Hearing Dr. King talk about injustice anywhere being a threat to justice anywhere, I couldn’t help but notice how he polarized people too. The content is different, but the structure sounds like the “You’re either with us or against us” I heard from a U.S. President ten years ago. It tells people they aren’t safe, no matter where they are.
If you read this page regularly, you know I don’t like labeling things right, wrong, good, bad, or evil. I don’t like polarizing people either. King did both regularly. He considered himself right, just, and good. He described people he disagreed with as wrong, unjust, and evil. I wonder how much he considered that they probably didn’t consider themselves wrong, unjust, and evil. Could he have considered that they considered themselves right? Or at most misunderstanding or not knowing?
It’s hard not to ask what I would have done at the time. Would I have committed civil disobedience? People are quick to question the “northern white liberal” who sat on the fence and slowed things down despite agreeing with King in principle, but I’m not asking if he was right or wrong then, I’m asking what I can learn from him now, what would work in different contexts, and if he could have been more effective.
I generally consider King someone to learn from more than to question, but I wonder how much more or less he would have achieved had he not described his opponents as evil. How can we see him as anything other than self-righteous? How does that make him different than someone he disagreed with? That we agree with him? Why shouldn’t someone else be right, then, because people agree with them? Do you think you know right and wrong? What if someone else says they are?
I’ve found I can influence people more by showing I understand them. Since I believe people don’t consider themselves wrong, unjust, or evil, I expect describing them that way, besides polarizing things, leads them to resist your influence. People certainly resisted King.
Maybe things work differently at a political level, where you’re motivating large groups of people who will never meet you face-to-face.
Why was someone so self-righteous effective?
If I say self-righteousness is counterproductive, how can I account for his effectiveness?
I’m disinclined to say he was just
Of course, his rhetoric and style of speaking count for a lot. I think the biggest issue is that more people agreed with him than disagreed, despite what laws on the books said. Most of the United States and probably nearly all blacks, especially in the South, probably wanted to end segregation. So I think the point isn’t that he was right, it’s that so many people agreed with him.
I suspect he could have been more effective by appealing more to principles of democracy, if he had a majority backing him, and less to right and wrong. He may have been effective with divisive, self-righteous politics, but history isn’t over yet.
The cost of winning based on thinking you’re right: those you defeated may never agree.
I watched the movie Lincoln last week though I’m no scholar about the man. The movie showed Lincoln more as a person than just a historical figure. For the first time I understood why so many people in the South don’t regard the Civil War as over as the rest of the country. It showed he used tricks that work — the Emancipation Proclamation, for example — but weren’t clearly legal.
I started to understand why people talk about States’ rights. I’ve always considered slavery the main issue, but I can see how people could have wondered if Lincoln had been so right, why did he resort to questionably legal tactics? If he wasn’t right, why follow his results?
I don’t think that way, but I can see how someone could resentfully put aside the slavery issue in their minds and say if he only won by force, how right could he be? Could it be that centuries later we still see the effects of his tactics?
Obviously I wasn’t there to know what Lincoln or King faced. Even people near them didn’t see what they saw. Maybe they did what anyone would agree was most effective. I don’t know and, in any case, I can only act on what I know in my situation here and now. That suggests I understand what people who have achieved a lot in the past did in their situations.
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