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January 15, 2018

Anatomy of a peaceful protest… Thinking of MLK today.

If you follow me on social media at all, you know that my Facebook banner image is, as often as not, this:

As such, it should come as no surprise that I’m reflecting on the life and times of the great civil rights leader today. Specifically, though, I’m thinking about the term “leader” within that description.  Narrowing the lens a bit more, what I’m pondering is the where and when of civil disobedience/peaceful protest/ direct action.  Dr. King, in his letter from the Birmingham jail, clearly outlines the steps that can culminate (in the event that the earlier steps fail) in direct non-violent action, that 4 step process goes as follows:

In the above he also discusses how, in Birmingham, they attempted and were rebuffed on steps 1 and 2, leading to step 3 below:

Later in the text he goes on to respond to the queries put before him about “why direct action?” by stating that it was only after having exhausted the previous steps in the process that non-violent protest was considered.  Further – and this is critical – even when it came to direct action, the singular goal of getting to negotiation was still the ultimate target outcome.  No one was there for the purpose of protesting, they were there to forcefully – but without violence – bring the other party to the negotiating table.  As outlined below, the purpose of protest is to create a sense of urgency or tension that motivates all sides toward negotiation and, by extension, a reasonable result.

I think it is vitally important to keep all of these components in mind when planning (or assessing) any act of protest.

  1. Have you gathered all of the facts; are you literate in that which you are about to protest?
  2. Have you tried everything you can to negotiate with the powers that be?
  3. Have you self-purified; are you fully prepared to deal with the consequences of your actions, without compromising the quality of your character?
  4. If you are beginning direct action, do you have a clear set of goals; are they centered around bringing everyone back to the table to talk?

If you cannot answer “yes” to all of these questions, then you are not ready to lead a protest.  You may be ready, willing, and able to join one and shout for whatever your cause is; but leadership is not currently in your tool chest.

I’m not sure how often people follow this blueprint anymore.  I certainly don’t hear people talking about it when discussing possible protests; and this leaves me wondering how many of our efforts toward improving the world we live in are actually structured toward having a decent chance of success.

Sidenote: On the other side of the coin, if you find yourself in the position of assessing a protest, you should evaluate it on the same basis.  And, if the protesters can answer yes to all of those questions and you feel ill at ease with their protest, this does not mean they are being inappropriate or disrespectful, it means that someone on the other side of the issue is being unreasonable or unwilling to talk, and it also means that their (along with your) discomfort is by design.

Martin Luther King left this world a better place in so many ways.  His words have inspired generations and will no doubt motivate their progeny as well.  However, I think  what is often lost in his greatness, and what actually might be one of the more valuable takeaways from his (all too short) time on this Earth, was his dedication to process and keeping the focus on meaningful, tangible objectives.  Sometimes, when learning from those we admire, there can as much to learn from how they went about their work as there is in the work itself.  MLK’s letter from that Birmingham jail checks both boxes and is a great blueprint; not for how to lead a protest, but for how to lead a movement.

April 28, 2015

Cultural Cognitive Dissonance and the Baltimore Riots

I’m not one to condone violence or destruction of other people’s property, and I find the events in Baltimore to be truly tragic. But in scanning my Facebook timeline this morning I have to say I was equally disgusted with several of my “friends.” The level of hypocrisy emanating from those heaping vitriol towards protesters, rioters, and looters by those whose taste for vengeance is well documented on their own timelines speaks to a societal cognitive dissonance that I cannot see ending in anything but violence.

I’ve seen this image of a mother addressing her son’s protesting activities three times, each with a completely different take on the scene. Coverage (that I have seen) has ranged from “Mother of the year” to “Woman berates and dehumanizes son.” Think about that, same picture, same story… completely different representations.

That we make of the news what we want, is not “new news;” however, the inevitability of outcome, when we do so, always seems to be revelatory. I’ve read, this morning, about how the rioters are doing so “because they want to, and finally have an excuse.” I’ve also read that they are desperate people left feeling as though they have no choice, in the words of none other than Martin Luther King Jr “riot is the language of the unheard.” (Note: fuller context of that quote is below, and is very much worth the read for a better understanding of the message he was sending and the culture and climate he faced; which is not entirely different than that which many in Baltimore and across this nation feel they find themselves in today. I’m not going to try to say those people are right, or they are wrong, I’m just acknowledging their perspective, because without it there is no hope of understanding or addressing this situation).

One definition of cognitive dissonance is this: “In psychology, cognitive dissonance is the mental stress or discomfort experienced by an individual who holds two or more contradictory beliefs, ideas, or values at the same time, or is confronted by new information that conflicts with existing beliefs, ideas, or values.” What I am talking about is the manifestation of that stress and discomfort on a society that is at odds with itself. A culture that finds more and more to disagree upon, embraces divisiveness, and often eschews (even condemns) the ideas of compromise and moderation.

Given human nature and history, how can this society move anywhere but toward violent conflict? How can police officers not gravitate toward more violent arrests; and criminals toward more exaggerated forms of resistance and obstruction? When we call for the destruction of the foreign regimes over humanitarian violations, and launch wars in the name of the same; how do we reconcile condemning the use of violence or destruction toward a perceived oppressor that will not listen to complaints about, let alone act upon, these rising tensions on our city streets?

We have invaded nations in defence of “democracy”… an ambiguous concept (that we don’t even really embrace in full ourselves… but I digress); and yet we expect portions of our population to sit idly while members of their community are injured or killed without recourse.

Again, I’m not condoning or supporting the violence/riots/protests; what I’m suggesting is that we stop complaining about it, stop pointing fingers over it, stop generalizing, criticizing and stereotyping it, and get down to the dirty business of trying to prevent it going forward. As with all issues and addictions, this starts with admitting we have a problem.

We have a problem of us vs. them, a problem of hypocrisy, a problem of divisiveness… a problem of cultural cognitive dissonance. I often find myself a part of it and, most likely, you do as well. The question is, what are we going to do about it?

Full MLK quote on rioting:

“But it is not enough for me to stand before you tonight and condemn riots. It would be morally irresponsible for me to do that without, at the same time, condemning the contingent, intolerable conditions that exist in our society. These conditions are the things that cause individuals to feel that they have no other alternative than to engage in violent rebellions to get attention. And I must say tonight that a riot is the language of the unheard. And what is it America has failed to hear? It has failed to hear that the plight of the negro poor has worsened over the last twelve or fifteen years. It has failed to hear that the promises of freedom and justice have not been met. And it has failed to hear that large segments of white society are more concerned about tranquility and the status quo than about justice and humanity.” – Martin Luther King, Jr.

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