What Martin Luther King Got Wrong

Janet at Adventures in Ethics and Science writes about gender equality in the academia. More precisely, she comments on an exchange between two bloggers, which seems to be less about the issue at hand and more about Chad complaining that Zuska tells him things he doesn’t like hearing and Zuska complaining that Chad is violating her inalienable right to scream.

Generally, there’s an argument that political activists, especially civil rightists, should not engage in activities that alienate moderates. Martin Luther King rebutted it in his Letter From Birmingham Jail:

You may well ask: “Why direct action? Why sit-ins, marches and so forth? Isn’t negotiation a better path?” You are quite right in calling, for negotiation. Indeed, this is the very purpose of direct action. Nonviolent direct action seeks to create such a crisis and foster such a tension that a community which has constantly refused to negotiate is forced to confront the issue. It seeks so to dramatize the issue that it can no longer be ignored.

On that particular issue, he was right: direct action worked. This was largely due to the fact that plenty of white Americans knew on some level that segregation was bad but still chose to ignore it or approach the problem sluggishly. White Northerners didn’t have to endure continual protests, which would make them dismiss the civil rightists as whiners. The legal issues had already been solved by the Supreme Court, making the problem one of enforcing the law.

However, in other movements it’s not the case. The gay rights movement’s greatest successes have come from indirect action; direct action has only caused moderates to resent it. Anti-choice protesters have been using direct action for decades in the US, to no avail.

Direct action works only with people who on some level agree with you, then (incidentally, the Religious Right’s greatest success, Alito, came after it bitched to fellow traveler George W. Bush about Miers). In other times, civil discourse is all there is; it indicates privilege, in a way, but you have to suck it up for the same reason the suffragettes couldn’t hope to vote themselves the right to vote.

Except in this case. Universities know that they have a problem with hiring enough women and minorities, and are working hard to create a perception that they’re doing something about it. As with segregation, the problem isn’t that nobody realizes there’s inequality, but that nobody realizes that it’s time for action. And as with segregation, the sort of rhetoric Chad calls uncivil can be powerful.

It’s always easier to guilt your own wavering allies into supporting your cause than to guilt undecideds. The reason people talk about liberal guilt is that it’s relatively easy for a radical liberal to guilt moderate liberals into an equal rights cause, just like it’s relatively easy for a fundamentalist to guilt a conservative into going to church. In a society where religion isn’t viewed as a farce, religious guilt is seen as normal, whereas equal-rights guilt is seen as foreign.

Of course, focusing on how civil someone is without concern for content is never justified, regardless of concerns of political effectiveness. What Zuska originally said was fairly shrill, but Chad could have defused it in five seconds if instead of whining about civility he’d said, “Listen, I do XYZ, and I still think the main problem of women in science begins in high school or even earlier, when women are dissuaded from doing so-called boyish things.”

Still, it’s worth pointing out that changing the subject to political effectiveness doesn’t work here, precisely because the prevalent attitude is, “Discrimination is horrible; thank the FSM that our department doesn’t engage in it,” rather than, “Women should be vacuuming in high heels and driving their children around to soccer practice, not doing scientific experiments.”

Martin Luther King may have gotten the general principle wrong, but both then and now he got it right.

2 Responses to What Martin Luther King Got Wrong

  1. Rob Knop says:

    For the record — Chad never whined about civility. Indeed, to my knowledge, he has not responded to Zuska’s attacks at all.

    Among other people, that was *me* whining about civility.


  2. Alon Levy says:

    Ah, okay… well, my point still stands. The natural reaction of a moderate, regardless of gender, to “You’re a sexist pig,” tends to be “You and your radicalism can go to hell.” But a liberal, who doesn’t want to be a sexist or a racist, will rarely say anything of that sort. On an issue on which the powers that be are basically liberal, only too moderate to do much, radical liberals can be very effective.

    Incidentally, non-liberal radicals are never effective – think of Malcolm X – but Zuska’s attack on Chad has a sufficiently liberal kernel that my knee-jerk reaction to her is “Okay, I agree, in a way,” rather than “Fuck you.”

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