I just listened to a fantastic story on the National Public Radio podcast, Invisibilia.
The episode began with a story about a group of friends sitting outside in the backyard having dinner and drinking wine on a beautiful night. All of a sudden a man broke into the yard, pointed a gun at them and demanded money. Unfortunately, none of the people at the dinner party had any money on them so they all began pleading with the man to spare their lives. After a while one of the women asked the burglar if he wanted a glass of wine. The burglar was stunned by the offer, but he decided to take a glass. He sat down, took a drink and then said something like, “Damn, that’s a really good glass wine.” He put his gun in his pocket, drank some more wine, ate some cheese and then said, “I think I’ve come to the wrong place.” Everyone sat in silence for the next few minutes until he suddenly asked if someone would give him a hug, so several of the guests hugged him. Then he asked if everyone could do a group hug, and they indulged him on that request as well. After the group hug he told everyone he was sorry, got up with his glass of wine and walked out of the house. Later on in the evening the dinner guests found his wine glass neatly placed on the sidewalk.
The title of this episode was “Flip the Script.” It featured several stories that demonstrated the powerful effects of when an individual or group reacts to an adversary’s negative behavior with an opposing positive behavior, also called non-complimentary behavior. History has shown that when hate and cruelty are met with positive reactions such as empathy and restraint it has the power to catch aggressors off balance and move people, as was demonstrated by the nonviolence movements led by Martin Luther King Jr. and Ghandi.
One story in the show took place in Aarhus, a town in Denmark where 34 Muslim boys had run away to Syria to join Isis in 2012. The desperate parents of the disappeared boys went to the town’s police for help to find their children.
At that time, Denmark was ranked second on the list of European countries with a homegrown terrorist problem. Other European countries such as France and England introduced harsh polices to combat domestic terrorism. They severely punished people who went to fight in Syria or who showed suspicious behavior, locking people up and confiscating passports. But two white Danish police officers in Aarhus, Allan and Thorleif, decided to take the opposite strategy. They believed that many of the young Muslim men in the town who exhibited suspicious behavior, or even people who went to Syria, were angry and confused but they were not all terrorists. They argued that some people may have gone to Syria to work as medics or just to see what it was like. They also thought that if you label people as terrorists, if they are not terrorists yet, they will become terrorists. So rather than combating the Muslim boys with hostility, they decided to approach them with love and caring.
When one of the 34 runaway boys returned to Aarhus from Syria, Allan and Thorleif met him. He told them that he had been volunteering as a medic. There was a good chance that he was actually a fighter rather than just a medic but the police officers told him they believed him and took him to a hospital to treat a gunshot wound. They listened to his frustrations and why he was inspired to go to Syria. Then they helped him get his life together and set him up with a mentor, a successful Muslim man. This boy made a call to another boy who had gone to Syria, telling him how he had been treated, and then that boy came back. Since that time, 18 of the 34 boys have returned to Aarhus, 6 have been killed and 10 are still in Syria. More importantly, the program set up by Allan and Thorleif has prevented hundreds of Muslim boys from leaving for Syria by seeking them out early when they exhibit hostile behavior.
When I reflect on these stories of non-complimentary behavior I can’t help but think of our current Republican presidential candidate. It appears that non-complimentary behavior is not in Donald Trump’s DNA. He has demonstrated an inability to react to an adversary’s hostility with humility. He can only respond with matching hostility, even when it is a counterproductive option. When confronted with hostile criticism from the Muslim parents of a fallen American soldier Trump had the opportunity to flip the script. He could have turned the other cheek to the insults and shown respect for a Gold Star family, which would have shown a human side of him. But Trump seems incapable of responding to hostility with empathy; his only instinct is to portray himself as a victim and sling mud back. He needs to learn that sometimes a good passive defense is the best offense.
I was trying to think back to a time in my own life that I flipped the script, and I recalled a salsa dancing party I threw for my birthday last year. A week before the party around 50 people had RSVP’d, and I was very psyched. Then I received a blunt email from my neighbor who lived above me who happened to have a two-year-old. My neighbor wrote to me that it was wrong for me to have a party that lasted so late into the night (2:00 or 3:00 a.m.), which he said would displace his family. Prior to that party I had thrown two others. I had warned him before the first party that it would be loud and end late, so his family stayed at his in-laws that night. The second party he decided to test how bad it would be and by 1:00 a.m. he was sending me desperate texts for me to turn the music down. I understood why he didn’t want the upcoming party to go late—keeping a 2-year-old up late at night can have bad consequences. But I was pissed. I wanted to reply that I was only throwing parties once or twice a year and that it was my building too, so he should just suck it up and deal with one late night. But after pausing to think for a moment I decided that response would not get the outcome I wanted. Perhaps I could just ignore his complaints and do as I pleased, but I liked my neighbor and felt some empathy for him, and it’s not good to make an enemy of a neighbor. So instead of going off at him in a hostile email, I wrote to him that it would be my pleasure to pay for he and his wife to stay at a hotel in downtown Chicago. I doubted that he would accept this offer but I figured I had nothing to lose by trying it. The next day my neighbor texted me that he and has wife liked the hotel idea and said he had found a deal on a hotel for a mere $130. I texted back and told him I would drop off the money in cash under his door mat that day. The party was fantastic. People stayed at my condo making lots of noise past 4:00 a.m. We even broke out some musical instruments. A few weeks later I ran into my neighbor’s wife, and she told me that the hotel getaway was wonderful. She said it was great to get away from their house and have some private time. (They dropped off their two-year-old at her parents’ house.) I had successfully flipped the script. By reacting to hostility with generosity the scenario changed from one of tension and resentment to a win-win outcome where everyone felt great afterward. We had the same arrangement for the following party, and I hope we agree to do it for my party next week. The $130 party expense was worth every penny.
Question 1: Have you ever reacted to aggressive hostility with kindness?
Question 2: Is Donald Trump capable of restraint?
Listen to the Invisible podcast: http://www.npr.org/programs/invisibilia/485603559/flip-the-script