“In times of trouble, some people find comfort in hate and fear.”
- Constable Odo, “Star Trek Deep Space Nine”
In 1976, I wrote my honors thesis at Hamilton College on the alignment between blue-collar attitudes, American values and the American Dream. There had been several books published about the “American Covenant” and “American Civil Religion,” arguing that America, unlike other countries, had an almost religious-like social mandate with the American people. My thesis argued that, as long as the blue-collar middle class felt that the American mandate was being kept, American democracy would be intact. However, if the social contract became more form than substance, cognitive dissonance would set in and democracy would be in jeopardy.
Over the past decade, pundits have said that our democracy is indeed in that dire predicament. The dissonance between the America we want and the America we have has given rise to the Tea Party, to Trumpism and MAGA, to extreme right and extreme left, to the January 6th attack on the Capitol, to the attempt to overturn the 2020 election, to Black Lives Matter and to a lot of political, media and societal noise.
In my opinion, the fallout has given rise to the angry American. Americans are angry about the economy, COVID, masks, no masks, vaccines, no vaccines, freedom, restricted freedom, trans-citizens going to bathrooms, trans-citizens restricted from going to bathrooms, racism, anti-Semitism, anti-Asian violence, bullying, diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI), no DEI, Republicans, Democrats, and a plethora of other issues. I won’t even touch abortion. Americans are angry about being angry.
I’m angry that Americans are angry, because I believe that we have a lot to be grateful for. But the noise of anger can be loud, toxic and pervasive. The sound of gratitude is often a whimpering thud. We know which audible wins. Such has been the success formula for Fox News, fulminating politicians looking to score points, media outlets with yakking heads, and reporters looking to sell stories. And, anger continues building on anger because, in a society tilting toward anger, the cup is always half empty. Negativity perpetuates more negativity.
Twenty-eight years ago, when my wife Susan and I started Project Love, I warned business and school leaders that, if they don’t focus on diminishing and diffusing the angry American, anger, incivility and violence would increase, ultimately threatening school cultures, work cultures and American society. Most ignored me. Things were comfortable; no need to change.
Although our programming in schools — totaling over 9,000 schools — has been successful in transforming negative classrooms and school cultures, it has been a drop in the bucket. It’s like taking a salt shaker, shaking it into Lake Erie and calling the result salt water. A positive culture within a school dissipates quickly if the surrounding community doesn’t reinforce it. While corporate America fervently focuses on diversity, equity and inclusion, according to the Workplace Bullying Institute, nearly twenty percent of the American workforce is bullied. No wonder we are in the midst of a “Great Resignation.”
Within the last ten days, our country has seen three mass shootings — ten dead in a grocery store in Buffalo, one dead in a church in Orange County and twenty-one dead in a Texas elementary school! These shootings are among 199 that have been reported so far this year, according to NPR. We can blame these shootings on racism or other anti-isms, but I blame them on American anger. With or without guns, anger without a positive outlet or circuit-breaker is bound to explode — some
times internally and sometimes externally. Without mechanisms to diffuse anger, diminish the negative noise and re-focus Americans toward gratitude, kindness, civility and mutuality, parts of society — especially those that believe that the covenant has failed them — will fight and do harm.
What can we do? Government can be a catalyst and funder, but the responsibility lay with families, companies and schools. There are 160 million workers and 50 million k-12 public
school students in the U.S. If schools and companies introduced programs that emphasized positivity and dissipated anger, we could reach a tipping point that reverses American anger.
This is a huge task, but it can be done. Kindness and gratitude are proven techniques that reverse negativity in people. Both have pay-it-forward elements that improve longevity, happiness and life purpose, which is a proven antidote to negativity and anger. For example, over a four year period, Project Love’s Believe to Achieve program cultivated positivity, kindness and life purpose within the most at-risk teenage girls in the Cleveland Metropolitan School District. Eighty-five percent graduated and did well academically.
Schools can implement kindness programming through assemblies and consistent messaging, combined with teacher leaders and student leaders who buy-in. Companies can implement kin
dness and gratitude programs through a CEO video, with senior leaders who walk-the-walk, and through consistent virtual training modules. If companies can implement DEI and ESG with glowing success, they can implement kindness programming, as well. It comes down to this: Do they want to? Are managers willing to add one more thing to their plates? Are they willing to assume pivotal roles not just for their companies but for America, as well? Will they identify their purpose as being for the benefit of society?
This is the gauntlet that Values-in-Action Foundation is laying down for schools, communities and businesses through our Just Be Kind and Kindland initiatives. Just Be Kind. Create a Kind Land. Reverse the anger and negativity that plague America, our schools and workplaces. Build an America of hope, opportunity and caring.
I recently attended a religious consecration service. The senior clergy-person said that children need caring families and institutions to give them assurance that they are safe from the mythical “monster under the bed.”
America has a monster under the bed. American anger is real. It attacks us every day. No place is safe anymore. Kindness can be the cure to turn negativity into positivity, insecurity into optimism, and fear into confidence. We each are the parent here — assuring each other that the monster can be tamed, that society does care, and that we are all in this together. We owe this to one another. We owe this to our children.
To find out more and to access the Just Be Kind reporting app, go to www.justbekindapp.com
Stuart Muszynski is President and CEO of Values-in-Action Foundation, a character education and social-emotional learning non-profit organization based in Mayfield Village, Ohio, serving over 4,000 K-12 schools in all 50 states. Values-in-Action also strives to create communities of kindness, caring and respect with its #Kindland and #JustBeKind initiatives. Learn more at www.viafdn.org