Martin Luther King was one of the greatest orators of any generation. Armed with that ability, and combined with an uncompromising belief in his values, he created a powerful movement that defied extraordinary odds. But just decades later racism remains a powerful force in the US, and throughout the world. We celebrate the man. We quote him often. But why have we not heeded his words?
Or maybe we have not understood them.
I don’t see a lot of people using light to drive out the darkness. I absolutely see the hatred of sexist and racist ideas. But that just feels like we are trying to use hate to drive out hate. My Facebook feed is littered with people of different ideas and values attacking one another on the subject of the day. And how often have these discussions resulted in someone changing their minds. I can’t think of a single example.
So what’s the best case scenario? That you win the argument and your opponent shuts up and goes into hiding? Well, maybe they will. And maybe that doesn’t seem so bad to you right now, compared to the alternative. But just because you can’t see them does NOT mean they are gone.
One of my newest beliefs is that progress is an illusion unless it includes everybody. Because there is this effect that I call the ‘diminishing population of progressive thinkers’.
Let me try to illustrate the concept below. Consider the following progressive chain of beliefs (along with the date it was realized in Canada – source here):
- Belief that homosexuality should be legalized (1969)
- Belief that homosexuals should be able to immigrate to Canada (1978)
- Belief that homosexuals should be able to serve openly in the military (1992)
- Belief that “sexual orientation” should be added to the Canadian Human Rights Act (1996)
- Belief that same sex couples should have the right to marry (July 20, 2005)
It is my theory that the people who support a certain belief will always be a subset of the previous level. Anyone who supports belief #5, also supports belief 1,2, 3, and 4. But someone who supports belief #1 does not necessarily support 2,3, 4, and 5. The result is that at any point in time the most progressive beliefs hold the fewest supporters. This is what I call the diminishing population of progressive thinkers.
When a society is going through a fundamental change in values, eventually the most progressive thinking can create a backlash from the most entrenched traditionalists. It happens when the gap between the traditionalist and the progressive becomes too wide. It is at this point that the traditionalist will dig in their heels and, because they have much greater numbers, force a halt or reversal in progress.
What really stood out for me in reviewing the timeline above is how long the process took, as well as the amount of resistance encountered. When we are fighting for change we need to primarily focus on getting a vast majority of the population on board with the base values of our movement before we can legitimately move forward in an irreversible way.
Progress moves like pulling a 300 pound rock up a hill with a bungee cord. If you sprint up the hill as fast as you can you are going to get suddenly, and dramatically, pulled right back to where you started, or even worse. As an evolving society we need to find that moment of tension where the static friction is broken and that rock begins to move.
We must keep our hands on the pulse of our country and maintain an alert awareness of where we stand. We need to understand the roots of those old ideas that won’t let go so we can meet them where they are, without the demands of what they should be. Then you can move that damned rock up the hill so it never goes back.
So does this resurgence of racism in the west mean that Martin Luther King has failed in his mission? Or was he simply too far ahead of his time? In the name of efficient and effective progress we need to close that gap with the people who disagree with our values. Because if we isolate ourselves with the people who only agree with us, we end up with a society that can never evolve. Like it or not, where-ever we are going, we are going there together.