The thorn in the side

I was recently reading Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail” for one of my classes. Concerning the context of the letter and who wrote it, there’s, of course, a lot of food for thought. But there was one section of it that I felt was particularly compelling.

At one point, King called out the religious leaders in the area for publishing “A Call for Unity” during all of the riots, beatings and sit-ins that were happening at the time. They were advocating for protestors to desist because they believed that the civil rights movement had reached a point that was contrary to this greater goal of unity – the breakdown of segregation and institutional racism – for which King had been fighting so hard. Although they didn’t name him, he saw the obvious implication since he had been at the forefront of the movement.

King addressed a lot of things in his letter, specifically why this call for unity was in fact a ruse for guise. In essence, he defined this uneasy tension that was so agitating and its power to effect change: “Nonviolent direct action seeks to create such a crisis and establish such creative tension that a community that has consistently refused to negotiate is forced to confront the issue. It seeks so to dramatize the issue that it can no longer be ignored. …there is a type of constructive nonviolent tension that is necessary for growth.” There’s a lot to unpack in this, and I would like to apply my thoughts of King’s reasoning to our current discussion of politics, or pressing social issues in general.

I think this stuck out to me so much because, today, we see such aggressive action in the world through protests in which there’s a great deal of violence and destruction, or through online trends with certain hashtags. And we’re always advocating for the power of collective action to bring meaningful change, yet today we’re so divisive that we can’t cross party lines even though we feel a building tension – in issues of immigration, gun control and other things. Part of the trouble we have today, it seems to me, is that if we can’t either ignore a problem or force others to agree with us at knife-point, if you will, then we just won’t endure the tension or try to find a common ground.

I wish we weren’t so weak in enduring the tension; this thorn in the side. I think it’s our tendency to find some party to lay the blame on and then we simply write it off from our own agenda. It’s like an extreme form of cognitive dissonance; we choose to not confront something that’s discomforting or agitating, finding instead an alternative course of thought or action to quiet ourselves.

To some extent, I think the dilemma of action versus inaction to achieve the greater good is a perennial conflict of interest for us. Today, technology and social media inundate us with so much news that it’s often hard to zero in on the major source of tension we feel and address it because we’re too aware of innumerable sources of tension. Nonetheless, I think King had the right idea.