I was proud of our city last weekend. In the wake of the violence in Charlottesville, spawned from racism and hate, white supremacists set their sights on promoting their movement in ten other cities. Boston was one. But the people of Boston stood together and met the outside hate mongers with numbers that dwarfed theirs and a simple message: not in our town. Now let us all stand together and say simply: not in our nation.
Most of us were shocked by Charlottesville and remain deeply troubled by what the events there revealed. We knew, of course, there were still racists in America. But we thought that over the last half century, that type of indiscriminate hate had become so socially unacceptable that they kept it largely to themselves. As a result, we took comfort in the assumption that their numbers were dwindling. We were confident that with each generation, the pockets where this thinking remained would fade.
But in Charlottesville, they marched on the streets, masks off, promoting their cause and recruiting others to it. After the president’s equivocating response, a white supremacist group marching under the guise of free speech attempted to rally in Boston hoping to sound a call to arms. Boston stood strong and united in opposition, as did several of the CEOs on the President’s Manufacturing Council and the Strategic and Policy Forum and all of the artists serving on the White House Arts Committee, before those three groups were dissolved. But despite the fact that good outnumbered the evil on the Boston Common, we are left with two crucial questions: How can hate like this arise in the hearts of people and what can we do to prevent it?
Just as cancer thrives in a body when a person’s immune system fails, racism grows in a democratic society when its values devolve. The American experiment has thrived for 241 years because the underlying principles set forth in our constitution established the framework for a pluralist society: liberty, equality, and justice. These values were available only to a select few in the beginning, but over time they have been extended to people regardless of gender, race, creed, sexual orientation, and—still part of the struggle today—gender identification.
These rights are extended when those in power began to feel empathetic to those who were not, when their mentality shifted from “us versus them” (men versus women, black versus white, straight versus gay) to simply seeing “us.” But today, we live in a world of declining empathy. We don’t understand one another like we once did. We don’t connect with and care about our neighbors like we once did. We don’t love one another like we once did. In fact today, we don’t even agree on the basic facts about our world, like we did before. When I was a child in the ’80s, if you heard something on the evening news, it was like you witnessed it yourself. It had happened. Not so, anymore.
What are we to do? How do we build understanding across these growing divides? How do we begin to see people from different backgrounds with different life experiences who may look different from ourselves as “like me” so that—instead of trying to deny them their rights or harm them—our instincts are to ensure they have the same rights we do and help them live fuller lives? How do we teach others to see the world similarly and, in so doing, repair and strengthen the fabric of American society?
This article begins a series that will explore how we build genuine connection in a disconnected world. When we originally decided to create this series, we did so because we identified the growing empathy problem in America and recognized that building connection has become an urgent business imperative. We made that the theme of Skyword’s Forward Conference in June and I focused on it in my keynote opening that conference. This remains one of the greatest challenges marketers face.
But over the past few weeks, it has emerged as a far more urgent challenge for our nation. If the American experiment is to survive and grow stronger for the next two and a half centuries, we must understand how to bridge these divides and how to help people develop empathy for those different from them, reweaving the fabric of our society and making it stronger.
Throughout your career, you have been called upon to be a leader in business. At this moment in American history, your nation needs you to be a leader in society too. As we explore how to build genuine connection, we will learn skills that apply to both leadership roles. And as we will see as this series progresses, business leaders today have the unique opportunity to achieve both aims simultaneously, often with far greater success than attempting them individually might permit.
Tom Gerace co-authored the soon-to-be-released book Storynomics with Robert McKee. To learn more about how storytelling can be used to build empathy, please see Chapter 6 of that book.
Featured image attribution: Sasha Kimel