I wrote a five-post series on King's Stride Towards Freedom last year Four facts I didn't know about the Montgomery bus boycott, Gay is not the new Black: Why replicating King's strategies won't work for the contemporary queer, Nonviolence: It's more than not hitting people, and When suffering has meaning were the other four), but this one on civil discourse seemed appropriate to re-run today in light of recent events. It started with a post from Bob Somerby on a clip with Ed Schultz on MSNBC interviewing Martin Luther King III on Glenn Beck's rally:
SCHULTZ: How do you feel about this rally? How do you feel about the upcoming event on Saturday...the one that's going to be at the Lincoln Memorial.
KING: Well, you know, I think that my father always fought for everyone to have a voice, but a voice of civility, a voice for inclusion, not an exclusionary voice. And what I hope is that out of this demonstration and the demonstration that Reverend Sharpton also--constructive demonstration that Reverend Sharpton and others, including myself, will be participating to, I hope that civility is the order of the day.
I mean, we've got to really focus on how we work through the differences that we have in America, not be destructive and have destructive behavior. And I'm not suggesting--certainly Glenn Beck and all who follow Glenn Beck, certainly my father would have been the first to fight for them to have a voice. But he would hope that all of us would engage in constructive dialogue, not necessarily negative rhetoric.
It's easy to write off the "fought for everyone to have a voice" thing as great values talk with little meaning. He, of course, knows that some people are more deserving of a voice than others, right? If they're going to say things we like more, then they should be heard. Otherwise....
Here's King, in Stride Toward Freedom, his account of the Montgomery bus boycott, a direct action that put him and those close to him at risk and required sacrifice from tens of thousands people, and yet was still effective, describing the night his house was bombed when it wife and daughter were inside:
After I finished, the police commissioner began to address the crowd. Immediately there were boos. Police officers tried to get the attention of the Negroes by saying, "be quiet - the commissioner is speaking." To this the crowd responded with even louder boos. I came back to the edge of the porch and raised my hand for silence. "Remember what I just said. Let us hear the commissioner." In the ensuing lull, the commissioner spoke and offered a reward to the person or persons who could report the offenders. Then the crowd began to disperse.
And here he is after a meeting with the mayor and other city leaders where he thinks he spoke angrily to a man named Parker:
That Monday I went home with a heavy heart. I was weighted down by a terrible sense o guilt, remembering that on two or three occasions I had allowed myself to become angry and indignant. I had spoken hastily and resentfully. Yet I knew that this was no way to solve a problem. "You must no harbor anger," I admonished myself. "You must be willing to suffer the anger of the opponent, and yet no return anger. You must not become bitter. No matter how emotional your opponents are, you must be calm."
In this mood I went to the telephone and called Parker. He was obviously surprised to hear my voice. I told him that I was sorry about the misunderstanding that had come up in the meeting, and wanted to apologize if I was in any way responsible. He responded by seeking to justify the position he had taken. This led him to a discussion of the race problem in general and the bus situation in particular. He was certain that the Negroes had no basic justification for boycotting the buses, "since many white persons are treated just as discourteously as Negroes." As far as the general problem was concerned, he felt that Negroes all over were pushing things too fast, and this, he contended, could lead to nothing but trouble. I thanked him for talking to me, and the conversation ended.
The civil discourse thing wasn't a side point, a tool to criticize political opponents while never participating oneself. He also didn't let himself off the hook, allowing himself to become angry and insult others and let people silence the other side because he thought he didn't have an obligation to be the better person. He thought everyone had to be the better person, absolutely everyone, and that he was no exception.
A few years ago I was in a different place in my politics and usually assumed that people who disagreed with me had a fundamentally different worldview and were either unconvince-able or disingenuous, especially when it came to basic issues of my humanity. Maybe it's been working on Bilerico for so long (which requires me to edit and publish the writing of people I often vehemently disagree with) or maybe it's just seeing how empty a lot of the positions people take are. Even people who say they agree with me don't really get it or don't really care; is that any worse than completely disagreeing with me?
Notice how King didn't just call up Parker, but he reprinted his argument in his book, for his readers (he doesn't go on to explain why Parker was wrong). He trusted that people who were reading his book would know why Parker was wrong. There's a respect for discourse there that goes above the substance of the issues and straight to spiritual nonviolence. He gets a bit more into his commitment to individual freedom in his response to Marx:
Third, I opposed communism's political totalitarianism. In communism the individual ends up in subjection to the state. True, the Marxist would argue that the state is an "interim" reality which is to be eliminated when the classless society emerges; but the state is an end while it lasts, and man only a means to that end. And if any man's so-called rights or liberties stand in the way of that end, they are simply swept aside. His liberties of expression, his freedom to vote, his freedom to listen to what news he likes or to choose his books are all restricted. Man becomes hardly more, in communism, than a depersonalized cog in the turning wheel of the state.
This deprecation of individual freedom was objectionable to me. I am convinced now, as I was then, that man is an end because he is a child of God. Man is not made for the state; the state is made for man. To deprive man of freedom is to relegate him to the status of a thing, rather than to elevate him to the status of a person. Man must ever be treated as a means to the end of the state, but always as an end within himself.
I know the blogosphere and cable news and talk radio and now social media all support the swarm and silence method of attacking someone with which we disagree, and we can feel justified because we're not actually shutting someone down, we're not actually beating them up or having them arrested for saying something we don't like. But is it much better? Is it still spiritual nonviolence?
King stresses over and over again how humiliating one's opponent is an act of spiritual violence. And today we feel justified because we dehumanize those opponents, seeing them as people who couldn't honestly be taking a position with which we disagree, taking a position that is racist, homophobic, etc., because of their own deeply held convictions, based maybe on false information or unquestioned prejudices, but deeply held nonetheless. Instead we assume they're being maliciously ignorant. Maybe they aren't? Maybe we're wrong?
It's what I'm thinking about as I'm sure someone will say something homophobic next week and it'll make me wonder if they're just being an ass or if they really believe what they're saying. If it's the latter, maybe humiliation isn't the best tactic, since that only forces people to hold their ground instead of opening up for discussion.
And while I'm going back and forth here, King clearly was not. Like I said before, he wasn't a god and his words weren't inerrant. But they're definitely worth thinking about.
Go read Stride Toward Freedom, which is King's account of the Montgomery Bus Boycott, one of the most effective direct actions of the 20th century. Here is the rest of the posts I wrote on the book:
Four facts I didn't know about the Montgomery bus boycott
Gay is not the new Black: Why replicating King's strategies won't work for the contemporary queer
Nonviolence: It's more than not hitting people
When suffering has meaning