Every culture has its social mores. In yours, it may be saying hello to a neighbor during your morning walk. Perhaps it’s discussing the weather with the checker at the grocery store. Maybe in your neck of the woods, people spend Sundays mornings at church, and Sunday afternoons enjoying a meal with family.
Berkeley has its mores as well, but they are likely very different than yours. Here are two staples: 1. If it feels good, do it, and 2. Every man (or woman) for himself.
These are the cultural values that I see demonstrated everywhere I go: in the car, on the streets, in shops and in restaurants. There’s this strange free-for-all, where behavior and language never allowed in Kansas, is not just tolerated, but normal, with widespread acceptance.
Thus, someone walking across the street and not liking how a person is driving may, with no social restraint, scream obscenities at the other. If a driver feels like jutting into traffic, he shall.
Or a person who is frustrated with the shop keeper can utter something mean, again with the rest of the world silent. A stranger can say something casually cruel to another person that would never, ever be tolerated anywhere else.
What I’ve noticed over the decades I’ve been in Berkeley and the surrounding cities is a meaner, more callous vibe. The area has always had a primitive feeling to it, given the mentally ill street people and aggressive panhandling. There’s always been a menacing threat in the air: of the potential for a paranoid person exploding or a criminal preying.
But something has dramatically worsened in my time here: a darker and uglier vibe. I’m not exactly sure why this is. But I think that a tipping point has been reached and crossed.
What created a sense of balance, however precariously, was that we used to have a fair number of decent people, along with the incendiary. There were the polite and the helpful to offset all the dark ones.
But something has shifted; some tipping point has been reached and now, I think, we’re at the point of no return. The mean and the malicious far outnumber the decent.
Maybe it has to do with the astonishing amount of money being poured into the area. Lots of wealth from tech and China and old money and the nouveau riche. But that can’t explain it all.
Some of it is the radicalism; it’s a hard-core leftist area. With the increasing numbers of riots and occupations around here, and the utter contempt for authority, some people feel they can get away with “murder,” literally or figuratively.
The thugs go for the violence part, mayhem that can be excused and justified. But most residents are law-biding, though they can be violent in a different way, interpersonally, societally. That’s where you get the casual meanness, the startling coldness, the offhanded remark meant to eviscerate.
Maybe it springs from a feeling of omnipotence and grandiosity. If people out here can stop traffic or scream obscenities at the police and get away with it, they think that they can get away with anything.
There’s also been a significant change spiritually, When I first moved here in the 80s, the Bay Area was a spiritual hub. Everyone was into something, though much of it was dubious, even cult-y. However, people who focus their lives on faith — whether it’s a spurious one or the real thing — create different social mores, better, healthier ones. There were some good values promoted and shared in common, such as being nice to each other, being friendly, trying to be a beneficial person in the universe.
But that’s all in the past. Now, there’s a hard core atheism, with any type of spirituality, even the previously idolized Eastern ones, viewed with hostility. I heard a pastor once report that the SF Bay Area is the most “unchurched” in the country; meaning, the fewest people go to church around here than anywhere else.
And it shows. It shows in the uber entitlement; in the every-man-for-himself free for all; it shows in the little things, the small cruelties and unkindnesses that make up a day in Berkeley and the environs. Yes, a few of the nice people are still out here, but many have fled to Oregon and parts unknown. And the average, decent working stiff is unable to survive financially, and so returns back to from where he came.
I once heard a quote attributed to an ancient Catholic saint: that a body without a head is a monster. Man without the moral compass of God can be a deadly and cruel thing. Man, unschooled and left to his own devices, is not human at all.
Berkeley is a cautionary tale. Yes, it’s a unique place, but it’s not an island that exists alone in the universe. Like a virulent plague, the same cold-heartedness is spreading throughout the country, as we see in the social fabric becoming increasingly unraveled. And this plague will continue to grow and spread as long as man has lost sight of his Compass, his God, the only guiding light that exists to show us how to live together as decent and moral human beings.