The time has come for Americans to adopt an old maxim that has the potential to teach our children an important lesson in human behavior. Especially the behavior of people acting en masse.
Years ago, before Starbucks, I was visiting New Zealand; a country where etiquette and proper behavior are more highly valued than here in the United States. I had just poured myself a cup of coffee adding my requisite cream, but there was no spoon to stir it. The only utensil I saw was a small plastic knife, which I used. A delightful woman next to me teasingly said, “Didn’t your mother teach you, ‘Stir with a knife: Stir up strife?’”
“No, I’ve never heard that,” I replied, laughingly and filed it away as just another silly children’s rhyme along with “Sticks and stones my break my bones” or “Step on a crack and break your mother’s back”.
It wasn’t until 2016 that the powerful truth of that maxim and it’s deeper meaning became evident. While listening to then-candidate Donald Trump speak to a crowd of enthusiastic supporters, I noticed how his use of cutting remarks and sharp derogatory criticisms of his opposition would rile up his audience. Trump, in his narcissism, fed on their adoration, spiraling up his use of personal slurs and off-color insults. Phrases like “Crooked Hillary”, “Losers!”, “Creepy Sleepy Joe”, “Liars”, and “Cheaters” became his calling card. Most recently he has added “Ron DeSanctimonious” to his diatribe.
Having someone else to blame for our failure is a quick and easy way to avoid blame or responsibility. Yet truth is always more complex and convoluted than a knee jerk solution. Studies have shown that when people are given a choice of two options in any particularly difficult situation, that individuals will most often go with the safer, more conservative path. In stark contrast, when acting as a group, the more aggressive and more dangerous option is selected.
Following the inflammatory speech by then-President Trump on Jan. 6, 2021 is a devastating example of this principle in action. Stirring up his audience of devotees with the Big Lie and cutting down his own Vice President transformed his audience into a raging angry mob that went on to wreak havoc, death and destruction upon our Nation’s capitol; leaving strife in its wake.
Americans should adopt this maxim and use the example of Jan. 6 to teach it’s deeper meaning to our children: stir with a knife, stir up strife.
P.S.: Trumps behavior on Jan. 6 also points to the inadequacy of that other saying about sticks and stones, namely words matter. Our nation’s problems are complex and interwoven with history’s mistakes: both personal and en masse. No one person is to blame. We are all in this together, so let’s play nice, least strife continues to thrive.
B. Jason MacLurg, MD