United Airlines in a sense may be “re-uniting” America.
Of late, many in our country have questioned whether or not there are unifying values that most Americans stand for. It has appeared to many Americans -- and been articulated by pundits, as well -- that our country is polarized beyond any semblance of unity. Many polls have shown that there is unprecedented polarization in politics, but other polls show broad agreement on a spectrum of core values.
I never bought into the characterization that there is a Trump America and another America, with no hope of reconciliation between the two. The quick public response last week to United Airlines’ brutal, forcible eviction of a ticketed passenger – and the commensurate $1.1 billion (according to NBC News) drop to-date in United’s stock price and overall brand stature – showed me that, notwithstanding our politics, Americans largely support a national imperative to “do the right thing."
In this case, doing the right thing was crystal clear: do right by the customer. There was no blur between two shared values, such as opportunity and equality which -- depending on who you are racially, socially or economically -- may come into conflict. This kind of values-blur is behind the on-going conflict between the politically forgotten or frustrated who voted for Trump and the politically included or satisfied who didn't vote for him.
However, United Airlines' actions left no room for such equivocation. The airline that ordered Chicago security to forcibly remove a doctor who had to return to his home to serve his patients -- although legal -- was nonetheless cruel and immoral. The initial corporate spin from United CEO Oscar Munoz, thinly apologizing for "having to re-accommodate" their passenger, was at best insensitive, if not ignorant and foolish. One would think from the statement that the passenger was being "accommodated" on a private luxury jet. Americans' moral red flag, a values-based, instinctive radar -- in this case fueled by social media -- reacted swiftly. Hence the quick backlash on United and against its failed and falsely-stated corporate policy to "treat passengers fairly and consistently in the case of oversales."
Only after this harsh reaction did United’s CEO respond humbly and in the right way: "... I continue to be disturbed by what happened on this flight, and I deeply apologize to the customer forcibly removed and to all customers aboard. No one should ever be mistreated this way .... I want you to know that we take full responsibility and we will work to make it right. It's never too late to do the right thing." United also returned all fares to the other passengers on board.
In one way or another, we have all been there -- abused by the airline industry and its common practice to overbook and to misinform. I have experienced both. Just a few weeks ago, while traveling on American Airlines to Dallas, I was stranded in an airport after the plane developed "maintenance issues." While for hours the gate agents informed the one-hundred or so passengers that the maintenance crew was working on the problem and had full confidence the plane would take off that evening, I ran to book myself on the next morning's flight, suspecting that the airline's explanation was bunk. It was. In fact, the maintenance crew had to fly in from another city; the flight was cancelled and most passengers were stranded. I was inconvenienced but, like most abused travelers, swallowed, accepted my lumps and moved on. The airline industry has long been ripe for a correction!
Little did Dr. David Dao, the passenger, and Oscar Munoz, the CEO, know that they would be juxtaposed in a national demonstration of moral outrage -- a defense of "doing the right thing." But, United's abuse of a passenger is only one part of the story. How ordinary Americans responded in unison to force the issue is the more powerful story and is indicative of the national culture that we share. And our "united" message to corporate America, whether to United Airlines, Wells Fargo Financial or others is clear: doing the right thing aligns with Americans' values and is good for business. Not doing the right thing can "pass-go" for a while, but when the actions become so heinous (and ultimately they will), the moral outrage will hurt your business and trash your brand.
A letter to the Cleveland Plain Dealer editorial board expressed this sentiment perfectly. Other industries be forewarned: "Twenty and thirty years ago, I used to fly United all the time and they were among the best, if not the best. However, in the intervening years United management has blundered forward, seemingly going to war both with its employees and customers. They seem to have forgotten that they are in a service industry, and instead believe they are just selling a commodity where decency and humanity don't matter. They have now ridden that horse to its logical conclusion, where they so abused a customer that now millions of people ... are now saying, 'I think I'll pass on United in the future.' A justly earned future for United."
While thinking about the future of our country, I reflect back eight years ago when I travelled across the country to nine communities, interviewing 1,000 ordinary Americans by asking them two questions: what are the values that connect us as Americans? And, what do Americans stand for? The twelve “shared values” that my Purple America team distilled from these interviews are: Equality, Faith, Family, Freedom, Love and Respect, Self-Expression, Doing the Right Thing, Community, Giving Back, the Good Life, Opportunity, and Success. In each community, "doing the right thing because it's the right thing to do" was high on everyone’s list.
To a certain extent, it's easy to bash the airline industry because they have been so abusive of the American consumer. It's more difficult for each of us to look at ourselves and align with the values to which we collectively aspire. If we choose to do the right thing in other areas of American life -- how we treat each other, how we have conversation, how we daily communicate respect, and how we demonstrate humanity and humility -- maybe we can truly become a "united" country.
Ultimately, re-uniting as a country can't just be about shared values or moral outrage. Anger only goes so far. Like the response to the abuse of Dr. Dao, unity will be the result of compassion and empathy. Americans responded in revulsion against United Airlines and in support of Dr. Dao not just through a shared head but also through a shared heart. We felt for him! Having "heart" for our fellow Americans -- understanding their point of view and walking in their shoes -- will indeed bring us together. If our hearts are aligned, our values and actions will follow.
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.