In a recent discussion about civics and civil society, one of my colleagues referenced a line by Rap artist, Nasir Jones, a/k/a Nas from his song, “Hate Me Now” that states: People “fear what they don’t understand, hate what they can’t conquer.”
On this day of national recognition for Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., his reputation to use non-violent means to advance civil discord through citizen protest and public demonstrations has never had more significance to address today’s lack of civility in citizen debates about public policies and political viewpoints.
Nas’s line, without the racial slur, plus Dr. King’s legacy carry special meaning to characterize what has been happening in our nation about how people disagree with each other and how we address our differences (or in some instances, don’t). As we grapple with last week’s shooting of citizens in Tucson, AZ at a public gathering of Representative Gabrielle Giffords and her constituents, we can easily follow an emerging trail of public and political discord that lead to this horrific event.
I think back to the disruptive town hall meetings when elected officials and communities were discussing President Obama’s health care plan. That followed by increasing use of negative campaign ads and character assassinations during the 2010 elections. Today, the two parties in Congress battle over ideology more than they do for what will advance our nation and its citizens.
We’ve come from screaming to be heard over a different viewpoint, to becoming increasingly threatening in our actions, and now to taking off the gloves entirely and picking up weapons to disagree and advance our own ideologies and points of view. We persecute those who don’t agree with us or whose positions we oppose, or worse, that we don’t understand or feel powerless to overcome.
As Pat Rice, editor of the Daytona Beach News-Journal wrote about today, there are two concepts that are essential to democracy and King advocated and practiced both: ‘the notion of civility” and “the belief in civil liberties.” Yet throughout his pursuit for equality, King advocated only non-violent means to achieve his goals. No other segment of society has had more reason to stage a violent uprising then did African-Americans who face institutionalized racism and discrimination in their own country.
On December 5, 1955 at the start of the Montgomery Bus Boycott, King spoke at Holt Street Baptist Church. Among his remarks, King said that night:
“You know my friends, there comes a time when people get tired of being trampled over by the iron feet of oppression. There comes a time, my friends, when people get tired of being flung across the abyss of humiliation where they experience the bleakness of nagging despair. There comes a time when people get tired of being pushed out of the glittering sunlight of life’s July and left standing amidst the piercing chill of an Alpine November. We are here this evening because we’re tired now.
“Now let us say that we are not here advocating violence. We have overcome that. I want it to be known throughout Montgomery and throughout this nation that we are Christian people. We believe in the Christian religion. We believe in the teachings of Jesus. The only weapon that we have in our hands this evening is the weapon of protest. And secondly, this is the glory of America for all of its faults. This is the glory of our democracy. If we were incarcerated behind the iron curtains of a communistic nation we couldn’t do this. If we were trapped in the dungeon of a totalitarian regime we couldn’t do this. But the great glory of American democracy is the right to protest for right.”
What an incredible statement. Today, members of society are becoming afraid of what they do not understand. But this is not new. What is new is our propensity to act out of ignorance and anger instead of using democratic, civil principles and freedoms of expression guaranteed to us by the Constitution.
We need to take time to learn about what we do not understand and what we do not agree with. We need to hear from others whose ideas and points of views do not coincide with ours. We need to educate others of our different points of view when we disagree, and do so in a civil manner whether through demonstration, protest or voting instead of threatening and instilling hate and violence.
Tolerance is a virtue in which we are in very short supply. It allows for a climate where differing positions and points of view can be heard, even coexist. It also enables civil societies to function nonviolently even when they do not agree. Let’s reinstitute those two principals that Dr. King advanced, and remember the power of non-violent means to achieve monumental changes.
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