Good Can Be as Communicable as Evil

Norman Corwin - Los Angeles, California
As heard on NPR’s Morning Edition, April 25, 2005
Norman Corwin
Photo by Nubar Alexanian

Legendary radio writer Norman Corwin finds inspiration in simple acts of kindness and common courtesy, and he sees in them the power to build a stronger democracy and a better world.

Years ago, while watching a baseball game on television, I saw Orel Hershiser, pitching for the Dodgers, throw a fastball that hit a batter. The camera was on a close-up of Hershiser, and I could read his lips as he mouthed, “I’m sorry.” The batter, taking first base, nodded to the pitcher in a friendly way and the game went on.

Just two words, and I felt good about Hershiser and the batter and the game all at once. It was only a common courtesy but it made an impression striking enough for me to remember after many summers.

The blood relatives of common courtesy are kindness, sympathy and consideration. And the reward for exercising them is to feel good about having done so. When a motorist at an intersection signals to another who’s waiting to join the flow of traffic, “Go ahead, it’s OK, move in,” and the recipient of the favor smiles and makes a gesture of appreciation, the giver enjoys a glow of pleasure. It’s a very little thing, but it represents something quite big. Ultimately it’s related to compassion, a quality in very short supply lately, and getting scarcer.

But look, let’s not kid ourselves. It would be foolish to hope that kindness, consideration and compassion will right wrongs, and heal wounds, and keep the peace and set the new century on a course to recover from inherited ills. That would be asking a lot from even a heaven-sent methodology, and heaven is not in that business.

It comes down to the value of examples, which can be either positive or negative, and it works like this: Because of the principle that a calm sea and prosperous voyage do not make news but a shipwreck does, most circulated news is bad news. The badness of it is publicized, and the negative publicity attracts more of the same through repetition and imitation.

But good can be as communicable as evil, and that is where kindness and compassion come into play. So long as conscionable and caring people are around, so long as they are not muted or exiled, so long as they remain alert in thought and action, there is a chance for contagions of the right stuff, whereby democracy becomes no longer a choice of lesser evils, whereby the right to vote is not betrayed by staying away from the polls, whereby the freedoms of speech, assembly, religion, and dissent are never forsaken.

But why linger? Why wait to begin planting seeds, however long they take to germinate? It took us 200-plus years to get into the straits we now occupy, and it may take us as long again to get out, but there must be a beginning.

Writer Norman Corwin has been called the poet laureate of radio. His 1945 production, On a Note of Triumph, about the end of World War II in Europe, is considered a radio masterpiece. A major figure in the golden age of radio, Corwin died in 2011 at the age of 101.

Independently produced for NPR by Jay Allison and Dan Gediman with John Gregory and Viki Merrick.