If you stole something from my garage, it wouldn't give me license to rob someone else — or even to rob you. If I slandered you, you would not have a free pass to make up stories about one of your colleagues — or even to tell lies about me.
We each must take responsibility for our own actions, good or bad, whether we feel wronged or not.
It's a lesson I learned during the winter when I was somewhere around 5 or 6 years old. I had a Chatty Cathy doll that I thought was the greatest thing in the entire universe. And my brother, who is a scant year older than me, broke it. So I took his GI Joe tank and slammed it in a door as hard as I could.
Or maybe I have that backwards. Maybe I broke his tank and he retaliated by killing my doll. Righteous indignation is usually claimed by the person who gets to tell the story. It doesn't make the story true.
By that time, we were both sniveling and wailing and trying to convince my mother, who had provided those toys, that the other was at fault. She was mad. And she told us it didn't matter who started what. We each got to own our individual piece of the bad behavior and face the consequences.
I've been thinking about this a lot recently, because we seem to be a nation focused on licking our own wounds and then inflicting similar wounds on those who disagree with us. We're keeping an imaginary score and using it to justify terrible behavior — and it's happening at all levels of our national discourse.
Here's just one example: The White House press secretary recently called CNN reporter Jim Acosta stupid by saying his intellect was inadequate to follow simple sentences. When I commented on social media that it was beneath the dignity of Sarah Huckabee Sanders' office, some friends and relatives responded and justified it because she was treated badly at the annual White House Correspondents' Association dinner.
That dinner is, as another friend pointed out, supposed to be a roast. But there's a line between being bitingly funny and just being nasty. I would never have made the comments about Ms. Huckabee Sanders that were made that day, and I think she mustered more dignity on the spot than I would have managed.
That said, she was not a third-grade kid being bullied in the cafeteria. She's a professional who is well paid as a liaison of sorts between the White House and reporters, who work to keep Americans informed and serve a crucial watchdog function.
That she was treated poorly at a dinner in no way justifies calling someone stupid, particularly in that forum and in her role as White House spokeswoman.
"Are you going to call out the press on its bad behavior?" a dear friend asked.
The press is not a unified body. In fact, in most markets we compete with each other as surely as do sports teams. We are as individual as preachers or bishops or truckers or surgeons. I don't presume that Huckabee Sanders is all political appointees.
Among ourselves, Americans talk about "the left" or "the right," Republicans or Democrats, as if any of those is a solid unit of people in lock step. My side is patriotic, yours wants to ruin the country.
That's not what I see. When I talk to all kinds of people, instead of sorting them as either like me or wrong-headed, I mostly see a vast group of individuals who love and want the best for America, though they don't always agree how to get there.
I see people I can talk to respectfully and with whom I'd love to have a sensible conversation.
I think the United States is at a very serious crossroads. We should worry about this fractured, dysfunctional image we increasingly project. We too often look arrogant and rude and even bratty. Decorum matters. Listening matters. Empathy matters.
We're not 6 any more. We have to own how we individually behave.