In Portland, Ore., the big story this summer was the impending delivery of a baby by Rose-Tu, an Asian elephant at the local zoo. Would she take to the baby, the media wondered, or attack it? Elephants learn mothering skills from the herd, an opportunity Rose-Tu, herself zoo-raised, had never had.
I was reminded of Rose-Tu by a chapter in Dick Meyer's provocative book, Why We Hate Us, in which he argues that community — physical proximity, as in small towns, as well as extended families — promotes tolerance for others' points of view. Like elephants, people take their cues from the herd. Meyer's book is basically a compendium of things that irritate us in others, although sometimes, inevitably, those others are us: noise, traffic, boorishness, incivility, extremism, phoniness, truthiness, the volume of the media, the sluttishness of the culture — you know the kind of thing, and here you'll find it cataloged with wit, enthusiasm and a certain amount of requisite breast-beating. Meyer's point, though, is not that the country's going to hell, but that most people think it is. We're in agreement there, as on many other aspects of this cacophonous society, but we don't know how to talk about it. We're not polarized, Meyer believes; far more people are of one mind about such things as manners and decency and education than one might suppose.
His solution, which he offers with some diffidence and only at book's end, is a kind of "value pluralism" he finds in the works of Isaiah Berlin as well as in the American pragmatists such as John Dewey and William James. But Meyer's book is a good place to start.
As for Rose-Tu, she was at first alarmed by her baby. But after a day or two of patient coaching from the humans in her herd, she began nursing, nurturing, teaching, protecting. It was a kind of morality play for the rest of us.
David L. Beck is a writer and editor in St. Petersburg.