As Martin Luther King Jr. Day generated its share of activity on social media, I was reflecting and doing some reading around the web. Here are some selections and reflections from a couple pieces I came across today on NYT’s The Stone blog, a “forum for contemporary philosophers and other thinkers on issues both timely and timeless.”
i. recognizing difference and power
In a piece adapted from a speech he gave to the Greenwich, Connecticut, YMCA recently, Prof. Chris Lebron reflects on the difference between how he observes Martin Luther King Jr. Day and how his white audience does:
When you celebrate Dr. King, what are you cheering? Do you cheer the greatness of a man who fully knew his journey’s destination was insecure? The greatness of a man who paid the ultimate price so that my son could vote and sit in class alongside your children? If so, I am happy to join you. Do you celebrate his struggle as a resounding success that ushered in a new age of race relations? Do you intend to show appreciation for the notion that he helped us move past a difficult moment in American history? If so, then I cannot join you. And I fear that I observe the tendency to celebrate not so much the man but the hope that claiming him for all Americans exculpates us from the sins of inhumanity that is racial marginalization.
Lebron’s speech invokes a tension that exists between how different groups apprehend the same man and myth: Martin Luther King Jr. For Lebron and those who share his experience, that myth represents an unfinished work, a momentous moment in a nevertheless persistent history of oppression. He cites a study that showed identical resumes were treated differently when they bore “exotic” names. He points to Ferguson, Missouri, “a city of 21,135 people, predominantly black, that served 32,975 arrest warrants for nonviolent offenses in 2013,” generating over $2.5 million in revenue from fines and court fees to make it the second largest source of income for the city.
In a nation where blacks possess only on average a dime of wealth for every dollar of white wealth, how is this reclamation of scarce resources anything but the continuation of oppression by other means, the reduction of blacks to instruments of economic necessity and exploitation?
(I’m not sure what Lebron’s source is for the disparity, but similar numbers can be seen in this 2014 Pew study of Federal Reserve data.)
When others take up King as an exemplar of inspiration and peace but deny the persistent systemic inequalities affecting millions in the U.S., systems of power that King himself was killed for criticizing, or when others use King-as-myth like a baton against the frustration of Black communities after the unrest of recent years, Lebron would seem to be asking whether some symbolic wrong has taken place.
To whom does the myth belong, and how is it to be properly wielded? The battle for legitimacy is as much a part of what King preached as were his calls for solidarity. When one side denies the very legitimacy of the other, then the tension of meaning–what King-as-myth signifies–cannot resolve. Conflict ensues.
The problem of difference becomes clear: How do we reconcile the differences, the distinctions between various group experiences, identities and narratives while avoiding the urge to legitimize only one set of them to the exclusion of the others?
When it comes down to it, the ability give or deny legitimation is a question of power.
Published the same day as Lebron’s, Aaron James Wendland’s piece “What Do We Owe Each Other?” investigates the themes of MLK Day through the work of Jewish-Lithuanian philosopher Emmanuel Levinas, whose book Otherwise Than Being–written after his family was killed by the Nazis–delves into ethical concerns of social relations: “a profound meditation on the essence of exclusion,” as Wendland puts it.
In his essay, Wendland explains how nationalism works to inculcate notions of sameness and otherness within groups:
Nationalism is the result of identification and differentiation and it follows from the similarities and differences we see between ourselves and others. As an American, you share the same upbringing with many of your fellow citizens. Your background is different than that of most Britons or Italians. And it is partially by recognizing the traits you share with Americans and then distinguishing them from citizens of other states that you develop your sense of identity.
Here again is this notion of difference. The practice of society, of community, relies on the construction of difference: We are of this group; They are of that group.
But as Wendland points out, such constructions can be wielded to devastating effect:
[W]hile identification and differentiation enables the formation of personal identity, it can also result in hostility when the traits we use to distinguish ourselves from others are totalized and taken as absolute. “Totalization” occurs when members of one group take a feature of another group to be both definitive of that group and all members in it. Generalizations like “Americans are outgoing,” “Brits are reserved” and “Italians are passionate” are often unfairly applied to individual Americans, Britons or Italians. And negative stereotypes such as “Jews are greedy,” “Blacks are dangerous” and “Muslims are terrorists” have a history of leading to unjust aggression against members of those communities. In each of these examples, we reduce others to a simple or single category that distinguishes “them” from “us” in an absolute way. And this reduction often produces an allergic reaction to others; a reaction exemplified by the rush to build fences around Europe to keep Afghan, Iraqi and Syrian refugees out.
It is when the notion of difference becomes totalized or naturalized, that is, seen as intrinsic and absolute, that we see people mistreat others as inhuman. The difference becomes total because there is no longer anything but difference. There can be no reconciliation.
The act of “othering,” of coming to see the other as an object rather than a being with whom one actually shares a fundamental sameness–humanity, with the spiritual potential that implies–enables us to project our fears, hatreds, our own self-loathing and self-consciousness upon them until we don’t even recognize that we’re doing it. Ideology comes to replace conscience; fear replaces discernment.
iii. that we may harbor fewer and ever lesser illusions…
Imprisoned in Birmingham, Alabama, in 1963 after a demonstration, Martin Luther King Jr. was smuggled a newspaper containing a piece written by eight white Alabama clergymen criticizing King’s methods. Writing in the margin of the paper itself, King wrote an open letter in response, perhaps the most well-known of his works besides the “I have a dream” speech he gave just a few months later.
Invoking lines from the Biblical book of Revelation warning the self-sure Laodiceans of their unwitting blindness, King writes:
I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen’s Counciler or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate, who is more devoted to “order” than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says: “I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I cannot agree with your methods of direct action”; who paternalistically believes he can set the timetable for another man’s freedom; who lives by a mythical concept of time and who constantly advises the Negro to wait for a “more convenient season.” Shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will. Lukewarm acceptance is much more bewildering than outright rejection.
This seems to be the same subject matter of Lebron’s speech above. Lauding in word but denying in action bespeaks a way of looking at the other that King found “bewildering” and a state of affairs that Lebron calls “a triumph of acceptable minimums.”
Is this me? Is this you? How do we see the other? What governs our constructions of sameness and difference? And what governs our reaction to difference? Does fear make us perpetuate and reify that difference as something inevitable, natural, total? Do we put forth any effort toward understanding the other, attempting an approach toward their subjectivity, cutting through the layers of distinction until we find they are not so numerous or vast as we supposed, that even with difference there is perhaps still also some measure of sameness?
It would take no act of genius to notice that these three short arguments that I’ve made sidestep a winding, crab-like trail around their central biting questions. Writing as I am from a position of present privilege, not necessarily earned but no less real–and no less fraught for its reality–my intention is to nurture a still small hope that with effort we may yet learn to harbor fewer and ever lesser illusions than we did yesterday. The act of the question, though it waddle awkwardly across the sand, could perhaps be an adequate first step to change.