I had the privilege of seeing Won’t You Be My Neighbor, the acclaimed, feature documentary on Fred Rogers, this week with my parents. All three of us were in tears at the end of the showing.
As I’ve perused social media this week, I came across a video sharing clips from Mr. Rogers’s show–several of which were featured in the film–about how Mr. Rogers combatted social inequality not by belittling his opposition or attempting to reverse the power dynamic, but by doing away with power entirely. He changed the conversation from one about power to one about love and empathy.
The way Mr. Rogers felt about black Americans and gay Americans, he made known in how he modeled love and empathy on his children’s program, and in how he treated his as friends, even after the curtain fell. What better way to reach the hearts and minds of children than through modeling beautiful character?
Psychology research has consistently showed that punishment has a very weak and inconsistent effect on changing behavior. Positive reinforcement is much, much stronger because it causes someone to feel good about doing something differently–or about thinking differently.
Anger and shaming your opponents may validate you and the people in your echo chamber, but it won’t likely change hearts. If you want to do that, you have to show people what love and beauty look like–and why love is better, more comfortable, more nurturing than control.
Reversing the power dynamic is a punitive approach to social change. Model the relinquishment of power, reinforce how good it feels to give, and you might find more people listening.
If you haven’t seen Won’t You Be My Neighbor yet, please go watch it. It’s one of the most uplifting, encouraging, and inspiring pieces of art available to us this year, and it is born from the life one of the most inspiring men we’ve had the pleasure of sharing our time with.