Thursday, October 4, 2012

I can’t say I’ve ever been to La Crosse, Wisconsin, but if I were given an opportunity to shake the hand of WKBT-TV anchorperson Jennifer Livingston, I would find my way there. Livingston, you have probably heard, is the articulate communicator who took on Kenneth Krause, an expressive emailer who had this to say to her about her physical self:

“Surely you don't consider yourself a suitable example for this community's young people, girls in particular. Obesity is one of the worst choices a person can make and one of the most dangerous habits to maintain. I leave you this note hoping that you'll reconsider your responsibility as a local public personality to present and promote a healthy lifestyle.” Livingston could have ignored Krause, or she could have privately replied to his email. Instead, she boldly faced the live television camera and said this:
Like so many others who watched this video this week, I am blown away by Livingston’s grace in the face of such a personal attack. No tears in her eyes, no crack in her voice, no vindictiveness in her message to her rhetorical predator – just pure dignity. Bravo. But from a media standpoint, I have a further reaction: In today’s mass communication world, four minutes and 21 seconds is an eternity. Yet WTBK saw fit to offer Livingston as much time as she needed to effectively get her message out. And Livingston filled her time with real substance—and heart.

Not surprisingly, people listened. The Twitterverse was abuzz all day and all evening following Livingston’s speech. The running tweet theme is unbridled respect for Livingston. The collective public understanding is that Krause’s words were unacceptably cruel. Words like Krause’s don’t simply sting – they stab. The American public doesn’t take kindly to deliberate meanness. Remember the bus monitor who was bullied  by schoolboys? The public ended up pitching in to the tune of $700,000 which was donated to her. While it is unlikely we’ll be sending our cash to Livingston, we are already contributing mightily to her status as a role model.

What motivates people like Krause? (below, left) What twisted satisfaction does he derive from reducing an entire human being to nothing more than how much physical space she takes up?
How is it that Krause is so blinded by a person’s size that he is unable to see their real worth on the planet? Is Krause not wise enough to understand that Livingston is, as she aptly put it, “much more than a number on a scale”? Why is it that when I look at Jennifer Livingston, I see a thoughtful, self-possessed, highly articulate woman, but when Krause looks at her he just sees 200 pounds?

Many of us are tired of individuals who hide behind their email accounts and use them to unleash their venom on respectable individuals who are making true contributions to society. I highly doubt that Krause would have the balls to appear at Livingston’s office door and say, “I was surprised indeed to see that your physical condition hasn’t improved in many years.” But he was presumptuous enough to say it in an email, from the safety of his own home or office. However, when La Crosse radio personality Brian Simpson invited Krause to appear on air to discuss the whole issue, Krause (predictably) declined.

I work with college students. I see routinely how their self-concepts are not as well-formed or healthy as they could be. I also see how a discouraging or disparaging word from their teachers can undo whatever progress they may have made in bolstering their own self-esteem. I remember the black female student who told me,
“I wanted to be a news anchor, but one of my teachers told me my dialect is too thick and people won’t be able to understand what I’m saying.” I also remember the dyslexic young man whose teacher told him, “Everybody else is keeping up with the reading assignments, so there’s no reason you can’t.” I had a student a few years ago who had taken five years to get through high school because his teachers and even his family members had told him he was “stupid,” although later it was determined he had a learning disability.

The wisest words I ever heard came from a professor of mine who said, “People are often what you invite them to be.” If we invite people to diminish themselves because of their weight or their disabilities or their speech patterns or any other personal challenge they may have, they will usually end up diminished.
It’s not an original thought, I know, but it’s worth repeating here. If we invite people to be their best selves, to rise above the ignorance of those who would demean them and to believe in their untapped potential, everybody wins. To Jennifer Livingston I would simply say, “Nicely done. Your three daughters, your husband, your employer and your viewers are lucky to have you. I hope to shake your hand one day, even if it means traveling to La Crosse, WI.”

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