The image was riveting and disturbing. Nicholas Sandmann, a high school student from Covington, Kentucky, with a smirky expression on his face and wearing a MAGA hat, squaring off at the Lincoln Memorial with Nathan Phillips, an elderly Native American veteran who was chanting and beating a ceremonial drum. The picture went viral, prompting many to blame the student and his friends from Covington Catholic High School for being disrespectful and possibly racist. Major media outlets immediately blamed the students. Even the Covington Catholic Diocese weighed-in, casting blame.
In the after-story, media outlets as well as the Covington Catholic bishop apologized for trashing Sandmann and his friends. A Chicago Tribune editorial warned peers and the public against jumping to conclusions, stating that the video was inconclusive. The footage actually shows drum-beating Phillips as the one who edged closer to Sandmann, possibly exacerbating the fray. What is absolutely clear, though, is that neither person was communicating with the other.
This incident is a symptom of a more serious issue. In the blur of politics, disrespect, incivility and a 24/7 news cycle that influences many and often casts blame, we really are not communicating with each other. In many corners, real communication is absent.
My recent experience at a gas station convenience store refreshingly defies this trend. While I waited in line at the cash register, Davonte, a young African-American salesman who happened to be restocking the store for his employer, abruptly started a conversation with me. “Those are really nice looking shoes,” he said. I had just purchased the shoes, so I was flattered.
What ensued was instant conversation and instant relationship. We started talking about his work, my work, and his desire to mentor local high school students. I then invited him to be a speaker at one of our Project Love inner-city school trainings. He accepted.
This human connection happened from just talking, but the interaction required two willing participants. He said something worth saying, and I understood his overture and reciprocated. We were on similar frequencies. Kind of like dialing up someone on a cell phone. Unless both the tower and the receiving phone recognize the sending device, the call will go unanswered.
In many parts of our country, that “call” is never picked up. Whether because of overload (as many experts suggest) or just plain rude behavior, people just don’t return calls (or emails for that matter) the way they used to. Not too many decades ago in the corporate world, every phone call would be returned, if only by the assistant, and many times within 24 hours. In the general world and even in the media, people were given the benefit of the doubt, and disagreements were talked through even if they weren't resolved. Not now.
Take today’s students. Employers complain that young people are lacking in soft skills that facilitate communication. These include making eye contact and communicating directly rather than texting, emailing or using social media. In other words, having a human to human conversation. Essential social-emotional soft skills also provide an ability to properly gauge actions -- good, bad or unintended. In the ideal, good communication skills allow people to respond appropriately and in a way that does not create or extend conflict. Had the Covington students used those skills, maybe conflict could have been averted by talking to each other or just walking away.
Communicating also involves understanding perceptions and nuances, even if they’re unfair, and deftly dealing with them. It's a fact that some people still don't communicate well with people who are different than they are. They may be superficially polite but not authentically engage the other person if they are different — racially, physically, intellectually, or in personality styles. Or if they are in another social class or have a lower or higher status in life. The so-called “different” person may as well be on a different frequency from the perceived “mainstream” person. And the one often rejects the “call" from the other even before it's made.
If we haven't grown up in the same environment as the person we are trying to communicate with — if we’re not in the same club, clique or group — how can we engage with them in a way that our gesture is taken in and processed? What is the interface that facilitates communication, enabling two or more people, perfect strangers like Davonte and me, to want to make the contact, accept the contact and have a conversation or relationship?
Some call this linkage decency. I call it values. Values are the software for the human mind and they bridge different frequencies between people. Supreme among them are the values of kindness and humility. If we validate the other person, if we are humble and kind, then we will take that call, return the call, and try our best to communicate. Our values will tell us that even if the other person is not in our social class or peer group, they still deserve decency, dignity and respect.
My values told me to answer Davonte’s call to communicate. I had no idea who he was or what he did. But I saw no hidden agenda; only another human being’s genuine attempt to connect.
Sometimes making that positive connection requires self-awareness. Project Love programming suggests to our students that they fill in the blanks contained in eighteenth century French philosopher Emile Kant’s Categorical Imperative, which goes like this: "I am doing ________ to someone and I don't mind living in a world where everyone is doing ________ to me as well as to everyone else in the world." Fill in the blanks with either a positive or negative activity to see your own action’s consequence on our community, society, country and world.
One negative deed can indeed spark a chain reaction that eventually becomes a new normal, ultimately creating a world that is overcome by non-communication and confrontation. As that negative chain reaction continues, its impact is that many in our country feel discarded, disregarded and disrespected. There is palpable negativity, anger and resentment in many sectors that prompt an “us versus them” attitude.
How can we get back to a world of communication, caring, civility and respect? How can we listen to the other “frequency” even if it’s not the same as ours?
In our times, we use technology to facilitate communication. We think we’re talking, but often we’re not communicating. To deliver decency, empathy and respect, we need old-fashioned humanity. Only human connection will quell the growing anger and resentment. So how can we intentionally put forth more kindness and segue to a more respectful country and world? It’s up to us not to shut each-other out, even making an extra effort to take or return that “call.”
Stuart Muszynski is President and CEO of Values-in-Action Foundation, which through its Project Love®, VIA® Workforce Training, Purple America® and Be Kind® Stick Together® character-education programs, has over 400,000 students participating in more than 800 schools in all 50 states. Values-in-Action empowers students and adults to build communities of kindness, caring and respect through programs that teach, promote, and provide skills and tools that enable individuals to make positive values-based decisions every day. www.viafdn.org