How Did America Get So Mean?

by | Sep 8, 2023 | Formation, Reflections | 4 comments

Noted columnist David Brooks caught my attention!

In a September 2023 reflection in the Atlantic Monthly (Subscription required), he wrote

Over the past eight years or so, I’ve been obsessed with two questions.

The first is: Why have Americans become so sad? … My second, related question is: Why have Americans become so mean?

“Mindwalk Mode” alert! – Two excellent questions!

Words that seem to define our age…

Addressing the “meanness” question, he begins with

I was recently talking with a restaurant owner who said that he has to eject a customer from his restaurant for rude or cruel behavior once a week—something that never used to happen. A head nurse at a hospital told me that many on her staff are leaving the profession because patients have become so abusive.

At the far extreme of meanness, hate crimes rose in 2020 to their highest level in 12 years… Social trust is plummeting. In 2000, two-thirds of American households gave to charity; in 2018, fewer than half did. 

The words that define our age reek of menace: conspiracy, polarization, mass shootings, trauma, safe spaces.

Explanations for the rise of meanness

For starters, he offers the usual suspects…

Over the past few years, different social observers have offered different stories to explain the rise of hatred, anxiety, and despair.

The technology story: Social media is driving us all crazy.

The sociology storyWe’ve stopped participating in community organizations and are more isolated.

The demography storyAmerica, long a white-dominated nation, is becoming a much more diverse country, a change that has millions of white Americans in a panic.

The economy storyHigh levels of economic inequality and insecurity have left people afraid, alienated, and pessimistic.

He continues

I agree, to an extent, with all of these stories, but I don’t think any of them is the deepest one.

So he offers his own thoughts…

The most important story about why Americans have become sad and alienated and rude, I believe, is also the simplest: We inhabit a society in which people are no longer trained in how to treat others with kindness and consideration.

In the remainder of the lengthy article, he traces in detail how we lost that dimension in our formation as human beings.

The result seems to be we have become a society of people who each think they are the center of the universe. Everything revolves about me!

Pope Francis fostering encounter

For the past ten years, Pope Francis has been using various words and phrases that call us to treat one another with kindness and consideration.

Pope Francis often speaks of “a culture of encounter,” “accompaniment,” and “walking together.”

In Fratelli Tutti (chapter 2), he has beautifully unpacked Jesus’ own teaching in the parable of the Good Samaritan.

I think what Pope Francis is asking us today might be summed up as “Stop – Look – Listen.

He asks us to stop, look, and listen to what Jesus’ words mean today.

In 2019, Pope Francis set in motion a three-year process that fosters encounters among 1.3 billion Catholics. The logistics of such a conversation boggle the mind! I think of it as the world’s largest and most focused experience of encounter.

I see the synodal process as an invitation to encounter one another rather than debate and understand rather than quarrel.

Who knows?… in truly encountering each other, we might even hear the Spirit asking each and every one of us to treat one another with kindness and consideration.

How do you think you can learn to see and hear others better?

Originally posted on Vincentian Mindwalk



  1. Jesu Kalaraj K

    At least half of world’s population is under undemocratic governments. Peace is lacking in people’s minds.
    Uncertainty and fear of surreptitious suppression is pervading everywhere.
    God save us all.

  2. Tom M

    Effective use of both Brooks and Francis…

  3. Ross

    Please allow me to cite three stanzas from Mary. T. Lathrap’s poem, “Judge Softly,” written in 1895:

    Pray, don’t find fault with the man that limps,
    Or stumbles along the road.
    Unless you have worn the moccasins he wears,
    Or stumbled beneath the same load.

    Just walk a mile in his moccasins
    Before you abuse, criticize and accuse.
    If just for one hour, you could find a way
    To see through his eyes, instead of your own muse.

    Remember to walk a mile in his moccasins
    And remember the lessons of humanity taught to you by your elders.
    We will be known forever by the tracks we leave
    In other people’s lives, our kindnesses and generosity.

  4. Ann Mary Dougherty, DC

    I have said often that what we lack is respect. I mention this frequently when remarking on how dirty Rome is, how chaotic the traffic is, how people cross the street without looking up from their smartphones just assuming traffic will stop for them. Too many people see themselves as entitled and do not think about others. Kindness, consideration, respect—developing those virtues within ourselves and teaching them to others surely would change our world for the better.