After the recent spate of pipe bombs sent to CNN, actor Robert Deniro and prominent Democratic politicians, critics of President Donald Trump have blamed him for creating an atmosphere of intolerance that encouraged the perpetrator. Trump supporters, on the other hand, say that you can’t blame the president for the acts of deranged individuals.
As a former college professor who taught about controversial issues, I know how important it is for authority figures to set positive examples. On the first day of the semester, I would be very clear about what was appropriate and inappropriate behavior in the classroom. Respectful disagreement was encouraged; name calling was not. For the most part, students complied.
For those who have trouble understanding how President Trump’s rhetoric creates a toxic atmosphere, I’d like to share a small incident that happened 28 years ago.
My son, Josh, began his baseball career at the age of 8 in the Roland Park Little League. When we arrived in the parking lot of the Cathedral of Mary Our Queen, several hundred kids, predominantly male, milled around, looking for their teams. We finally found the coach of the Hawks and we met his teammates — 15 boys and two girls.
Ted, the coach, began handing out yellow hats and jerseys. When Josh put on his uniform, he looked up at his mom and me and said: “I’ve been waiting my whole life for this.” We smiled and hugged him. He’s going to be a better player than I was, I thought, happily. I volunteered to be the assistant coach.
On the first day of Hawks practice, Ted and I tried to see what kind of skills our team had. All of the players went into the field, and Ted hit grounders and fly balls to them. Not surprisingly, a few, including Josh, were excellent fielders. Several others couldn’t catch the ball if their lives depended on it. The rest were somewhere in the middle.
The same was true for batting skills. When I lobbed the ball to each player, we discovered that there was a range of skills among the boys. When Mary, the first girl, got up to bat, she swung weakly and missed. This girl has never held a bat before, I thought. Four more pitches produced the same result. Her fielding was also dreadful. The boys on the team looked at one another, shook their heads and laughed quietly. “Girls can’t play baseball,” they must have been thinking. Several of the boys were no better than Mary, but the boys didn’t attribute this to their gender.
When Betty came up to bat, the boys in the field moved closer. I lobbed the ball to her and she swung hard and missed. That was a good swing, I thought. She seems to know what she’s doing. The boys looked at each other and moved in even closer.
“Try again,” said Ted. “Keep your eye on the ball. Don’t swing so hard.”
I lobbed the ball to her again and this time she connected with a loud “ping” from the metal bat. The ball sailed over everyone’s head and went farther than most of the boys’ hits. The boys looked stunned and one shouted, “That’s pretty good for a girl.”
Ted had the perfect rejoinder: “That was a good hit, period. It doesn’t matter whether the batter was a boy or girl.” He spoke in a calm but convincing voice. This small comment set the tone for the rest of the season. I don’t recall any more gender-related comments from the boys.
Of course, it’s a big leap from a little league coach influencing his team to the president of the United States influencing his followers. But authority figures have the ability to create an atmosphere where people can disagree without resorting to acts of terror. Maybe the president can learn something from Ted.
Fred L. Pincus is an emeritus professor of sociology at the University of Maryland Baltimore County. His email is firstname.lastname@example.org.