Civility and Privileged Distress

Civility and Privileged DistressKnow thyself, reads the ancient Greek aphorism. And in light of our recent post about the Supreme Court’s ruling on marriage equality, that aphorism seems particularly relevant. Part of civility – undoubtedly – is about listening to and taking seriously the positions of people with whom we disagree. If the purpose of a discussion is to solve problems rather than score points, we all win. But part of civility, too, is about self-examination. It’s about understanding our motivations and our position in society. If we don’t know where we are coming from and why it is we want what we want, even the most civil negotiation will be of limited use.

So with that in mind, I’d like to point you all to a 2012 blog post by Doug Muder of The Weekly Sift. The post is a little old, and it definitely comes from one particular position along the ideological spectrum of American politics. But it introduces an important concept, privileged distress, that is key for folks who are interested in civility to understand.

To explain privileged distress, Muder points us at the film Pleasantville. In the film, he writes, George Parker is a TV father and the patriarch of a perfect fifties family. He returns from work at night to a smiling wife, adorable children, and dinner on the table. And when one day that doesn’t happen, he is confused, and sad, and feels that the universe has gone awry. Muder writes:

I’m not bringing this up just to discuss old movies. As the culture evolves, people who benefited from the old ways invariably see themselves as victims of change. The world used to fit them like a glove, but it no longer does. Increasingly, they find themselves in unfamiliar situations that feel unfair or even unsafe. Their concerns used to take center stage, but now they must compete with the formerly invisible concerns of others.

This is the essence of privileged distress. George Parker is the biggest player in his patriarchal universe. Whether he knows it or not, he benefits from immense privilege. And on the day that patriarchy – at least as he understands it – goes away, he feels that loss acutely. The world changes around him. His position relative to his family changes. And it’s a change that is legitimately scary – one about which he is right to be concerned.

The thing is, though, that the reason it’s all so scary is that what has come before the change – the patriarchy – doesn’t read to George Parker as privilege. It just reads as normal, as the thing he’s known his whole life. So when dinner isn’t on the table when he returns home from work, and when he isn’t greeted by his wife and children at the door, he perceives this as injustice. Injustice is being done to George Parker in that he had been at the top of the social food chain, and now he must contend with being merely an equal.

As Doug Muder says, the distress of the George Parkers of the world is real. It’s painful, and we need to listen to it and acknowledge it.

But even as we accept the reality of George’s privileged-white-male distress, we need to hold on to the understanding that the less privileged citizens of Pleasantville are distressed in an entirely different way…. George deserves compassion, but his until-recently-ideal housewife Betty Parker (and the other characters assigned subservient roles) deserves justice. George and Betty’s claims are not equivalent, and if we treat them the same way, we do Betty an injustice.

This is where we return to the idea of self-knowledge as a key component of civility. As we interact with the people around us, we need to understand the power gradients in which we exist. We need to figure out to what degree, when we feel slighted, we are like George Parker who just wants his dinner. And we need to figure out to what degree we are like Betty who has been living in some sense as a servant for most of her adult life.

Both positions are legitimate. In both cases, we have something real for which to negotiate. But both positions don’t necessarily have equal import. And knowing how much ground we have to give as we advocate for our identity needs and beliefs – knowing the point at which our needs start to degrade someone else’s – depends on understanding our own privilege. If we’re already George Parker in a given situation, we may have a great deal more leeway to make concessions than if we’re Betty.

Returning to what I wrote the other week about the Supreme Court’s marriage equality ruling, this is key to the idea of negotiating by listening. I wrote in that post that it’s time for uncivil progressives to take a break from sneering at religious freedom arguments; and that it’s time for uncivil social conservatives to stop dismissing claims from same sex couples that what they want is only what everybody else already has. Self knowledge and an understanding of this concept of privileged distress is a good way to do that. All sides at the negotiating table need to understand where their privilege lies, and how the gradients of social power run.

Confronting those hard truths means asking ourselves whether my religious freedom is more important than your marriage. It means asking ourselves whether your pain at a changing social landscape can be legitimate, and not just a selfish affront to my impending happiness. And it means asking ourselves whether – if we can give up on the idea of our own privilege – our needs and beliefs are really in conflict at all.

There’s no definite answer to any of these things. But this is one means by which we can approach a discussion of the marriage equality ruling that has the potential to yield more than just hurt feelings. Being honest with ourselves is how we can be honest about our needs as we interact with others. And doing that gives us the best chance to come away from a discussion with a sense that we’ve accomplished something worthwhile.

Four Logical Fallacies That Can Undermine Civility

Most of us, if we think of logical fallacies at all, remember them as some obscure concept from a years-old college rhetoric class, or as a list of stern don’ts given to us by a finger-wagging high-school English teacher bent on instilling in us the ‘right’ way to write an essay. Avoid these things, perhaps someone once threatened, or your grades will surely suffer.

But the thing is that logical fallacies are not actually errors in writing. They aren’t like bad grammar or unclear prose. They are errors in thinking – missteps in making an argument that lead us down the wrong path and cause us to draw bad conclusions.

Four Logical Fallacies That Can Undermine Civility

According to one definition, a logical fallacy occurs in an argument when the premises fail to logically support the conclusion. According to another, they are clearly defined error[s] in reasoning used to support or refute an argument, excluding simple unintended mistakes.

So what, you may ask, do logical fallacies have to do with civility? If you take as your premise (as we here at the Institute do) that civility is claiming and caring for one’s identity, needs and beliefs without degrading someone else’s in the process, then civility is in a sense a negotiation. You argue for what you need. I argue for what I need. And we meet somewhere in the middle – where neither of us gets everything we want, perhaps, but everybody gets something and all of us get respect.

To get trapped in a logical fallacy is to undermine that kind of civility. When we make bad arguments about why we want what we want, or when we make bad assumptions about why other members of our community want something different, we run the risk of disrespecting the other people with whom we are in dialog. We run the risk of dismissing others’ needs out of hand – or of overvaluing our own. And in doing so, we go from negotiation to hostage-taking. And all the civility runs out of the room.

So here below are four key logical fallacies to look out for. All of them are pernicious. All of them can undermine civility. And all of them (I say, and hope you don’t think I’m wagging my finger) should best be avoided.

Ad Hominem: This is the fallacy of attacking the author of an argument rather than the positions that they hold. It is probably the most common fallacy in American politics, and it is certainly the most pernicious. In 2008, for example, when a woman at a John McCain campaign event in Minnesota yelled out to the candidate that Obama is an Arab, that was an ad hominem attack. She meant it as an insult to Obama’s person, attacking him rather than the positions he stood for.

Ad hominem attacks undermine civility by making an argument personal. They suggest that because of who a person is (or who we perceive them to be), their positions don’t count and their voices don’t deserve to be heard. And by doing that, ad hominem attacks shut down communication.

Post Hoc, Ergo Propter Hoc: This is a fancy Latin name for a simple fallacy – the misconception that just because one event follows another, that first event is the cause of the second. It is the fallacy that tells us that because I touched a toad then got a wart, the toad must have caused the wart. Or it is the fallacy that tells us that just because there was a drop in crime when the state of Connecticut passed tougher gun laws in 2013, the gun laws caused the drop in crime. It’s possible that it is true, but without data to back it up, it’s simply bad reasoning.

The problem with this fallacy in terms of civility is that it can easily put us in the realm of misleading arguments. Should I support gun control based on a precedent that is no precedent at all? At best, post hoc, ergo propter hoc arguments undermine their proponents’ credibility. At worst, they are a convenient way to lie with data.

Hasty Generalization: This is the fallacy of jumping to conclusions without sufficient evidence. It is a matter of taking one or two instances of something and turning them into a trend. For example, if – just based on Rachel Dolezal – we argued that white people across the United States are trying to blur racial lines, or that they are regularly posing as black to gain some perceived advantage, that would be a hasty generalization fallacy. To see the error one needs only ask, as Jon Stewart asked: if being black is such a sweet deal, why are millions of white people ignoring such a sweet opportunity? The answer is because it is not in fact a trend.

The hasty generalization fallacy undermines civility because it leads us to draw poor conclusions about our own needs. It leads us to see problems where none necessarily exist. And by essentially crying wolf, we undermine our negotiating credibility.

Slippery Slope: This is the fallacy of assuming that just because we have taken one step down a given path, we are inextricably tied to that path. It is the alarmist fallacy that we see almost inevitably when a television talking head tells us that we’re doomed (doomed!). It is the fallacy, for example, that led some progressives to conclude in 2001 that just because the USA PATRIOT Act curtailed some civil liberties under some certain circumstances, the United States had undoubtedly boarded a slow train to fascism. The fact is that there is a wide gulf between even expanding surveillance programs and mid-twentieth century style totalitarian government. And taking just that first step does not necessarily mean we take the last.

Slippery slope arguments undermine civility specifically because of their alarmism. They tend to be born of fear, not due consideration. And like with the ad hominem attack, arguments from fear cut off communication rather than encouraging it.

The examples of logical fallacies here are perhaps a little heavy handed. If you look at the tenor of our public discourse, you’ll find these four – and probably many more – all over the place, and often lurking quietly and undetected. Beware. Logical fallacies can offer the comfortable illusion of a sound argument without any of its substance. And if our twin goals are civic engagement and mutual respect, that is a dangerous illusion indeed.

Extreme Policy Positions: An Experiment

Back in February, we looked at some experimental data from political scientists Michael J. LaCour and Donald P. Green that offered insight into the less rational side of our political beliefs, and into the value of face-to-face conversations with the objects of our prejudices in moderating our positions and changing our minds. Taking the issue of gay marriage as a test case, their study, published in Science, concluded that a rational argument in favor of marriage equality, when combined with direct interaction with a flesh-and-blood gay activist, was the most effective route to changing minds – and to having those changes stick. And they concluded that the rational argument alone was inadequate to the task.

Today, we look at a different face of our less-than-rational political selves: unjustified confidence in our understanding of the issues. In a 2013 study published in Psychological Science, authors Philip M. Fernbach, Todd Rogers, Craig R. Fox, and Steven A. Sloman examine the mentality of extreme political beliefs, and some strategies for how they might be moderated, better opening the door to the possibility of compromise.

Extreme Policy Positions: An Experiment

Fernbach and his colleagues look at what they see as a connection between extremity of position and depth of understanding. They contend that when people are required to confront their relative ignorance on a given political issue, they become more likely to abandon their extreme position, and to embrace more moderate positions instead. People tend to have unjustified confidence in their understanding of policies, they write, and when they are asked – specifically – to explain those policies, the illusion of understanding evaporates and they become more open to other sorts of views.

To test this, the authors conducted three experiments. In the first, they asked participants to rate how well they thought they understood six hot-button political issues – issues like raising the retirement age for Social Security and imposing unilateral sanctions on Iran for their nuclear program. They asked the participants to provide explanations for the policies they claimed to support, and then, after that, re-rated both how well participants thought they understood the policies, and how extreme their positions were.

Across all six political issues, Fernbach and his colleagues found that asking people to explain how policies work decreased their reported understanding of those policies and led them to report more moderate attitudes toward those policies.

In their second experiment, the researchers sought to determine whether it was having to explain the policies specifically that moderated participants’ positions, or whether some other in-depth discussion – like enumerating reasons why they held the policy attitude they did – would be adequate. Here, they had half of their participants explain, and half enumerate their rationale. And what they found was that the latter was inadequate: enumerating reasons did not lead to any change in position extremity at all.

Finally, Ferbach and his colleagues’ third experiment tested whether increased moderation on political issues would lead to less material support for political figures and organizations that advocate for those extreme political positions. Participants were given the opportunity to donate money to organizations that supported their initial extreme position. And after asking participants to explain their position, what the researchers found was that, indeed, they were less likely to show that kind of material support.

From the perspective of civility, what is interesting about this study is less the increase in political moderation than the question of understanding. Civil discourse – the kind of discourse where I can claim my needs even as I recognize that you have valid needs, too – does not necessarily require that we hold middle-of-the-road views. But it does require understanding. It requires that we understand that there is more than one valid point of view on most political issues. And it requires that we understand – at least a little bit – the intricacies of the policy position we would like to see implemented.

In their conclusion, Fernbach and his fellow researchers write that:

Previous research has shown that intensively educating citizens can improve the quality of democratic decisions following collective deliberation and negotiation. One reason for the effectiveness of this strategy may be that educating citizens on how policies work moderates their attitudes, increasing their willingness to explore opposing views and to compromise.

And this is really the point. It matters less that we all moderate our attitudes than that we understand the policies on which we claim to hold such strong opinions. The more we understand, the more it becomes clear just how little we understand. And it is from that place – from a self-reflective acknowledgment of our own ignorance – that we can begin to see that our adversaries may have a point, and that their point of view may deserve serious consideration, too.

The Civil Conversations Project

The purpose of this week’s post is to point out an excellent online civility resource that we here at The Civility Blog have sadly previously neglected. It is called The Civil Conversations Project. And it is an extension of On Being — NPR’s radio program about the place of faith and spirituality in American life.

The Civil Conversations Project

Krista Tippett, host of On Being, has been speaking across the country about The Civil Conversations Project, and at one venue in Oklahoma she told audiences that what it is about, in the end, is finding a way to approach the questions we don’t know how to ask each other. It is about moving past the paradigm of tolerance, which does not ask us to engage, to understand, to be curious, to [be] open, to be moved or surprised by each other. And it is about having eyes to see and ears to hear as a critical discipline for the 21st century.

In more practical terms, what The Civil Conversations Project does is produce fifty-minute podcasts featuring public figures from Jonathan Haidt, to John Lewis, to Richard Mouw talking about their perspectives on social change through civil dialogue. Some of the podcasts address the problem of talking across deeply held ideological divides, like Frances Kissling on the topic of abortion. While others bring two speakers with very different convictions together to model civil dialog about an issue on which they disagree. One episode, for example, has David Blankenhorn of the Institute for American Values and Jonathan Rauch of the Brookings Institution talking about same-sex marriage.

In each case, the point — in the Project’s own words — is to find ways to bridge gulfs between us about politics, morality, and life itself, and to do so even while we continue to disagree, passionately. Or, put another way, it is about modeling conversation and relationship with difference, and finding ideas and tools for healing our fractured civic spaces.

The goals of The Civil Conversations Project resonate deeply with the Institute’s own mission to cultivate an environment in which we can claim and care for our own identities, needs, and beliefs without degrading the identities, needs, and beliefs of others. And they resonate with our own convictions about disagreeing without disrespect and listening past our preconceptions.

The Civil Conversations Project‘s podcasts do an admirable job of respecting thoughtful positions regardless of their politics, and of encouraging vigorous disagreement tempered with good listening. And as a starting point for sometimes difficult discussions, we would certainly recommend giving them a listen.

Keep Calm and Civil On

Institute member Mark Winburn recently sent us this image on the back of an envelope containing his renewal.

"Keep Calm and Civil On," by Mark Winburn
“Keep Calm and Civil On,” by Mark Winburn

The design, a riff on the Keep Calm and Carry On message that has become a regular feature of t-shirts, coffee mugs, and mousepads around the world, is based on a poster produced by the British Government in 1939, on the eve of World War II. According to the Wikipedia:

It was intended to be distributed in order to strengthen morale in the event of a wartime disaster, such as mass bombing of major cities using high explosives and poison gas, which was widely expected within hours of an outbreak of war. Over 2,500,000 copies were printed, although the poster was distributed only in limited numbers, and never saw public display.

It was rediscovered after the year 2000, and has become the basis for a host of inspirational and comic variations like these:

Keep Calm and Carry On Variants
Variants of the “Keep Calm and Carry On” message, the former by “Philly1414”, and the latter by Mark Baker.

Winburn calls his image a bit of personal encouragement to ICG, because doing the right thing isn’t always the easy thing in life. While people and parties, he says, may not always agree on positions, remaining calm — and civil — is usually a good approach to carry on, even in the most extreme circumstances.

We couldn’t agree more.

If, like Mr. Winburn, civility is something that you care about — if you believe that our political processes (and daily lives) are enriched when we are able to keep calm, claim our needs, and respect the needs of others — make your voice heard. Join the Institute today. Or, if you’re already a member, consider making a donation.

But regardless, take Mr. Winburn’s message to heart: Keep Calm and Civil On.

The Importance of Congressional Student Forums

U.S. Capitol, 1859: Congressional Student Forum
Elevation of dome of U.S. Capitol, 1859

A message from Institute for Civility in Government co-founder, Cassandra Dahnke.

Some people think it never happens. They think that Republicans and Democrats cannot work together, or even have a civil conversation. But those people are mistaken. It does happen – and could happen more if more people would speak out for civility.

For years the Institute for Civility in Government has sponsored Congressional Student Forums. These bring two members of Congress from opposite sides of the political aisle together on college campuses around the country in order to model civil and respectful conversations with students and faculty on whatever issues the students bring to the table. The conversations are lively and informative. And they are critically important to our civic process.

Congressional Student Forums set an important precedent for students’ future civic involvement – they set a high standard for citizen empowerment and participation, and a high standard for civility and respect. But they are important, too, for building collegial relationships among members of Congress who have far too few opportunities to spend time together, sharing ideas rather than beating each other up with them.

Historically, the Institute has been able — at best — to host only one Congressional Student Forum per semester. This is in part because university schedules are highly complicated, and in part because members of Congress are very busy. But making the time for these events is not impossible. And when it all comes together, the experience is an exceptional one for all involved.

This spring, the Institute has scheduled not one, but three Congressional Student Forums: at Lone Star College, North Harris (Houston) with Representatives Kevin Brady and Gene Green; at the University of Missouri, Kansas City with Representatives Emanuel Cleaver and Kevin Yoder; and at University of Texas, San Antonio with Representatives Henry Cuellar and Lamar Smith.

Why the increased success? It is because these members of Congress have made it a priority to make it happen. They worked to make it happen. They wanted it. And they accomplished it.

And more members of Congress might, too, if they knew that their constituents wanted them to participate in events like this: events that are bipartisan and civil, that are not debates, not contents to see who wins and who loses — but opportunities to share different ideas and philosophies so that we can all consider them more carefully.

It is in events like these where conversation is created and new ideas and relationships are born.

Our vision is to grow interest in civility and membership in the Institute large enough to shift the culture — so that one day, when members of Congress are elected, they make scheduling Congressional Student Forums a priority, not an afterthought. Can you imagine what a difference that would make in our political discourse? Our communities? Our nation?

It can happen. But it needs your support. Tell your member of Congress that you care about civility. Join the Institute today. Keep the movement growing.

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, 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.

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?