Since the Boston Marathon bombings, there has been a lot of debate about hate and jihad -- whether through Islamic radicals, home-grown militias, or rogue warriors such as the former LA police officer who terrorized his community. But we continue to brush under the rug the random acts of hate that live among us every day. In case you doubt this to be true, just ask high school and middle school kids to imagine how they can stop the hate, and you'll unleash a tsunami of emotions and opinions, giving living testimony to the hate that exists in our society and as a part of human nature.
That's exactly what the Maltz Museum of Jewish Heritage in Cleveland has done annually for the past five years, offering as incentives $100,000 in scholarship money to the winners of its "Stop the Hate: Youth Speaks Out!!!" essay contest. Their witness to abuse, shunning, bullying, taunting, disrespecting and belittling is as bone-chilling as the stories of racism, anti-Semitism and anti-foreign sentiments of yesteryear.
Last week, I attended the annual reading of the top 10 essays. An urban high school senior spoke about the "Caucasian" friend in his mostly African-American school who was taunted every day just because she was white. He generally shielded her, but on a day when he was sick, she was attacked by 10 students on her way home. "They broke both her legs, and fractured her ribs. It took almost a year for her to recover," he wrote. The bullying continued until one day he found her hanging from a rope in her bedroom. Her suicide note proclaimed that she could no longer live with the daily abuse.
A suburban high school girl spoke about how she was ridiculed for being bisexual. She wrote that, even her boss once said, "Come on Kelly, you know you're a fag." Another girl told her story about being called "weird" and "disgusting" because she had alopecia areata, a medical condition that caused her hair to fall out. She overcame her own shame by wearing a wig, turning to public speaking, and becoming the national spokesperson for Wigs for Kids.
Different stories on the same theme went on and on. A teen who was shunned, even tricked to believe that he would merit being someone's partner, only to be "dropped" and laughed at because he was socially awkward. Another who was isolated because she was shy. Another teen who was called a "f@#*ing retard" because he was developmentally disabled. Another teen who was ridiculed because he wore hand-me-down clothes in an affluent suburban school.
A girl who witnessed T.J. Lane's rampage, which killed three students and paralyzed a fourth last year at Chardon High School, wondered what is the tipping point that makes a person snap to hurt others. She wondered, what could have turned him around?
These stories are red flags and reminders that education must add a fourth "R" to the "three Rs: reading, (w)riting and (a)rithmetic" of traditional education.
That fourth "R" is re-alignment to core values, because without core values that hold us to moral behavioral standards, the hate will continue. And, as educators will attest, as our society grows increasingly complex in using technology instead of building relationships, it will bubble over all the more.
Experts have studied moral education for decades. Many countries, such as Sweden and Germany, require that it be taught in public schools. Unfortunately, in America many school districts trade-off this kind of character and values-education for popular buzz-word programs dealing with "service learning" or "community service." While these programs are valuable in teaching citizenship and volunteerism, often they don't transfer to the "soft skills" of kindness, caring, empathy and respect that do "stop the hate."
Although the Millennial Generation is turning out to be cause-driven and volunteer-centric, they also are unkind, as demonstrated by bullying, sexual assaults and other negative behaviors that occupy their space and communities.
Recently, an experiment conducted by Professors Karen Wynn and Paul Bloom at Yale University showed that babies and toddlers preferred puppets that demonstrated kind and helpful traits over puppets that showed mean traits. The researchers concluded that babies have a natural moral compass. However, in a related study, the same researchers saw that babies and toddlers preferred individuals who were nice to people like them and who hurt people who were not like them. Extrapolate this tendency to adolescents and you see the potential seeds of cliques, exclusion, disrespect and hate.
If meanness and hate are ingrained, albeit unfortunate parts of human nature, we must create communities that reinforce our other natural tendencies toward kindness and against meanness. That starts with values that intersect with peers and the right kind of culture in our nation's schools. It continues with educators who promote those values. We may not be able to change a country, but why can't we start with a school? From the school, we then can change a business, a community, a state and finally our country.
It all starts with us. Kelly Knaser, one of the essay finalists, summed it up with her own missive of personal responsibility:
As a leader and more importantly, a human being, it's my responsibility to stand up for the equal treatment of all people regardless of race, religion, orientation, gender, age, or disability because everyone is human and deserves to be treated as such; nothing less, no exceptions.
If we all resolve to erase the hate we see every day -- those little destructive acts that, like the drip drip of the Chinese water torture treatment, break people down -- maybe then the bigger blasts of hate that make the news will ultimately go away.
Purple America is a national initiative of Project Love/Values-in-Action to re-focus the American conversation to a civil, productive and respectful dialog around our shared values. To see America's shared values and take action, go to www.purpleamerica.us.
Follow Stuart Muszynski on Twitter: www.twitter.com/purpleamericaus