I met Wolf Boy in a hot tub in Atascadero.
I’d just finished my daily swim at the club and hit the Jacuzzi. Sliding in, I joined four lads, each 15ish.
They gave me a quick once-over and resumed their dialogue, dominated by the uncouth nomenclature of male American youth: effing this, mother-effing that, that b**ch is a “ho” and so forth.
I waited for them to realize there was a stranger in their midst. Waited for them to modify their language to fit their changed surroundings.
Sign Up and Save
Get six months of free digital access to The Tribune
Waited for them to recognize they were now in the presence of someone who may not appreciate their coarse, misogynistic wordplay, and that the polite thing would be to tone it down to fit their new environment.
Not wanting to be the “get-off-my-lawn” curmudgeon, I waited for their change in manner. It never came. The harsh language and disrespect for their setting continued as if I weren’t there.
Great, I thought. Why me?
My dad answered from the grave: Because you’re here, now, so man up and school these boys about decency and respect. Somebody needs to do it.
I weighed my options: Say nothing, ignore my responsibility as “the adult,” allow these kids to believe they can utter whatever filth they want anywhere, anytime, regardless of who they offend or disrespect.
Or, channel my dad, deputize myself as a pop-up life coach, treat this as a teachable moment. I reluctantly chose to teach.
“Guys, you might consider being mindful of your surroundings when having a conversation,” I said with what I considered a kindly, “Father-Knows-Best” bearing.
“You never know how strangers will react to your language. You’re in a public place. Think about dialing it back a notch.”
All four spun around and, by the looks on their faces, three seemed to understand immediately. The fourth clearly didn’t.
The apparent alpha dog of the pack, he told me to mind my own business, said they were effing there first and if I didn’t effing like it, I could effing leave.
I responded evenly that the club is a public spot, members are free to enjoy it without having to suffer their foul mouths, and that his tone seemed unnecessarily aggressive.
His three friends nodded sheepishly, but this kid seemed entirely unfamiliar with a civilized comeuppance from a male adult, his wild-eyed incomprehension suggesting an upbringing by wolves.
“Free speech,” he snarled sullenly. Smiling at him before exiting for the showers, I observed: “Free speech should be treasured, not wasted. Words are gold. Use them wisely.”
The boys got out after that and left.
I felt sorry for Wolf Boy. Seemingly no one had taught him common decency and respectful public discourse, as if being rude and belligerent when talking to strangers — well meaning or not — was normal.
He’s a poster child for how a lot of folks treat one another today in our online lives. Too many believe “free speech” bestows the right to say anything to anybody anytime, regardless of the consequences.
A scroll down The Tribune’s Facebook page demonstrates the ease with which so many exercise “free speech” — from safely behind their screens — with cruel, hateful invective directed at perfect strangers.
“Another liberal puke …,” wrote one on The Tribune’s Facebook post of my last column. “Probably just crawled out of Obummers (sic) butt … .”
Said another: “Who is this jerk and how does he rate to have his ‘opinion’ heard?”
And another: “I’m not saying you’re an idiot, you’re just having a problem not being stupid.”
And finally: “Why don’t you move out of the country?”
At least Wolf Boy had the guts to express his visceral hostility to my face.
I welcome honest disagreement. But nasty begets nasty, making it tough to turn the other cheek.
Let’s try anyway. We can disagree politically and still be nice to each other, even like each other. It’s possible.
Being horrible to one another needn’t be ingrained in American culture.
Let’s rekindle civility, not give up on the fundamental decency of most Americans. It’s always been there – we just need to coax it out of the basement.
Let’s “Make America Great Again” by being polite again.
I’ve engaged in my share of snarky online back-and-forth. My own behavior can improve.
I’m weary from the fight. So I pledge to try to abstain from the bait of ill-intended social media chummers.
As with Wolf Boy, I hope like-minded Americans come to appreciate the virtues of decency, responsibility, humility and gratitude.
Liberal columnist Tom Fulks serves on the San Luis Obispo County Democratic Central Committee. His column runs every other Sunday, in rotation with conservative columnist Andrea Seastrand.