Monday, January 17, 2011

Martin Luther King's Civility

cross-posted at Dagblog

We've been talking a lot lately about civility, for obvious and painful reasons. And our public conversation on that topic tends to go astray pretty quickly, because we don't all mean the same thing when we say "civility," and often aren't even sure what we mean by the word ourselves.

If we mean by "civility" that our public debates should never get heated, and that no one should ever speak angrily about politics, then we're going to be disappointed. American politics has been a rough and tumble business since Jefferson and Adams, at least, and on balance the country is better for it. Inciting violence and inflaming listeners is clearly unacceptable, but we can't rein all of the negativity and name-calling, and we shouldn't. There have always been politicians who managed to be dangerous and inflammatory without breaking any of the superficial rules of polite debate, and some of the speech that breaks those rules is valuable.

Neither should "civility" mean ceasing to disagree. There will always be disagreements, and no amount of comity or bipartisanship will make them go away. Every democracy has to make choices about serious questions, and the answers to those questions are almost never unanimous. Disagreement isn't a flaw that ruins democracy; democracy is the process of working out disagreements. People who complain that partisan politics are too partisan or too political are basically expressing a discomfort with democracy itself.

What I was planning to write, and still view as at least 90% of the truth, is that the heart of civility is participating in the civil process of resolving disagreements, and committing to abide by it. We have disagreements, and will always have disagreements, and we don't believe that any king, high priest, generalissimo or Wise and Distinguished Op-Ed Columnist can be trusted as an infallible referee. So we have this system for resolving our arguments, a system of elections, legal proceedings, and government institutions that allows us to argue and resolve arguments peacefully. Staying with that system, and binding ourselves to the outcomes even when we dislike them, is what makes us civil. "Peaceful" doesn't mean quiet or amicable or even fair. Jefferson and Adams and their partisans could sling a prodigious amount of mud. But when there was an election, they accepted the results. When a court rendered a decision, everyone abided by that decision. The Federalists and the Democratic-Republicans might have been enraged with each other on a regular basis, but they kept it in the courts and the voting booth and the Capitol building. The alternative, as one prominent member from each party demonstrated, was to take it outside the system like Hamilton and Burr. The rest of Jefferson's and Adams's supporters kept it vicious but not violent, and that's a pretty good result. If everybody gets their feelings hurt and nobody gets anything except their feelings hurt, I'd say the country is doing very, very well.

When someone declares that they will not be bound by the civil process, when they declare it illegitimate or announce that they will ignore outcomes that displease them, they are essentially refusing the civil peace. What they're saying is that their participation in our democracy, our justice system, and our national life is conditional on getting what they want. That's "We will honor all the laws and respect the courts, unless the courts try to integrate Ole Miss, in which case we will form a violent mob," or "We will honor the elections unless Aung San Suu Kyi does not win," or “We have a constitutional remedy here, and the framers said, if that don’t work — revolution." These are refusals to accept the social contract, refusals to renounce force. They are expressions of lawlessness ad threats of civil violence. It doesn't matter what tone of voice they're said in.

If we're calling each other ugly names but still talking, that's a good thing. As long as we agree to resolve our differences peacefully, we can call each other scoundrels and shout until we turn red (or blue). Without that agreement, we're not in a civil relationship. We're just dealing with rival gangs.

I've been worried by a lot of political rhetoric for the last few years, and it's not the name-calling that bothers me. It's the repeated claims that the other side is illegitimate or tyrannical or otherwise outside the civil process, the kind of language that suggests that the speakers and their listeners shouldn't feel bound by the process. Claiming that the President was not lawfully elected and has no authority is not civil; it is an implied threat of political violence. Calling the federal government's most banal and everyday functions "tyrannical" is not civil; if it is not a rhetorical preparation for bloodshed, it is at least an attempt to keep bloodshed open as an option. No one who says such a thing should be trusted. Raving about "Second Amendment remedies" if an election does not go one's own way is a disqualification from public life. So is showing up with a mob when you've lost an election. And peddling obviously false conspiracy stories, claiming that grandmothers will be euthanized by the health care bill or that the President of the United States is trying to destroy the economy in order to impose a socialist system, is an obvious attempt to undermine and delegitimize the very systems that preserve civil peace. This is incivility, a threat to our domestic peace.

That was where I was going to leave things, when the holiday forced me to think about Martin Luther King, Jr., and his approach to our public life. Because Dr. King was profoundly dedicated to peace and civility, but also refused a system that he viewed as manifestly unjust. He did not always abide by the laws or the courts. He did not always obey lawful orders by police officers, and he counseled others to the same eminently civil disobedience. Dr. King did not work within the system, the way someone like Thurgood Marshall did; that does nothing to diminish Marshall's staggering achievements, but makes Dr. King's even more surprising. I have to admit that King, whom I admire, refused to accept the laws and the framework for resolving disputes that I otherwise view as essential to keeping the peace, and yet he made the world a less violent place.

The obvious difference is that King and his followers were willing to suffer, rather than to cause suffering, in order to achieve their goals. They could (and did) step outside the rules meant to prevent civil violence because when they stepped out side those rules they brought no violence and no threat with them. They could break the laws in service of a higher good because they were in a peculiar way the perfect citizens: harming no one and wishing no one harm. They didn't need the rules to preserve the peace because civil peace itself was their rule.

They were faced, all too often, with antagonists who had abandoned the framework of civil society in order to intimidate and threaten, and sometimes even to murder. That made the moral choice facing the nation very clear. And often too, King and the SPLC faced legal authorities who were so violent and coercive that they exposed the coercion and threats of violence hidden under the guise of the law. King's vision was successful in part because the radical change he advocated was in fact safer, more peaceful, and less physically threatening than the public order that the authorities decreed necessary.

Talking about revolution is cheap, and easily lapses into an expression of thuggery. Those who genuinely feel that our political system has become tyrannical could learn from Dr. King, who managed a truly revolutionary response to oppression, forcing the violent to lay down their own arms.

And perhaps the secret is that Dr. King never wrote his enemies off, never dehumanized them. Even when facing the worst of mobs, he was acutely aware that the people in that mob were human beings, with moral selves, deserving of love. In the clip below he talks about how non-violent resistance reaches out to the oppressor's conscience, even if sometimes people wrestling with their troubled conscience simply double down on their wicked behavior. But King talks about this as effective, even when its short-term results seemed counter-productive. It wasn't just about "winning" for King, but about reaching another human soul, even if he only nudged that soul on a journey it was still far, far from completing. Nothing can be less violent than that: to confront one's enemies without fear while attempting to hasten their redemption.

Martin Luther King taught us to confront our opponents' consciences, rather than our opponents, and that lesson is one wthat our country needs right now, more than we have in many years. I am grateful to Dr. King tonight.

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