"This instinct to humiliate, when it's modeled by someone in the public platform, by someone powerful, it filters down into everybody's life cause it kinda' gives permission for other people to do the same thing. Disrespect invites disrespect, violence invites violence." - Meryl Streep
People mimic each other in society. That's how trends happen. That's how fashion occurs. And that's what creates culture. When children grow up among kindness, they are more likely to be kind. When they are abused, they are more likely to abuse. When permission is given to hate or disrespect, hate can bubble up and find new life.
Dr. Philip Zimbardo saw how easily hate and abuse can take shape when, in 1971, he conducted a social psychology experiment at Stanford University called the Stanford Prison Experiment. Student volunteers were randomly assigned to be either a prison guard or prisoner. They were authorized by the professor to assume their respective roles. After a few days in the experiment, the guards became mean and abusive, and the prisoners became docile and fearful. Good people turned bad.
I encountered hate in America in 1995 when the anti-bullying and kindness program my wife and I co-founded, Project Love, did an all-day "Power of Kindness" workshop for a high school in rural Ohio. The following day, I returned a call to my pager. The number I called had a white supremacist recording that said, "We are going to kill all the Jews and Blacks that are ruining our country, grind them up and use their remains as fertilizer."
Being Jewish, my wife and I were shaken but not deterred from our mission to instill positive values in young people. I recognized the truth of the old saying that, "You can curse the darkness or light a candle." I wanted to curse, but we chose instead to "light candles" and saw the power of kindness -- unleashed in 500+ schools that we have worked with -- transform bystanders into active kindness ambassadors, bullies and gang members into forces for good, and schools into communities of civility and respect.
We also have seen troubled schools in which pressured teachers using harsh discipline failed to increase achievement and where meanness, bullying and gang activity even increased. I knew then what I have witnessed hundreds of times since: that meanness increases meanness and kindness increases kindness. Both unleash chain reactions.
These same chain reactions are taking shape currently in America. There is a country that fears immigrants, and one that welcomes them. One that has punched and insulted Sikhs and other turban-bearing Americans who look different and foreign, and the other that relishes diversity and expansive opportunity. One that last week toppled almost 200 gravestones in a Jewish cemetery in St. Louis and called-in bomb threats to 64 Jewish Community Centers across the country, and the American-Muslim community that raised more than $100,000 in a few days to repair the cemetery's damage. The Muslim community didn't have to do that; they weren't culprits in this incident. But, despite having seeing meanness against them, they chose kindness and the Golden Rule.
The Golden Rule is not a lofty missive. Its premise is fundamental to order. In his book, "Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference", Malcolm Gladwell describes a tipping point as "the moment of critical mass, the threshold, the boiling point”. The book offers insight into the phenomenon of sociological changes that color our daily lives. Gladwell states: "Ideas and products and messages and behaviors spread like viruses do.” Kindness or meanness? Both forces take on lives of their own.
I saw this dynamic take shape this past weekend with my friend, an immigrant who has achieved the American Dream, albeit amidst receiving bumps, bruises, disrespect and bullying as a middle manager in the workplace. He voted for Donald Trump because he feels ignored and wants to change the system. When I pointed out to him that -- although some change is needed -- the henchmen of change, like gangs on the streets of our cities, are bearing and breeding meanness, racism, nativism and anti-semitism, he said that he didn't care. "You can't change an entire system by being nice and respectful. This is a war. We have to rip down the entire system to succeed," he said. He isn't a white supremacist, racist or anti-semite. He's just been sucked in by the destructive force of meanness.
The aggressive language toward immigrants and the media, the mania of deportations, the scapegoating of immigrants, coupled with fear of Americans being denied jobs, pile up in our nation's discourse to give license to fringe groups that otherwise would remain mostly hidden beneath the surface. Others like my friend see meanness as necessary to ripping apart the system they feel has dissed them. Why should they be nice if others aren't nice to them? Despite their reasons, both the fringe groups and people like my friend are awkward partners who believe that their end justifies meanness and sometimes hate.
Still others -- I count some friends and many politicians in this category -- choose to stand on the sidelines, ignoring hateful messages and emerging meanness because they want to enact their agenda, no matter how it is achieved. The meanness doesn't affect them, so it's easy to ignore. How wrong they are. They don't realize that, as America turns meaner, our country's culture will change, some of our core values will erode, and the boomerang will come back to hit them, as well. The tipping point in Nazi Germany started with good people standing by and doing nothing.
Ian Grillot, the American who risked his life and was wounded confronting a gunman in the recent hate shooting of two Indian engineers in Kansas City said, "I was just doing what anyone should have done for another human being. It's not about where he's from or his ethnicity. We're all humans, so I just felt I did what was naturally right to do."
Grillot represents the goodness and positivity that have defined America since our founding, but there are negative forces that will change this. I have no doubt that our nation is currently at a tipping point that has the potential to result in long-lasting and even dire consequences. Will you have the courage to stand up for kindness, hope and generosity? Or will you succumb to the national virus of meanness, incivility and fear.
Muszynski is Founder of Purple America, a national initiative of Values-in-Action Foundation to re-focus the American conversation to a civil, productive and respectful dialogue around our shared values. To see America's shared values and get involved, go to www.PurpleAmerica.us. Project Love is a school-based character-development program of Values-in-Action Foundation. To see information about Project Love school programming, go to www.projectlove.org.