A bedrock of American society is individual freedom, the right of individualism, to work hard and expect the rewards of our labor; to pull oneself up by one’s bootstraps; to have access to every opportunity that everyone else does. This individual freedom includes the rights of free speech, freedom of one’s choice of lifestyle – for example, to own a weapon, and decency from and to others.

This freedom has from the beginning of this country also meant the right, protected by law, to verbally or physically abuse individuals considered to be inferior or “the other” in American society. Unfortunately, because the culture accepted the abuse of whatever “others” it chose, the freedom to abuse them verbally and physically has always been an aspect of American behavior, becoming especially insidious since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic.

This excessive personal freedom phenomenon began when wearing or not wearing a mask became a political issue. The nonsense of it is exacerbated by groups insisting on their freedom of speech. This time, the rudeness of one person’s freedom was more important than the health and well-being of the collective: COVID cases soared. Employers who tried to protect their frontline employees from the virus were criticized and boycotted. Employees who demanded the wearing of masks were attacked. The rights of the individual have now become a force that leaves the collective at the mercy of individual rights.

A sign on the desk of my optimist’s assistant reads, “Be You, Be Kind”. The drawing by the assistant’s daughter is clouds and a rainbow filled with hearts. The gift to an obviously suffering mama’s inability to hide her despair with a job which she must hold, and the constant abuse she experiences from patients who need her assistance to be fitted with the proper eyeglasses. She is called a “f……. b……” and reports that she often must go to the bathroom and simply sob because of verbal abuse she has just received. This technician is not the only victim of abuse in the office, as other employees report the same behavior from patients.

It appears, since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, that two consciousnesses have come into play. One, workers on the front lines, exposed to the virus, have come to value their work and their personhood and are no longer willing to work for less than livable wages without benefits. We see the appearance again of union movements. In the same vein, outside of union collectivism, other cases in which employers and businesses who are unwilling to pay workers a livable wage are losing staff. Which only exacerbates customers’ verbal abuse to those who are serving them.

There appears to have surfaced a noticeable treatment of an atavistic “servant” class. They are not considered servants but workers. Many are on the front line of any type of business that meets the face-to-face needs of customers or clients. From being served a meal, buying a part for a car or being fitted for new eyeglasses, employees are faced with customer abuse. A consciousness of entitlement by those who are served means that they must be treated in a special way by the servant class and have the right to express their displeasure through verbal abuse. It is interesting that there was a time in our nation’s history when only those deemed servants, i.e., blacks and browns and poor whites, were verbally and physically abused by the entitled. Because society did not protect that class from abuse, the resurfacing of this domineering behavior -- that anyone being “served” today can ill-treat without recourse the server, clerk, mechanic, technician as a member of the supposedly long-gone servant class.

From airline hosts to salespeople, from clerks in grocery stores, and especially from waiters and waitresses, our workers are subject to constant verbal (and at times physical) abuse. Workers in fast-food establishments are often subject not only to verbal harassment but are physically attacked by customers purchasing the least expensive food.

This expression of personal freedom does not only include servants in the economic sphere but public servants as well. The negative comments and abuse of teachers have reached epidemic proportions. They fear being fired if they say the wrong thing in the classroom. Parents are using their personal freedom of speech to harass and limit the professionalism of teachers. Individuals who have no classroom experience feel they have the right to decide what books should be purchased for the library or what a teacher can say about it. Individual freedom of parents in days past meant that if you did not want your child to read a specific book, he or she would be allowed to read something else, and the entire classroom was not denied the assigned lesson. School board meetings have become shouting matches where some parents and many who do not have children in public schools are demanding personal rights that affect the rights of the collective.

The exercise of personal rights has become more important than the rights of others, be they economic or public servants or students in our classrooms. Those advocating personal rights are denying rights to the majority of our students and those who wish to engage in critical thinking and analysis of issues. Personal attacks are now normal. Civility is lost. The expression of personal rights has ended in uncivilized behavior becoming a cultural norm in America. If America is to survive as a civilized nation, we must act civilized, look at our behavior toward each other, learn to think before speaking, treating others as one would like to be treated.

The rudeness of “it’s all about me” is a quickly apparent behavior that cannot be hidden and is seldom forgotten by the receiver. Treating our fellow citizens, our children, our workers and our visitors -- with the dignity deserved by all humans, even the deplorable ones – needs practice in the good old US of A. It will take learning and accepting our past as well as enlightening ourselves for any kind of tolerable future.