Written by two Navy veterans, Eugene Burdick and William Lederer, “The Ugly American” is a 1950s, fact-based novel that paints an unflattering portrait of America’s ill-fated, decades-long efforts to win the hearts and minds of the people of Southeast Asia.
Featuring characters based on real people, the highly influential best-seller depicts how the pretentious, patronizing attitude of America’s diplomatic corps led to our ceding a strategic advantage to the Communist regime, which was shrewder in how it engaged the indigenous inhabitants of the region.
The book’s iconic title quickly became a catchphrase, synonymous with the arrogance of Americans’ behavior when confronted by foreign cultures we don’t deign to understand.
Another word for that holier-than-thou attitude is incurious. Those military advisors weren’t curious enough to understand the very people they were supposed to aid and comfort.
It’s not unlike how, today, on our own soil, we don’t have the humility or curiosity to understand each other’s politics. We may as well be strangers to each other in a strange land, more ready to fight than find common ground.
Ours is the politics of Me because You don’t count. Only Me. OK, but what about We? Try asking that question on a social media forum where politics is broached, and then set your stopwatch to how long it takes before you’re laughed off the page.
The incurious American is all of us. Social media triggers our superficial impulses, inviting us to be incurious. To be curious doesn’t suit the hit-and-run pace of social media.
We joust with each other for the bloodsport of it, not for the edification of anybody, including ourselves. We know what we know and nothing else matters.
I just read a Pew Research Center statistic that “roughly four in ten Americans have experienced online harassment.” I’m sure it will come as a shock to you that Pew says “half of this group cited politics as the reason they think they were targeted.” I know it shocked me. Only half cited politics?
If you are someone who goes on social media to talk politics, allow me to ask a dumb question—two, in fact—1) What do you think is going to happen? 2) Why do you bother going there in the first place? “Because I’m a masochist” is an acceptable answer, and one of the few logical ones.
No one is saying you deserve to be harassed for valiantly advertising your political sentiments on the slippery soapbox of social media, but are you truly surprised when the put-up-your-dukes pugnacious types pile on the harassment?
How does Pew define online harassment? “Offensive name-calling, stalking, physical threats, sexual harassment, purposeful embarrassment.” In other words, the detritus of the incurious. It’s a lot more fun—and much easier—to insult than inquire. Someone who slings such mature stuff as name-calling isn’t interested in learning anything new. They’re interested in hiding behind bravado.
It’s not about your position on Trump or Biden, or whether you bleed red or blue, or lean left or right, or identify as Democrat or Republican. By reducing the complexity and mystique of human relations to the simplistic, either/or illusion of binary choices like those, we mock mutual respect and surrender self-respect.
Why not try to escape our airless pigeonholes to dare ask each other the kinds of thoughtful, difficult questions that social media whack-a-mole arcades like Facebook aren’t eager to encourage… “Why do you feel that way about him or her? I’m trying to understand your thought process, even if I don’t agree with you.” On social media, serious is not sexy, so it goes unsaid.
Curious is wanting to understand how others think, and consider the world through their eyes, if only to widen your world view.
Incurious is being afraid to do that, because abandoning our ideological post even for a moment feels dangerous, like a betrayal of our oath to the cause.
Curious is a leap of faith that threatens who we think we are, or who we need to be to protect our fragile egos. As any Tibetan monk you may run across will tell you, the ego is the enemy that weakens us whenever we let it dictate defensive behavior.
Incurious is letting defensive behavior dominate our actions and endanger our personal growth.
It’s only by being curious enough to explore the layers of thought separating us that we can hope to move toward some semblance of reunited states of sanity.
You know the old adage... incuriosity killed the cat.
Bruce Apar is a writer, actor, consultant, and community volunteer. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org; 914-275-6887.