Or, perhaps better stated, is moral character on the decline in America?

Some say yes and point the finger of blame, rather simplistically (in my view), at Donald Trump for poisoning our national discourse. He must be the culprit, right? Others counter that the blatant bias of mainstream news outlets, coupled with the hijacking of social media sites and weaponization of our justice and political systems, gave rise to President Trump’s style of populism. They credit him for attempting to turn the real threat to our democracy on its heels.

Which is it? Well…I see some truth in both perspectives. But don’t you sometimes feel like we’re being driven down a rabbit hole to Wonderland—hey there, Alice—where logic and reality seem to constantly shift and distort?

The questions about our moral compass as a nation cry out for answers much deeper and more complex than mere politics. Granted, I’m no psychologist. Multiple studies have examined the subject of moral character, so I don’t pretend to have all the answers. Besides, much of the discussion about character is open to interpretation.

But I do sense a darkening in our dispositions toward each other…in many instances making some of us meaner.

A local example in Karen’s and my sweet Lemolo neighborhood of Poulsbo, Washington, involving two of our neighbors. One beside us and one on the rolling hill below us, both living in incredible homes and well-to-do. All of us have majestic tree and water views of Liberty Bay (ironic name, under the circumstances) and live in the lap of luxury compared to the rest of the world.

Enter a disagreement that brought a dark cloud over our little corner of Shangri-la for nearly two years. Simple, really, involving some steps to the beach that our friends below improved to enhance safety for any of the surrounding neighbors who wanted access to the water. Unfortunately, after the fact, the neighbors to our side pointed out that the steps are actually on their property—the confusion caused by a chain-linked fence that obscured the actual boundaries. We’re talking a few feet…so they demanded that our friends not use the steps.

I won’t bore you with all the details. Our friends offered to purchase that small area early on for $30,000 to settle the dispute, but it was rejected. The fallout two years later: countless hours of legal maneuvering, numerous court proceedings, and a hefty six-figure price tag for our friends in attorney fees and costs to purchase a 30-square-foot piece of land. A frost has settled between their two houses, and all for what?

Is this example symbolic of a decline in moral character? You decide. Moral character encompasses such virtues as honesty, integrity, compassion, empathy, fairness, and the like. On the other side of the scale are dishonesty, selfishness, lack of empathy, exploitation, cruelty, and intolerance. I am hard-pressed to find any evidence of a strong moral compass here, but to be fair, the issues are highly subjective.

What do the experts say?

A study published in Psychological Science suggests people across the globe are becoming more self-centered and isolated, to the disregard of others. We’re caring more about our own welfare, and not much about our neighbor’s well-being, according to Ronald Riggio, Ph.D., the Henry R. Kravis Professor of Leadership and Organizational Psychology at Claremont McKenna College.

Pick your favorite reason…a rising trend in narcissism and entitlement, erosion of trust in institutions, increasing polarization, and a focus on materialism, among them.

Research from the Pew Research Center and Gallup indicates that trust in government, media, and religious organizations is on a steady decline, indicative of a broader erosion of moral character. Bad news, since trust is the glue necessary for social cohesion and a healthy society.

But Americans should take heart. Despite some trend lines, there are many examples of grassroots movements and community initiatives that point to strong moral character within American life. Volunteer organizations, community outreach efforts, and social justice programs abound, pointing the way toward positive changes in our culture.

In fact, according to one study published in the journal Nature, we may be suffering from “The Illusion of Moral Decline.” The survey data suggests that despite our belief that morality is declining—a consistent finding for decades—there is just the persistent perception that we are losing our moral compass.

But according to author and columnist Tom Nichols, who’s been tracking “a long trend of rising narcissism and a sense of entitlement that was enabled by peace, prosperity, and rapidly improving living standards,” we are increasingly impatient, selfish, self-absorbed, and violent.

There you have it—a mixed picture.

What do you think?