just said “fat ass cow.” And that made me genuinely angry. Because it doesn’t only happen on Facebook and to public figures. But we’ve accepted it in social media, and we are accepting it in public too.
The point is, you have no right to mock people. Maybe someone is irritating. Maybe they’re fat. Maybe they’re skinny. It doesn’t matter. I’ve heard all kinds of stories. There were plenty of kids at my high school who suffered from issues due to bullying. Whether it was physical violence in an abusive relationship, abuse at home, or just other kids constantly, incessantly, mercilessly teasing them all the time, it was there. And it was bad. Sometimes the kids were teasing, mocking, and bullying another kid who was already in one of the abusive home situations.
You don’t know people’s stories just by looking at them. We’re all books, and we judge each other by our covers. And for a long time, I tried to figure out why we do that.
I’ve come to think that a large part of this issue comes down to literal books. Call me crazy, but I think that a lack of reading leads to a lack of understanding, which leads to a lack of empathy and compassion, which leads to meanness, ignorance, and bullying. I grew up on books. I grew up reading everything I could get my hands on. I grew up entertaining ideas that were not mine without actually believing those things. That’s what reading does. It puts you into another person’s head without you having to change everything you believe and are. And that translates into real life, allowing people who read to be more understanding.
But reading is on the decline. 45% of 17 year olds say that they only read by choice once or twice a year; 42% of college graduates will never read another book after college (seeking source); and 80% of American families did not buy or read a book in an entire year.
According to government studies, since 1984, the percent of 13-year-olds who are weekly readers went down from 70% to 53%, and the percent of 17-year-olds who are weekly readers went from 64% to 40%. The percent of 17-year-olds who never or hardly ever read tripled during this period, from 9% to 27%.
And I think there’s a connection between lower reading rates and the rate of bullying. There have been studies that show that school-age children who read fiction have a more highly developed ability to understand the emotions of others. This leads to their being more compassionate and more empathetic when dealing with the lives of others. Something shocked me about all of the aforementioned stories of bullying: most of the perpetrators were described as teenagers. I think that this is a trickle-down effect resulting from parents who don’t instill a love of reading and learning in their children (perhaps because the parents themselves do not like reading), and so you gradually end up with an entire generation who is insensitive and doesn’t understand the emotions of those around them and, as a result, the damage that they’re doing.
So as we lose readers, we also lose a precious part of society: the ability to care for and understand other people.
And I, for one, think that this is a horrific casualty. Books seem to be gaining more traction with young people with the releases of books like Harry Potter, The Hunger Games, and The Fault in Our Stars. But is it enough? Reading rates are still in decline, despite these huge sellers.
Ultimately, I think you do have to teach compassion, but books seem to be a great tool for increasing it, and we are losing them.
(An organization called Grammarly is offering to help bring literacy rates back up through this program. Click to find out more.)