News of Aretha Franklin’s passing last week immediately brought back to mind her famous song, Respect.

That song, written by Otis Redding, was released in 1967 and became a kind of rallying cry for women who deserved, but did not necessarily receive, esteem.

Like the face of a childhood friend, weathered by time and trial, the word Franklin made so popular, is nearly unrecognizable today. We have a vague recollection somewhere in the recesses of our mind, yet we don’t recall what it looks like.

We find ourselves in a culture in which R-E-S-P-E-C-T is that long lost friend. I knew him once, but…

…and his brother, Civility? Well…

What has happened to us?

Somewhere along the way we stopped teaching and instilling social and emotional intelligence for one. The long-held values and virtues that have been the backbone for thriving families and societies have gone the way of the chia pet. We simply stopped buying.

A few years ago, we were running the One Heart Project at Rikers Island prison in New York. The warden there, a wonderful man named Edmund Duffy, asked me to come to the facility to see, first hand, the impact of the program after five months of deployment. I listened to youthful offenders tell of how because of the One Heart initiative they were never going back to their former lifestyle. It brought tears to my eyes.

The most profound moment was when I spoke with three teens – individually, at separate locations. Each one told me the best thing about the program was the social and emotional concepts they learned – like responsibility, integrity and, of course, respect. In order, these kids told me: a) I’ve never heard these words before, b) I never knew what these words meant, and c) I’ve never seen anyone I know live out these words.

And there it was. A clear example of the social and emotional intelligence illiteracy that has plagued a generation. If we don’t turn this around as a society quickly, this illiteracy will be more damaging than the inability to read.

Social media is also to blame. Yep, the very tool I am using to communicate this, and you are using to read these words right now. It’s no secret that it is much easier to use our words with contempt when we do not actually have to speak them to someone face-to-face or even voice-to-voice. I can text, email, or post about you with seemingly little or no consequence. I can say whatever I think.

As respect and civility have slipped further from our grasp, we have increasingly become a nation of mean-spirited critics, who say – and even do – things that would not have been contemplated even a generation ago.

Walk up to a political commentator enjoying a quiet dinner with her mother in a restaurant and toss a drink in her face because we don’t agree with her opinion? I don’t think so.

Berate a teenager because we don’t agree with the candidate displayed on his apparel? Really?

Didn’t your mothers tell you about Aretha’s song?

A quote that has widely been attributed to 19th Century French political thinker and historian, Alexis de Tocqueville, speaks to the condition of our collective American soul: “America is great because she is good. If America ceases to be good, America will cease to be great.”

Whether it was de Tocqueville who actually said this or someone else is hardly the point. The truth of the statement is the point. And that truth stares us right in the face today, and says…

R-E-S-P-E-C-T, find out what it means to me.

I hope we all do before it’s too late.

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