I had occasion to be at a health care facility in New York City last week and while at the registration desk, I noticed a disturbing sign: “Verbally or physically abusing one of our staff is not tolerated…”
Somewhat incredulous, I asked the registrant about the sign, wondering if she had experienced abuse. “Yes,” she responded, “and not just me, my colleagues as well.” I must admit, I was incredulous. Wasn’t this “front-line health care worker” among those we lauded throughout the pandemic for their selflessness in assuring our wellbeing in the most dire of circumstances? And now she was being verbally abused to the point that a printed sign was necessary to warn the public that abuse was not tolerated and could result in prosecution?
And the signs were everywhere the public intersected with staff—waiting rooms, lobbies, elevator bays. Subsequently, I met with a doctor and asked him the same question. Sure enough, he shook his head in sadness and agreed that the sign was necessary.
I must admit that I initially chalked this up to aggressive “New York attitude” and figured it was unique to chaotic urban centers. How sad, I thought, that in the “hard and cold city” that I truly love, there’s need for such a sign.
But, whoa; hold on!
The very next day I visited a pharmacy in my local community—a small town, really—and as I approached the Drive-Thru, there was a handwritten note taped to the window. “Drive Thru Closed. Come Inside.” Huh? So, as I went inside, I asked the pharmacist why the drive thru was closed and when it would re-open. She admitted, “It just became too oppressive. People were being so abusive. We had to close it temporarily.”
Say, what?! In my hometown? So, it was NOT just a big city phenomenon; it was happening in small town America as well—people being so cruel and offensive that our health care industry has resorted to signs and closings to protect employees.
But as I reflected on recent headlines, perhaps I should not have been so surprised. If all politics is local, these two “local” experiences accurately reflect the national political climate of our day. Callous and cruel (abusive) rhetoric from the previous administration had created a violent undertow that ultimately led to the January 6 insurrection.
This week,passage of a Democratic-backed bill gave the IRS $80 billion to beef up its ability to go after tax cheats. This allowed the beleaguered agency to hire 80,000 additional employees, upgrade outdated technology systems and improve its ability to respond to taxpayers. But Sen. Ted Cruz called the IRS agents, “Biden’s shadow army.” He described the additional staff as a strike force to shake down small businesses with assault rifles and likened it to a militia of auditors on search-and-destroy missions. Abusive? How much fear does such language prompt in the public at large and how damaging is the effect on the agents themselves?
Senator Chuck Grassley of Iowa, warned Fox News viewers that the new I.R.S. agents, a small percentage of whom are allowed to carry firearms, might be coming with “loaded AK-15s…ready to shoot some small business person in Iowa.”
Such incendiary language goes beyond politics as usual and strikes at the very heart of who we are as a people. There is no evidence to support these accusations. No one is coming for you with an AK-15. But the hateful, fear-inducing language at the national level leads to a normalization of abuse on the personal level, even in places where we should least expect it—hospital lobbies and drive-thru windows at the local pharmacy.
These “signs of the times” speak volumes of our inability to listen to and respect one another, and portend real danger for the social fabric in our collective future.