Civility Linkblogging: City Government and Bangladesh

Linkblogging

By Anita Pratanti, via flickr

This post is part of our ongoing effort to highlight discourse about civility around the web. Our articles for civility linkblogging come from a wide cross-section of blogs and newspapers, magazines and other websites, from the United States and abroad.

This week, we delve into civic politics from Tallahasse, Florida, to Buffalo, New York, to Columbia, South Carolina, noting especially a thoughtful piece by Columbia mayor Steve Benjamin, who begins with the story of an old man’s words to his grandson:

“There is a battle raging inside of me, a terrible fight between two wolves.

“One is evil. He is anger, envy, sorrow, regret, greed, arrogance, self-pity, guilt, resentment, inferiority, lies, false pride, superiority and ego.

“The other is good,” he continued. “He is joy, peace, love, hope, serenity, humility, kindness, benevolence, empathy, generosity, truth, compassion and faith.”

“There is a battle raging inside of me. It rages inside of everyone in our village, inside every person since time began, and it rages inside of you.”

Frightened, the boy asked, “But, Grandfather, which wolf will win?”

The old man reached out with weathered arms embracing his grandson to comfort him and, holding him close, answered: “Whichever one you feed, child. Whichever one you feed.”

If you have an article that you think would be right for future civility linkblogging posts, please do not hesitate to email it to us at editor@instituteforcivility.org. Include the title, url, and a short summary, and we will gladly review it for publication.

Now, onto the links:

From The Left: There Is A Place For Civility In Politics
Posted by GameND at SayAnythingBlog.com, March 20, 2014

When I speak of civility, I don’t mean that politics should not be a full contact activity. I really believe that there is a time and a place for aggressive and even negative campaigning. When you put your name on a ballot, you open your life up to public scrutiny.

However, there is a fine line between attacking a candidate’s position or their qualifications and attacking the candidate as a person and/or attacking their family.

Benjamin: Let Us Choose Civility
Posted by Steve Benjamin at TheState.com, March 25, 2014

It’s not about Bull Street or baseball or even Columbia. It’s bigger than that. It’s the name calling and wild accusations, the victory-at-all-costs attitude on display across our nation from school boards to state legislatures, city councils to Congress. It’s a bitter pill for anyone to swallow, and it’s making all of us petty and mean.

The answer is civility — rules not of courtesy or etiquette but rather of citizenship: making the commitment to respect each other as citizens if not as individuals and putting the common good before our personal ambitions. It’s about recognizing that whether we like it or not, we’re all in this together, and building our collective future is more important than winning an argument.

Collapse of Civility in Bangladeshi Politics
Posted by Quamrul Haider at The Daily Star, March 27, 2014

Even in the rough-and-tumble world of political rivalry, there are limits to how uncivil politicians should be. Unfortunately, Bangladeshi politicians have crossed all boundaries of decency. Incivility reached its lowest ebb when threat of physical harm was issued by an influential lawmaker of the ruling party.

Politics is an art of compromise, not a show of incivility. And civility in politics is the art of tolerating dissent and reconciling differences amicably. Civility requires a willingness to consider respectfully the views of others and try to make compromise. However, compromise does not necessarily imply total agreement. It means putting personal animosity aside, placing the country ahead of the party and discussing the real issues with an open mind.

Conduct City Business with Order and Civility
Posted by Mike Sittig at Tallahassee.com, March 27, 2014

For too long, the discussion of important public issues has often resembled a free-for-all hosted by World Wrestling Entertainment instead of a dialogue to benefit the taxpayers of our communities.

It’s time someone took a positive step forward to improve our discourse, prevent the hijacking of meetings to promote personal vendettas and ensure that our leaders are tackling the public business in front of them.

Conference Explores Civility and Compromise
Posted by Deidre Williams at The Buffalo News, March 28, 2014

In a serious tone, [Niagara Falls Mayor Paul A. Dyster] said the key to compromise is not to abandon moral principles and to recognize you are not always going to convince everyone you are right, he said, adding that everyone should separate people’s political views and ideology and “see the person.”

Common Council President Darius G. Pridgen said the two must go hand in hand.

“If we have compromise without civility, we make decisions that do not include others,” he said. “And that’s how you end up with classism and racism.”

Civility Linkblogging: The (Mostly) Canada Edition

Linkblogging

By Anita Pratanti, via flickr

This post is part of an ongoing series that highlights discourse about civility online. We glean the articles for civility linkblogging from a broad cross-section of blogs, newspapers, and magazines, from the United States and abroad.

This week, our linkblogging segment focuses primarily on Canada: on Rob Ford’s ongoing stewardship of Toronto; on increased polarization in the national legislature; on the poor influence — the polarizing influence — of political culture imported from the United States; and on one grade six class that has had just about enough of name-calling, and will no longer visit Alberta’s provincial legislature meetings.

If you have an article that you think would be right for future civility linkblogging posts, please do not hesitate to email it to us at editor@instituteforcivility.org. Include the title, url, and a short summary, and we will gladly review it for publication.

Now — the list:

Polly: A Time When Political Civility Was Rule, Not Exception
Posted at The Eastern Arizona Courier, March 12, 2014

Polly believed that what she did as a legislator was important, but she never considered herself important. Her important work is not forgotten. In fact, an annual Polly Rosenbaum Dinner is being held every year in Clifton to honor her dedication on behalf of Greenlee County. The 6th annual event honoring her is Thursday, March 20, at Tyler’s Taste of Texas in Clifton.

It is being sponsored by the Greenlee Democrats – and while Polly was a lifelong Democrat – anybody is welcome to the dinner, regardless of political affiliation. Polly would have liked it that way.

A Lesson in Online Civility
Posted at The Calgary Herald, March 12, 2014

Coun. Sean Chu may be a newcomer to city hall, but he’s getting a quick education on the etiquette of social media.

Tuesday, Chu questioned the accuracy of city staff’s cycling counts along the new 7th Street S.W. bike lane. Fair enough, but the Ward 4 politician went further, appearing to attack city staff who are unable to respond to such criticism publicly. …

He has issued an apology, but still faces the prospect of being censured under council’s ethical conduct policy.

Tory MP On Cusp of Retirement Laments Decline of Commons Civility
Posted by Jennifer Ditchburn at The Ottowa Star, March 14, 2014

Hawn doesn’t lay the blame for the lack of civility on any particular party, or expect any particular leader to produce a solution.

“I think it does come down to individuals thinking about what they’re doing and saying every day and just the simple things. People fire a shot, a nasty shot, instead of just saying, ‘Well you know what, maybe they’ve got some good ideas’,” said Hawn.

“I’ve always said, the opposition aren’t stupid people, we’re all here for the same reason, they all came to Ottawa to make a positive difference and we all want to get essentially to the same destination … we argue about the road we’re on to get there.”

Political Trash-Talking is Nothing New, but It’s Getting Worse
Posted by Wendy Gillis at TheStar.com, March 15, 2014

Are our democratic institutions imploding, or is heated debate just an inevitable part of the system, serving as evidence of a healthy diversity of representation?

Researchers interviewed by the Star agree there has a recent downward spiral in the conduct of our politicians and civility in office, both on a local scale and in other levels of government.

Gary Levy, a political scientist at Carleton University, says it’s hard to pinpoint what prompted it — a spike in tumultuous minority governments, maybe the polarizing influence of the U.S. — but agrees politicians’ behaviour has seen a change for the worse.

“I just get the feeling that there’s no longer the concept of fair is fair, and do unto others — golden rule type of thing. It’s rather ‘the end justifies the means,’ and ‘we’ll do anything to stay in power.’”

Legislature Could Use Some Civility
Posted at The Lethbridge Herald, March 19, 2014

Premier Alison Redford and Opposition leader Danielle Smith have sparred on numerous occasions and the battle between the Progressive Conservatives and the Wildrose Alliance is primed to heat up even further.

Those disagreements have been widely publicized, and often fuelled by combatants through social media, as the race to form this province’s next government has caused a never-ending cycle of mudslinging.

For members of the media, and citizens deeply involved in politics, much of this comes as no surprise. However, the issue received much more attention last week when a Grade 6 class in Innisfail informed the Legislature students would no longer attend question period.

Repeated displays of rudeness, name calling and offensive language were cited as just some of the reasons the class felt the need to speak out, as the childish behaviour witnessed was simply too much for the youngsters to tolerate.

Beyond Convicted Civility

John Backman is a regular contributor to Huffington Post Religion and an associate of an Episcopal monastery, who has written extensively on topics in Christian spirituality, including contemplative practice and its ability to help us dialogue across divides. He authored Why Can’t We Talk? Christian Wisdom on Dialogue as a Habit of the Heart (SkyLight Paths Publishing, 2012), and his articles have appeared in numerous faith-based publications, progressive and conservative. John currently serves on the board of directors for the National Coalition for Dialogue & Deliberation.

Is convicted civility the best we can do?

Even asking the question seems petulant — like scolding a friend who traded in her gas guzzler for a Prius. After all, she could have bought an electric car, right? Many of us have no patience for such quibbling over degrees of self-improvement, and with good reason.

Convicted civility is our Prius. Its champions include two celebrated intellects in U.S. seminaries: Lutheran scholar Martin Marty and evangelical thinker Richard Mouw. Indeed, Marty’s quote in the 1990s both described the landscape for convicted civility and hinted at its definition: “People who have strong convictions these days aren’t very civil, and people who are civil often don’t have very strong convictions. What we need is ‘convicted civility.’”

On one side, convicted civility asks those of us with strong convictions to honor all others, seek their well-being, and hear their deepest convictions, particularly when we disagree. On the other side, convicted civility calls on “nice people,” those who “go along to get along,” to give voice to what they hold dear. In this way, any dialogue reaps the benefit of their voices when their voices have not been heard before.

Clearly, convicted civility addresses a crying need in our public square. Just as important, it answers the criticism of civility as too polite to correct injustice, or not adversarial enough to contribute the conflicting ideas that lead to better decisions. That’s where the convictions come in: they are not silenced or glossed over, but rather injected — sometimes boldly — into the general conversation, allowing them to make their full impact without excessive rancor or rudeness.

So convicted civility is the answer then, right? Not entirely. Even while touting it, we can make a case for moving beyond it — for jumping from the Prius to the electric car, if you will. The reason is simple: The limitation of convicted civility is that it leaves us in our convictions.

Yes, convictions can be good in themselves. They come to us from a lifetime’s worth of difficult lessons, intellectual challenge, and painstaking observation. In many cases, those hard-won convictions are precisely the most valuable thing we have to contribute to the betterment of the world. By ignoring them entirely, we hold back something essential to civil dialogue. In the process, we limit the power of dialogue to do what it does so well: bridge divides, build relationships, help us grow in wisdom, forge solutions to difficult issues.

We also limit the power of dialogue when we hold our convictions with unshakable certainty.

Here’s why. Each of us, in the grand scheme of things, can know next to nothing with any certainty whatever. What we “knew” about, for instance, the nutritional value of eggs is not what we know today. Two centuries ago, many religionists “knew” all about the blessings of slavery; no conscientious believer ascribes to that “knowledge” today.

Herein lies the supreme value of civil dialogue. When I realize how much I don’t know, it shows me that I need what you know. That drives me into dialogue with you to get closer to understanding the reality behind the issue at hand — and to understanding one another.

But when part of me is certain about my convictions, unwilling to relax my grip, I am detracting from my ability to listen openheartedly. Just as important, I am denying myself access to the deeper understanding of my convictions that may come in light of what you are saying. I even limit where the conversation might go, because my convictions may require me to silence you with “I can’t go there.”

A better solution, I think, is to hold our convictions, but hold them lightly — even suspending them for the brief time we’re listening to the other. This enables two things. First, with our convictions temporarily not in the picture, we can devote our whole hearts and our full attention to our dialogue partner. Second, it allows our partner’s convictions to interact with our own. Adding this openhearted exposure to convictions outside ourselves can add depth and nuance to our own convictions.

Many years ago, when I ascribed to a fundamentalist version of Christianity, I happened to drive two hours to a business appointment with a certified astrologer. My faith was clear on the evils of astrology. So when she started talking about her practice, I had a choice: I could leave the filter of my convictions in place, searching for holes in her argument, or I could lay the filter aside.

By choosing the second course, I learned so much more than I would have otherwise. She told me about the vast gulf between serious astrology and the tabloid version, the practical aims and goals of the profession, and other things that, together, painted a portrait of an alternative worldview that reasonable people could hold.

Did I throw my convictions to the four winds? No. Did laying them aside temporarily add nuance to my beliefs? Oh yes: as a result, the conversation not only dispelled my fear of astrology, but more broadly prepared me to approach other belief systems — and embrace their practitioners — with curiosity and welcome. For the development of my faith at that time, this was a watershed.

Convicted civility holds so much potential for improving the plight of our public square. It does not have to be the last word, however. Holding our convictions lightly, recognizing how much we don’t know, can open our hearts to a deeper practice of civility: the kind that welcomes all with open arms.

Civility and Cybercivility in Schools: Two Updates

In December of 2013, Joshua Starr, superintendent of schools for Montgomery County, Maryland, faced a distinctly uncivil snow-day situation online. According to Washington D.C.’s NBC 4, as the weather worsened and as he decided whether or not to cancel school he began receiving tweets from students that ranged from snarky to “offensive and disturbing.”

According to NBC, Starr said that some of these tweets were clever, funny, and respectful, pleading for me to cancel school so they could sleep in or have more time to do their homework. But not all. They also included rampant use of racial epithets and curse words, and threats to himself and to his family.

In response, Starr wrote a letter to parents calling for a renewed conversation about how we can support our children in using technology in a way that is healthy, productive, and positive. We need, he said, to talk about “cybercivility”: how we can help our children grow into responsible and caring adults who interact with one another in a civil, respectful way. And he directed his staff to develop some materials and methods to help schools and families navigate these conversations.

In 2014, it seems, Joshua Starr has leveraged his experience to take matters one step further in a constructive direction. In this February 19 interview on D.C.’s Fox 5 news, he speaks with reporters about the Montgomery County Public Schools’ Cybercivility Task Force — a new initiative that will — according to mymcmedia.comdevelop strategies to raise awareness of the need for cybercivility in how MCPS students and adults communicate online, and guide the creation of tools for schools, parents and community members that encourage conversations about cybercivility.

DC News FOX 5 DC WTTG

The goal, Starr says, is to teach our kids to behave online in the same way we expect them to comport themselves in public… Just like we expect our kids to say please and thank you, and all that, we want them to act the same on Twitter, or Facebook, or wherever else they are socially engaged on the internet.

You can find out more about the Montgomery County Public Schools’ Cybercivility Task Force by clicking here.

* * *

In the meantime, New Hampshire Public Radio has this short interview with Malcolm Smith, professor in the University of New Hampshire’s Department of Education and founder of the Courage to Care Program, a curriculum aimed at encouraging empathy and civility among middle school students. Like Joshua Starr, he talks about the importance of training students in civility as a bulwark against bullying. And as part of teacher training, he has been instructing nascent educators in techniques that do just that.

Alec Baldwin, “Good-Bye, Public Life,” and Civility

From the EditorsOrdinarily, this is not a venue where — we hope — one expects to find celebrity news. But from the perspective of civility, Alec Baldwin’s new piece in New York Magazine, “Good-Bye, Public Life,” is worthy of special consideration. In it, Baldwin offers a firsthand account of the very real decline in civility when it comes to how we interact with public figures — with actors, members of the media, and politicians. While at the same time, he demonstrates the way in which incivility is virulent, taking root even — or perhaps especially — in the author himself.

Baldwin is most insightful when it comes to the adversarial stew that has him, in his words, done with it — with being a public figure beyond the work you are actually paid for. Now, he says, everyone has a camera in their pocket. It is a culture of predatory photographers and gossip sites where folks get paid to taunt you and catch you doing embarrassing things. It is a culture where anything good you do is tossed in a pit, and you are measured by who you are on your worst day.

What’s the Boy Scout code? Trustworthy. Loyal. Helpful. Friendly. Courteous. Kind. Obedient. Cheerful. Thrifty. Brave. Clean. Reverent. I might be all of those things, at certain moments. But people suspect that whatever good you do, you are faking. You’re that guy. You’re that guy that says this. There is a core of outlets that are pushing these stories out.

But though Baldwin eloquently diagnoses the problem, he cannot diagnose himself. And by turns, he propagates many of the uncivil discourses he decries, as well as some of those uncivil behaviors for which he, in his own words, has been vilified.

Baldwin is quick to publicize the shortcomings of others. Harvey Levin, founder of TMZ.com, has little regard for the truth. Rachel Maddow is a phony who doesn’t have the same passion for the truth off-camera that she seems to have on the air. Shia LeBeouf is sulky, resentful, and — in rehearsals for the play Orphansattacked me in front of everyone. And the liberal and conservative media are now precisely equivalent, at least insofar as they are both able to produce only tripe.

He is careless with his words. In the same breath that he laments having been labeled a homophobic bigot, he calls one person he met through an LGBT advocacy group in Hawaii an F-to-M tranny. This despite the fact that the term is widely regarded as offensive — equivalent to racial slurs used against people of color (for more consideration of the t word, see this piece in The Advocate, published just days before Baldwin’s).

And he is quick to believe that he is being wrongly persecuted. For him, journalists Andrew Sullivan and Anderson Cooper are the Gay Department of Justice, harrying him with the help of GLAAD and TMZ’s Harvey Levin for the mere crime of having made a series of actual anti-gay slurs, one of which may, according to Baldwin, have sounded like “faggot”—but wasn’t.

The issue with Baldwin’s essay is that even as it is implicitly a plea for civility, framed as an indictment of the increasingly toxic popular culture that is driving basically good guys like him away, it misses the civility mark itself. Baldwin is good at claiming and caring for his own identity, needs and beliefs. He identifies some serious issues, at least as they pertain to him. But he cannot quite manage to do so without degrading someone else’s in the process.

Alec Baldwin is right as far as it goes: the heart, the arteries of the country are now clogged with hate. The fuel of American political life is hatred. And the media, liberal and conservative, often masquerades as Hate Incorporated. But “Good-Bye, Public Life” does little to ameliorate the problem. And in parts, it does quite a lot to aggravate it.

Civility Linkblogging: Small Towns, LDS, and the Internet

Linkblogging

By Anita Pratanti, via flickr

This post is part of an ongoing series that highlights discourse about civility from around the Web. We glean the links in this segment from as broad a cross-section as we can manage of blogs, newspapers, magazines, and other online venues, from the United States and around the world.

This week’s linkblogging segment is anchored by two articles about small towns — one extolling the value of civility for economic development, and the other lamenting its absence, suggesting that municipal politics can be seen as a microcosm of the nation. Willie Weatherford, outgoing mayor of Manteca, California, tells his local newspaper that an increase in civil dialogue has been the greatest accomplishment of his tenure in office. While Telly Halkias, writing in Portland, Maine, regrets the ease with which New Englanders become part of the problem.

If you have an article that you think would be right for future civility linkblogging posts, please do not hesitate to email it to us at editor@instituteforcivility.org. Include the title, url, and a short summary, and we will gladly review it for publication.

Now on to the list:

Mayor: Civility Brought Good Things
Posted by Dennis Wyatt at The Manteca Bulletin, January 2, 2014

Willie Weatherford is in his final year as mayor. … Looking back, he sees the establishment of civility and business-like council meetings as elected leaders’ biggest achievement over the past 11 years.

“With have learned to disagree and still get along,” Weatherford said. “Council meetings are designed to take care of the city’s business and we are doing that.”

Because there is decorum and a business-like approach to city matters at the council level Weatherford believes the city has been able to do what it has done while many other communities struggled.

Keep On Tweeting, There’s No Techno-Fix For Incivility Or Injustice
Posted by Even Selinger at Forbes, January 2, 2014

As a philosophy professor who regularly assigns students complex texts that take patience to read and that require consideration of provocative views (sometimes quite unlike their own!), you might think I’d endorse this recipe for civility: mix time with depth and considered argumentation and out comes charitable interpretations and proportionate proposals. But while thoughtful reading most certainty can lead to thoughtful behavior, that’s not the end of the story. By themselves, books aren’t a magic technology that can transform impatient character and tame the passions through regular consumption. Like the mistaken conviction that “to know the good is to do the good,” equating literary fiber with a moral diet is a rationalist fantasy.

Political Civility: Not Even in Small Towns
Posted by Telly Halkias in The Portland Daily Sun, January 2, 2014

Ten years later and hopefully a sliver wiser, I’m disappointed that as a group we didn’t keep our cool. I’d even go so far as feeling embarrassed when looking back at some of the crowd behavior that night.

This wasn’t an earth-shattering coast-to-coast forum with partisan tempers raging. Yet one can appreciate today’s large-scale social rancor by seeing how easily a few dozen folks in rural New England turned into a rabble.

First Amendment: Let’s Try That Free Speech Option Called Civility in 2014 in Public Life
Posted by Gene Policinski at GazetteXtra on January 2, 2014

Our nation’s Founders were no strangers to rude, callous and raucous debate in public life and to vicious commentary, even by today’s “anything goes” online standards. Sex scandals, infidelity, personal weaknesses and even religious differences were exposed, debated and mocked in public life and in the newspapers of the day with personal glee and political purpose.

The self-governing system eventually created for the United States depends on vigorous public involvement and debate, but it also depends on a measure of what we call today “civility” to function. Not civility in the sense of polite nods and watered-down language—that’s not “free speech” in any sense—but rather a thinking response and respect for robust debate over ideas and policies.

Church Instructs Leaders on Same-Sex Marriage
Posted at The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints Newsroom, January 10, 2014

While these matters will continue to evolve, we affirm that those who avail themselves of laws or court rulings authorizing same-sex marriage should not be treated disrespectfully. The gospel of Jesus Christ teaches us to love and treat all people with kindness and civility—even when we disagree.

Finding Common Ground on NSA Surveillance

Friday, January 24, according to The Hill newspaper, the Republican National Committee formally renounced the “dragnet” surveillance program at the National Security Agency (NSA), and overwhelmingly approved a measure calling for lawmakers to end the program and create a special committee to investigate domestic surveillance efforts.

Finding Common Ground on NSA Surveillance

The NSA initiative in question — actually an array of programs designed to collect information about Internet users, including American citizens — was first revealed in May of 2013 in a series of articles by Glenn Greenwald in The Guardian and Barton Gellman in The Washington Post, based on information provided by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden.

The programs uncovered include the now well-known PRISM, in which the NSA worked with Internet content providers including Yahoo, Google, Apple, and Microsoft to collect material including search history, the content of emails, file transfers and live chats. They include efforts by the NSA to undermine Secure Socket Layer (SSL) encryption, the technology which, according to Reuters, protects millions of websites beginning in “Https”, including banks and other financial institutions. And they include a secret $10 million contract with RSA, one of the most influential firms in the computer security industry, to create a backdoor in their ubiquitous encryption products.

Finding Common Ground on NSA Surveillance

A leaked slide detailing the companies participating in the NSA’s PRISM program.

Previously, the most vocal opponents of the NSA surveillance programs have been organizations perceived to be at the liberal end of American politics, including the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) and the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU). Both organizations have supported legal challenges against the NSA.

Among conservatives, the most vocal opponent has previously been the libertarian-leaning Senator Rand Paul (Ky.).

But the Republican National Committee’s decision to condemn these programs suggests that they are an issue that may transcend political polarization in the United States. It suggests that this is one area where concerns about the intrusiveness of big government, and concerns about the preservation of civil liberties in the face of post-9/11 terrorism countermeasures, have created common cause across ideological lines.

As Senator Paul has written: these programs represent an astounding assault on the Constitution — a violation of the Bill of Rights and especially the Fourth Amendment. And the ACLU and the EFF agree.

The defense of NSA surveillance does not fall neatly along party lines, either. Representative Peter King, Republican from New York, has disagreed publicly with the Republican National Committee’s decision, telling Politico:

Republicans are supposed to be the party of national defense. It would be one thing if people wanted to pass legislation [posing] questions. But to talk about ‘spying’ and unconstitutionality … it’s basically repudiating the policies of the Republican Party over the last 12 years, policies that kept us safe.

While Senator Dianne Feinstein, Democrat from California and chair of the Senate Intelligence Committee, has said that the constitutionality of NSA surveillance programs is up to the courts. But that the collection of phone numbers, which can be run when a terrorist target in another country calls an American number, is something in my view which protects this country.

The fact that this is not a party-line debate is encouraging for the cause of civility. It demonstrates that activists and politicians on both sides of the aisle can put aside their differences to pursue those goals on which they can agree. But not only that. It demonstrates, too, that political parties are not monolithic — that there is room in the United States for political allies to disagree, yet still remain allies at the end of the day.

Potentially, the issue of NSA surveillance is a model for trans-partisan political debate. And perhaps it is one that might be fruitfully applied to other issues, too.

Considering Martin Luther King Jr.’s ‘Beyond Vietnam’

The Martin Luther King Jr. who we remember as a nation — the one for whom we have named a national holiday — is the Martin Luther King Jr. who articulated a dream. He is not the man who delivered the “I Have a Dream” speech as a whole — not the man who insisted that now is the time to lift our nation from the quicksands of racial injustice to the solid rock of brotherhood, nor the man who declared that he would not be satisfied until justice rolls down like waters, and righteousness like a mighty stream.

The Martin Luther King Jr. we remember is the one who, in a misty voice, devoted two minutes of a twenty minute oratory to considering a future in which one day right there in Alabama little black boys and black girls will be able to join hands with little white boys and white girls as sisters and brothers.

He is the Martin Luther King Jr. of our collective imagination, for whom a well-wrought wish and a positive attitude is enough to make a change.

Considering Martin Luther King Jr.'s 'Beyond Vietnam'

The Martin Luther King Jr. who we as a nation have decided to set aside is the one who, in 1967 at Riverside Church in New York, delivered “Beyond Vietnam: A Time to Break Silence.” He is the man who told us in that speech about feeling the hypocrisy of preaching non-violence to young African Americans, when they could see very well that our own nation uses massive doses of violence to solve its problems. He is the man who pointed out that American soldiers are disproportionately poor and brown — that Vietnam had the effect of taking

young black men who had been crippled by our society and sending them eight thousand miles away to guarantee liberties in Southeast Asia which they had not found in Southwest Georgia and East Harlem.

In part, we do not commemorate the aspects of Dr. King’s legacy that are wrapped up in “Beyond Vietnam” because a chorus of voices at the time condemned the speech as too radical, as communist, and as contrary to the interests of a Civil Rights Movement that was finally gaining traction on issues of social justice at home, and that stood only to lose by associating its cause with the most divisive foreign policy questions of the day.

And in part, those are not the aspects of King’s legacy we commemorate because they are too deeply based in his theology. His message stems from Christian ministry, he tells us, and the relationship between ministry and the making of peace is so obvious that I sometimes marvel at those who ask me why I’m speaking against the war.

What then can I say to the Vietcong or to Castro or to Mao as a faithful minister of this One? Can I threaten them with death or must I not share with them my life?

And yet, for those of us who are interested in the question of civility, “Beyond Vietnam” is the speech by Martin Luther King Jr. that we should be thinking about, perhaps most of all. Because even as he spoke with conviction against the war in Vietnam – even as he waded into fraught political waters, equipped not with a conciliatory attitude but with the vehemence of the fierce urgency of now – Dr. King’s methodology was civility.

Dr. King’s articulation of how we achieve peace is the Institute’s articulation of what civility looks like: claiming and caring for one’s identity, needs and beliefs without degrading someone else’s in the process. He asks us to understand those people whom we label enemies, and to consider them not as soldiers, but simply as people who have been living under the curse of war for almost three continuous decades now. He asks us to ask ourselves: how might they see us?

The central argument of “Beyond Vietnam,” in fact, amounts to an extended definition of civility. He tells his audience:

Here is the true meaning and value of compassion and nonviolence, when it helps us to see the enemy’s point of view, to hear his questions, to know his assessment of ourselves. For from his view we may indeed see the basic weaknesses of our own condition, and if we are mature, we may learn and grow and profit from the wisdom of the brothers who are called the opposition.

Or in the words of the Institute: here is how we start dialogue about differences, listening past one’s preconceptions, and teaching others to do the same. Here is how we start negotiating interpersonal power such that everyone’s voice is heard, and nobody’s is ignored.

“Beyond Vietnam” will perhaps never achieve the same status in the American imagination as “I Have a Dream.” And we will, perhaps, never commemorate Martin Luther King Jr. quite so enthusiastically for his incisive social critique as we do for that one moment of his transcendent, unifying vision. But as we celebrate his holiday today, we would do well to keep “Beyond Vietnam” in mind. Because after all, what is civility worth if, when we are at our most vehement and our most political, it is not the signpost that keeps us on track?