Last Friday, Ruth pressed me (not quite) to see, “Won’t You Be My Neighbor,” the documentary film about Fred Rogers. I went with considerable skepticism that I would find anything terribly interesting about a film about television for children. I was wrong. I came home profoundly moved. Since then, I have read a number of reviews about the film from commentators other than film critics, all extremely positive. The film earned a positive review from 133 out of 134 reviews as reported on Rotten Tomatoes. Wow.
You can search for filmic reviews, but I want to focus on the key message I took away. Rogers spoke to each child as an individual human being, certainly one that was different from an adult, but someone with real feelings, desires, understandings, and so on. The reviewers I read used a wide variety of words to describe Rogers’ attitude toward the children. Many, like David Brooks spoke in terms of kindness, as in the following quote.
There’s nothing obviously moving here, and yet the audience is moved: sniffling, wiping the moisture from their cheeks. The power is in Rogers’s radical kindness at a time when public kindness is scarce. It’s as if the pressure of living in a time such as ours gets released in that theater as we’re reminded that, oh yes, that’s how people can be.
Yes, it is certainly possible to see Rogers as radically kind, but I think this description misses the key point. Rogers expresses what I define as love towards all his audience. That’s what moved me. I found myself sniffling often. I have been writing about love as observed in empathetic acts of authentic care. “Love is at the root of everything – all learning, all relationships. Love or the lack of it,” Rogers said in trying to explain his TV philosophy.
Empathetic because the loving actor enters the space of the loved. This can happen only when the right brain is fully engaged. Rogers has to be one of the most right-brained persons to show up in the “entertainment” world. He understood children in ways that professional psychologists never could. This is not to say that he understood the circumstances of each member of his audience, but he had an uncanny sense of their feelings and needs. He was free of the stereotypes and abstractions of professionals of all types.
He was authentic because the action can be traced back to the his inner being, not to any conformance with social or institutional norms. Neither anybody else nor any set of institutional conventions was guiding Rogers. He owned everything that he said and did. That’s the reason he was so creative and could surprise everyone who thought they could figure out what was coming next. He created a sense of belonging that is largely absent from the lives of children and adults today. His concept of neighborhood was universal; everyone was welcome to be a part of it.
At times he was criticized for his telling the children in his audience that they were special. Here’s a bit I found.
Saying bad things about any one of them is an activity partaken in by those who would readily punt a baby panda holding a baby penguin. . . You can add Fox News to the list of “panda punters,” as the network’s morning-show team — recorded on a 2008 video that has recently become viral again — once spent six minutes calling Mister Rogers an “evil, evil man.” . . . Why? Because he spent his life telling kids they were special. . . The logic of this occasionally levied (sic) Mister Rogers criticism goes like this: “If everyone is special, then no one is special. Mister Rogers is why American children are floundering in school and life. They’re entitled, lazy brats who think they’re special just for getting out of bed in the morning.”
Whoever said this has completely missed the point of Rogers’ relationship and his message. In any case, I find it pretty dreadful when I see the depth to which political ideologies have penetrated into the way we are, not just the way we live. But it is not only political critics. Here is one from a professional psychologist.
He (unknown) closes his review with the following quote, “It stands to reason, though, that parents must be part of the problem. Some of us have raised dummies and the disengaged not on purpose, surely, but perhaps because we listened to Mr. Rogers and told them (the kids) too often that we liked them just the way they were.”. . I’ve watched with concern, helplessness, frustration and bemusement the fruits of our culture’s over-emphasis on feelings in general and its fixation over children’s self-image and self esteem. These are huge cultural trends (read the first essay in my book, The Last Normal Child) that are now playing themselves out, as children raised under these “rules,” are now maturing into their mid-twenties.
I have only the clips from the movie to go on; my memories of Mister Rogers are much too dim. But I think both these sources of criticism are off base. There is world of difference between acting out of love for someone and glossing over their behavior. In this I follow the definition of Humberto Maturana.
Love is the domain of those relational behaviors through which another arises as a legitimate other in coexistence with oneself under any circumstance. Love does not legitimize the other; love lets the other be. Through seeing the other, love entails acting with the other in a way that they do not need to justify their existence in the relation.
Loving is an acceptance of the legitimacy of other’s existence as a human being; it is not a free pass to their behavior. Love does not convey privilege. The rules that hold families and others together must still be obeyed. Those who condemn Rogers because they see their children as excessively self-satisfied or otherwise not performing to the parent’s or other’s standards have only themselves to blame for failures to see that their children follow the rules. They mix up performance and expressions of (self-) satisfaction.
It’s a fine point, but when Rogers says, “You are special,” he is saying only that the people in the audience are special to him. As young children, it is likely that they do not get the nuance and may well think they are special to everyone. The only problem with this is they might come to expect the kindly, empathetic treatment they get from watching the program, and are virtually certain to be disappointed at some points in their lives.
At the risk of getting too far away from my point, Rogers’ use of “special” is an example of the right-brain at work. He is saying, “I can see you as best I can, without applying any of the abstractions, presuppositions, or prejudices I carry around in my left-brain.” Another way to express this is that the audience, even separated from the studio, was not viewed as abstract people, but as a world of individual human beings. Much of the poignancy I felt, I think, comes from the palpable sense of absence of such relationships in today’s commoditized culture. Standardized education is just one such example. Social media produce the same outcomes.
Loving, caring relationships are essential to flourishing, and to the fulfillment of our human potential. If experiencing such relationships by watching Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, imparted any lasting capability to love to those who watched, it was invaluable. I believe it did. Those who cannot imagine this, especially in the context of politicizing his work, are part of the barriers to flourishing out there today. Human existence is unique among species. To flourish, to become whole human beings, requires that one be recognized both as a unique individual and as a well-functioning member of important cultural institutions. Rogers focused on the first out of his intrinsic authenticity, but also, perhaps, because he saw a hole in the social fabric where it should have been sewn in.
I’ll end with a few quotes from Mister Rogers that, I believe, clearly, shows the existential ground for his program and the extraordinary reception it got.
The greatest thing that we can do is to help somebody know that they’re loved and capable of loving. . . You’ve made this day a special day by just your being you. . . There is no person in the whole world like you, and I like you just the way you are.