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Teaching Kindness

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By Robert A. Hunter                   
January 24, 2022              

As we’ve all observed these days, community polarization can kill relationships, stifle progress and lead to mayhem.

This semester marks the beginning of my 30th year in teaching at the university level. I’ve always had other full-time jobs in public and private sectors, but as an adjunct, teaching communication and political science, recruiting and mentoring more than 200 interns, the experience has been exhilarating. Watching students’ minds expand, helping them move on to graduate schools and careers and observing the fulfillment of their aspirations, is truly satisfying.

Clearly not satisfying over the past few years, for me as a public official and as a citizen, is to witness the increasingly chaotic state of the political, faith-based, public and even academic landscapes.

Thus, I’ve modified my curriculum, with a deliberately huge emphasis on kindness. At the beginning of each semester, I present each of my leadership and political life students with a brass coin. On one side, it’s engraved with the striking image of a dove. The other side of the coin is inscribed with the words of Mark Twain: “Kindness – the language the deaf can hear and the blind can see.”

The students are advised to keep the coin in their pockets, backpacks, or handbags, always to remind themselves of the benefit of practicing kindness in every aspect of their lives. I distribute that chip in other settings as well, when I’m asked to address community or religious groups.

This exercise is at least the second best way I can remind myself, and all of us, of the importance of threading kindness through everything we say and do. The first way for me of course, is to live kindly by example.

In order to produce some good examples of kindness, I reminisced about observations I’ve made of past leaders.

As a younger politician, I recall the story of Mike Mansfield of Montana (majority leader of the U.S. Senate) and Everett Dirksen of Illinois (minority leader). Senator Mansfield, holding the superior position, would never summon Senator Dirksen to his office. Instead, he would call and request an opening to visit his colleague in Dirksen’s office.

This may seem like a minor thing, but those simple actions of courtesy lead to collegiality and mutual progress.

There are many other examples of such gestures.

Republican President Ronald Regan and Democrat Speaker of the House Tip O’Neill—holders of intensely diverse political beliefs—often sat together to develop mutually acceptable policies. They both understood the benefit of compromise and collaboration for the common good.

Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg—though her negative feelings about the process and appointment of Justice Brett Kavanaugh must have been very strong—took advantage of an opportunity in a public speech to complement him on having chosen an all-female staff. This opened the way for cordiality in their professional discussions.

It’s worth noting, too, that Justice Ginsburg and Justice Antonin Scalia maintained a close personal relationship, despite their profound differences of opinion on the bench.

In my own political experiences, especially during the decade I served as one of a three-member Weber County Commission in Utah, I was almost always in the minority party. Nevertheless, my fellow commissioners showed me the greatest of respect. I learned that avoiding nasty, accusatory outbursts and treating them with public respect, despite major political differences, gave me the opportunity to share my ideas and secure their support for my own important initiatives.

They taught me well. They were good examples.

While preparing for this column, I Googled “the top kindest people in the world”, to get some examples on the international level.

Some of those “top ten” lists vary, but I found some pretty commonly accepted heroes.

Interestingly, Jesus Christ and the Prophet Muhammad are often positioned at or near the top. The comment sections on some of those websites amused me. Some contributors, with very strong opinions, argue that although Muhammad may have been a good person, he should not be on the list because of all the terrorism emanating from his followers in the name of religion. However, I couldn’t find any comments arguing that Jesus shouldn’t be on the list, despite the atrocities committed by self-proclaimed Christian followers throughout history. Cultural and religious polarization can be very damning.

Perhaps it would be best for all of us to consider the words written centuries ago by St. Francis of Assisi: “Seek first to understand, and then to be understood.”

Plenty of examples of kind people exist, whose practices we can adopt and about whom we can teach – Mahatma Gandhi, Mother Teresa, Abraham Lincoln, Nelson Mandela, Buddha, Dalai Lama and many more.

The infamous story told of one corporate leader is just one of the many examples of how we can teach kindness, peacemaking, understanding and respect for others. As the story goes, a CEO invited an aspiring young employee to his office for a prospective promotion interview.

“I have just one question for you,” said the CEO.

“Yessir,” responded the employee.

“Can you tell me the name of the janitor in this building?” asked the CEO.

Author: Robert A. Hunter is a longtime leader in public and nonprofit circles in Utah. He currently teaches leadership and political life at Weber State University and serves as public policy advisor for United Way of Northern Utah. He may be reached at [email protected].

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