In MLK, Americans Find Agreement
When I was growing up in Connecticut, my family rented a house every summer in Grafton, Vermont, for the month of July. We packed up our boxy Ford Fairmont station wagon that sported a stripe of wood paneling around its belly. It was kind of like driving a piece of furniture. The journey up the Merritt Parkway and then US-91 seemed to stretch out in front of us forever. But, in these simpler days, time was less of a commodity. Convenience had yet to render it scarce. Now, we’re so preoccupied with losing time that we often misspend it.
While there was no binging The Office on iPads in the back seat, we did have a cassette player. And it became a yearly ritual on this crawl up the Northeast corridor for my father to pop in a crusty analog tape of America’s Greatest Speeches.
There was John F. Kennedy’s Inaugural address from 1961. You know the one, “Ask not what your country can do for you…” And his brother Robert’s speech from the Democratic National Convention of 1964. But no oratory could hold a candle to the soaring sermon of Martin Luther King from the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom on August 28, 1963. As a boy sprouting in the suburbs, I had never heard anyone speak in this manner. It sounded like church, though it bore no semblance to my milquetoast Sunday school lessons. It was more song than speech in its cadence and lilt. Other voices clustered close to the microphone responded to the calls of his homily, propelling him forward. Toward the end of his exhortation, the legendary gospel singer Mahalia Jackson implored King, “Tell them about the dream, Martin.” This, of course, prompted perhaps the greatest section of improvised oratory in human history.
As the audio crackled out the car speakers, I watched my dad doing his best to remain stoic behind the wheel, a tear welling in the corner of his eye. It took all his will to suspend it there. Is there any breathing human whose heart hasn’t swelled under the pall of these words? No, King makes us all feel the same.
I write this missive on the 93rd anniversary of Martin Luther King’s birth. I spend this time every year revisiting his writings and speeches. For someone as devoutly married to words as I am, it is deeply humbling. His entreaties for non-violence are as viscerally prescient today as they were then. Such is the way with the great prophets. Their messages are not susceptible to the vacillations of space and time. They ring eternally true.
Over the next days, an efflorescence of tributes, both performative and sincere, will flood our feeds with MLK memes and quote cards. As I trawled Facebook last week, the most conservative person I know posted this King quote, the timing perhaps a result of a misfiring of her iCal.
“Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.”
My knee-jerk response was that this was an egregious appropriation. As if, by quoting King, this blindingly blonde woman was donning a headscarf and a dashiki. This, of course, is an absurd reaction, particularly for a white man, but there was a sense of political propriety, as if King somehow “belongs” to the liberal. However, after a pause, I caught myself. There are lessons I must repeatedly relearn. No political party has a monopoly on morality. And there is a difference between appreciation and appropriation. Indeed, the political poetry of King has seeped into our collective consciousness irrespective of party affiliation. Indeed, King has a 90% favorability rating among all American adults.
In an era of unprecedented political polarization, it thaws the heart to know there is something upon which we agree. Sure, the near-universal embrace of King benefits from time passed. The etymology of nostalgia is Greek: nostos, meaning “to return home,” and algos, meaning “pain.” With the painful parts of the memories trimmed away, nostalgia grants us a return home to what we perceive as a better time. King is often remembered in this way.
Still, when we look past the media-exacerbated vitriol and remove the armor we wear on social media, Americans surprisingly find vast swaths of agreement. How many people like the idea that the three richest Americans having more cumulative wealth than the bottom 50% combined? Congress voted last year almost unanimously to break up Big Tech’s overwhelming power. 93% of Americans feel as though they have a right to clean air and water. 92% support the right to quality education. Even climate change, immigration, certain forms of gun control, gay marriage, foreign trade, and other seemingly more divisive issues enjoy significant concurrence.
I am not suggesting we all start playing a didgeridoo rendition of Kumbaya in front of the local vegan café. We shouldn’t be naïve. The laceration between right and left is badly infected. As we have now all observed, there are real and consistent threats of domestic terrorism. Within the groups that pose this menace live intractable and odious beliefs that need to be eradicated from the earth. A 90% approval rating still yields 10% on the edges of the branch. But the increasing radicalization of mainstream society is, to a significant degree, a product of our inability to honestly speak with each other despite significant areas of ideological agreement. The assault on the Capitol was birthed through weaponized misinformation on social media, the spread of which enflames and tribalizes us. When will we next witness digital rage spill into the analog world?
The meme-ification of our public discourse has reduced complicated, nuanced ideas and issues to simplistic polemics. It has bolstered hate and rabid partisanship. Social media is a brilliant tool for organization, but it is an abysmal sandbox for thoughtful dialogue. Yet, we feel forced to play in it and, in doing so, lose our sense of shared humanity and common decency.
In this recent article, I wrote about the neurological impacts of social media and how it rewards and reinforces the propagation of misinformation. There is another psychological effect that MIT professor Sherry Turkle elucidates in her book Reclaiming Conversation:
“We have learned that people who would never allow themselves to be bullies in person feel free to be aggressive and vulgar online. The presence of a face and voice reminds us that we are talking to a person. Rules of civility usually apply. But when we communicate on screens we experience a kind of disinhibition. Research tells us that social media decreases self-control just as they cause a momentary spike in self-confidence. So, this means that, online, we are tempted to behave in ways that part of us know will hurt others but we seem to stop caring.”
There is no accountability to each other on social media. There are simply private acts happening in public. We must start caring for each other again.
Here is the radical idea I propose. What if we turned off FOX, Newsmax, MSNBC, and CNN? What if we closed our Twitter and Facebook apps? What if we vowed to meet one another face-to-face or, in the absence of being able to do that, picked up the phone and listened?
Engagement with those on “the other side” is not about persuading them that you’re right. It’s about stepping into the complicated purple zone in an otherwise starkly blue and red landscape. We may not always concur on the best ideas but we can disagree without being disagreeable and, through this process, recover a more common understanding of each other and the world.
Folks might say, “I don’t want to yield to those who hate and are trying to tear down our democracy.” In our silos, both sides are saying this exact same thing.
Conversation is not limp conciliation. It exists within principle. It does not forsake either justice or accountability. It is not weak nor does it capitulate to moral relativism. It’s difficult and requires vulnerability and courage. No one understood this more than King, who often balanced the voices of his own movement with those both more moderate and more radical.
King’s steadfast support of non-violence is widely celebrated. However, when you engage in a more thorough analysis of his life and work, you discover a complicated internal struggle that is impossible to capture in a meme. While King believed that “the arc of the moral universe was long but bent towards justice,” he was also profoundly frustrated by gradualism. While he “subpoenaed the conscience” of everyday white Americans through unveiling the stark immorality of segregationists like George Wallace and Bull Connor, he was also vexed by the white moderate “who was more devoted to ‘order’ than to justice, who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice.” (Letter From A Birmingham Jail).
A year before his assassination in 1968, King toured a speech titled “The Other America” in which he describes two widely divergent Americas based on race. It is in this speech that King refers to riots as “the language of the unheard.” This quote is often taken out of context as a justification for violence. On the contrary, King goes to great lengths to denounce riots, as we all should. A forceful denunciation of violence must be screamed from the rooftops. But we must be as vigorous in condemning the conditions that cause people to engage in violent activity as the violence itself.
We must ask, “What are we not hearing?”
It is in this deeper analysis of King’s fraught struggle that his transcendent greatness shines brightly. Similarly, we must engage in a more thorough analysis of each other.
In the end, King paid the ultimate price for his convictions. After Medgar and Malcolm, he knew his life was all too likely to end in tragedy. Yet he was willing to pay this price for the sake of propelling humanity along the moral arc.
Of course, we cannot all rise to be Kings, to die in service of bringing the conditions of our country into greater alignment with its creed. But I am asking you, and myself, what are we willing to do for the sake of America and the promise of its dream?
Can we sit down together at the table of brotherhood and eschew politics for policy, egos for ideas, ire for cooperation, fear for love?
Is it not worth a conversation?
Do we need yet another brutal reminder that, “We must learn to live together as brothers or perish together as fools”?