MLK – Live blog-ish, part 3.

An explanation of this project can be found here. Part 1 is here, and part 2 is here.

Chapter two – Transformed nonconformist

I came of age when the notion of rebelling against stifling conformity was de rigueur — indeed, the arts of the 1970s were suffused with exhaustive and exhausting efforts to show just how narrow were the minds of the middle class, how limited their horizons, how miserable suburbia (aka: The American Dream). After Dr. King writes in Chapter 1 about not trusting the press blindly and the fact that the softminded person “has an almost morbid fear of the new,” sounding rather as if he had woken up just yesterday and was chiming in on our national political discourse, Chapter 2 starts off a little more firmly grounded in the past.

Success, recognition, and conformity are the bywords of the modern world where everyone seems to crave the anesthetizing security of being identified with the majority.

Well, not in my experience. Not anymore. Indeed, assuming the mantle of nonconformity is, itself, the new conformity. (If you will). We’re all individuals!

But, then, Dr. King catches up with us again:

Nonconformity in itself, however, may not necessarily be good and may at times possess neither transforming nor redemptive power. Nonconformity per se contains no saving value, and may represent in some circumstances little more than a form of exhibitionism.

…The transformed nonconformist… never yields to the passive sort of patience which is an excuse to do nothing. And this very transformation saves him from speaking irresponsible words which estrange without reconciling and from making hasty judgments which are blind to the necessity of social progress. He recognizes that social change will not come overnight, yet he works as though it is an imminent possibility.

I read these words and I just stopped cold. Read them again. And again. It felt as if Dr. King had looked into my heart and saw the path to which I have tried so hard to be true.

In the last installment of this live-blogg-y thing, I said that I’m aware that Dr. King was writing about a very specific, gross injustice, and that I “don’t want to remove him from his time and place.” I wrote that I know that “these words have a context.”

And then I immediately listened to what those words said beyond their context. As I am going to do here.

But in this case, I really can’t help it. I have tried, throughout my entire career (professional, volunteer, and just plain living my life) as an advocate for Israeli-Palestinian peace to “[refrain] from speaking irresponsible words which estrange without reconciling,” and to not make “hasty judgments which are blind to the necessity of social progress.” I am constantly telling people that if they want their opponents to hear them, they have to be careful with their words. That we cannot organize people where we want them to be — we can only organize them where they are.

But it’s hard, you know? I get so furious. People are often surprised when I say that the on-going Israeli occupation and settlement project enrage me, that I often (often) find it difficult to not just wash my hands of my entire Israeli existence. During the 08/09 Gaza War, I frequently said that I felt like sending my passport back — and while I am ultimately too level-headed to have taken such a step, I wasn’t overstating my desire. When speaking privately about the conflict, and Israeli culpability, and the egregious and unwarranted suffering constantly inflicted on the Palestinian people, I generally resort to that variety of Anglo-Saxonisms that you often see in other contexts on this blog, and allow my rage to emerge unfettered.

So I suppose I’ve tipped my hand here, a bit, but honesty is a good thing, too. As is learning that one of the greatest thinkers of the modern age would likely have counseled me to continue to avoid irresponsible words and hasty judgments when engaged in the struggle out in the world, for “social change will not come overnight, yet [we work] as though it is an imminent possibility.” I feel his hand on my shoulder, and see that smile on his face. I imagine that though I am a Jew, Dr. King might have been my pastor.

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1 Comment

  1. sue swartz

     /  January 24, 2010

    Emily, my friend, I struggle so much with this. At what point does not “speaking irresponsible words” become a cover for our fear? At what point are we no longer really telling the truth? Oy.