'Readings in Nonviolence' features extracts from our favourite books, pamphlets, articles or other material on nonviolence and related areas, or reviews of important works in the field (suggestions and contributions welcome)
Revilement and adulation
Introduction by Rob Fairmichael
There is an important message in the following little piece which comes from the USA context. That is, any movement for change is likely to pass through a period of staunch opposition, with revilement of both its ideas and its leaders, and personal attacks on the latter. There may be modules on Gandhi and Martin Luther King taught in schools in different parts of the world today but when they were working for justice and independence in India, and civil rights in the USA, respectively, they were the subject of vicious personal attacks – and both were killed for the stands they took.
Serious movements for change cannot expect any different. Those who wish to cling to the status quo will use every method they can get away with; these will vary according to context and culture but will never be comfortable for change agents to bear. However an awareness of the stages social change movements pass through can be important in getting our bearings and being aware of where we are in the struggle, see here for example. In the resource extraction game (including fracking today), which has to be locally based, ‘divide and rule’ the local population is the tactic of the companies so that opposition becomes fractured (fracked?), relationships bitter, and there is the danger of opposition falling apart as a result. Maintaining a united community is essential in this context.
The other message of the piece is that those of us who are older and have been through political and social change movements before should not look back with rose coloured spectacles – or dismiss movements for change today. It is easy to think comfortable thoughts about how things were different, more vital, more urgent in ‘our’ day. Things may have changed and moved on but today’s struggles may be just as urgent and important. Also, backsliding is not only possible but a fact of life, e.g. on economic justice issues, where things in general are in a far worse situation today than they were a generation ago.
If a movement for change is sufficiently small then the tactic of the status quo may be simply to try to ignore it so it will ‘go away’. We are probably all used to that; refusing to acknowledge that there is an urgent issue which needs attention. It is when a movement starts to gather momentum that the knives are likely to come out – metaphorically or in other cases literally.
It is worth remembering the African proverb that “Until lions have their historians, tales of hunting will always glorify the hunter.” It is also worth recalling that all of us look to the past to bolster our actions in the present. This is natural. It depends of course how much bending of the facts takes place, and whether our interpretations can be squared with realities. And this is true in Irish history in much thinking about violence, as well as non-violent movements for change; current debates about how to remember and ‘celebrate’ the 1916 Rising are a case in point, and the debates between more traditional and revisionist interpretations of history. This then gets into the debate about when violence is or is not justified – which is another critical issue.
Anyhow, this piece shows that movements for change can rarely if ever feel comfortable. That is not what our job is about. Seeking revilement and attacks would be perverse but this tends to go with the job, either that or being totally ignored most of the time which can be even more frustrating.
- - - - -
I recently had a discussion with a friend of mine about Martin Luther King Junior’s legacy. The amount of sacrifice and devotion Mr. King gave to the cause of civil rights was admirable to both my friend and myself. We talked at length about what we agreed was ‘worthy rebellion’. What we disagreed on was this: what Martin Luther King Jr. would think of the current fight for equality.
What is the difference between the civil rights movement happening now, and the movement in the 1960’s? Well first, and I might get opposition for this, there is a civil rights movement happening now. It might get mistaken for bored kids trying to start trouble, or “disrespect of law enforcement,” but these arguments are all too familiar to our brothers and sisters heading the picket line.
What is important to remember about MLK was that he was not a national hero at the time. He was not an icon. He was an enemy of the state, he was a pot-stirrer, Mr. King was unpatriotic to many white Americans at the time, either explicitly or by an implicit acceptance of the status quo of race assumptions. So, as I scrolled through my Facebook Newsfeed on Martin Luther King Jr. day, I was astonished that many of my friends (who are explicitly or implicitly opposed to contemporary causes I would recognize as civil rights) – on January 19, 2015 now were fondly remembering the fight so many years ago. Then, I saw this….
“It is detrimental to the current movement to forget that when he died, Dr Martin Luther king Jr. was an enemy of the state, not a national hero. And if you think you would have sided with black people in the Civil Rights Movement but don’t support today’s protestors....then take down the MLK quote from Facebook.” – Broderick Greer
We can be so eager to fall on the right side of history that our ideas of right and wrong can become jaded. Our empathy dries up the moment we feel uncomfortable, and the tendency is to comfortably look at the past with much more glory than it deserves.
As a white person, I must continue to remind myself, that I live in the same world as Michael Brown did, and Eric Garner, and Martin Luther, but the world is easier for me. So while white people were worrying about prohibition in the early twentieth century, many blacks were fearing for their lives when they stepped outside their front door. My history is different than a black woman’s history – it has been easier, and that should change. My society holds me in value above a black woman, and that is wrong.
It is easy for us to pretend that American slavery was so long ago. It has become almost like a legend to us, a distant memory that we are unaffected by.
We take comfort in being able to say, “I have black friends,” because it wipes our slates clean. But it doesn’t. Unless we continue to break down the social barriers dividing our races, then Martin Luther King’s victory is in vain.
Our history is inextricably intertwined with our African American brothers and sisters, and to be on the opposing side of the current fight for equality now, is to be on the opposing side of our future as equals. I speak now of the currently, continuously unfolding struggle for equality in academic achievement and fair treatment for all by law enforcement, not only the still continuing role of race in economic disparity in our country.
After the discussion I had with my friend, I started thinking more in depth about what I do think is ‘worthy rebellion.’ The relativity in this question was astounding my opinionated, politically-driven mind; justice at all costs could be detrimental. That’s why what Mr. King believed was so important to the very core of equality. Justice is not justice if it is unjustly obtained. Our past is painful to remember, but it is not as painful as the people we enslaved, and I will fight for their rights – the rights of all people – because I am a part of the problem.