Have you heard the parable of the frog in the kettle? Most of us have – it is said (unscientifically, I am sure!) that one can put a frog in a pot of warm water, and the frog will happily stay in as you turn up the heat gradually, until that frog is boiled. I doubt that is true for most frogs, but ‘Frog in the Kettle Syndrome,’ is a very real issue that refers to profound societal and cultural changes that unfold gradually over time, thus seeming of lesser magnitude to those living through the gradual changes. I believe that we are living in such a ‘gradual but profound change’ era in the western world when it comes to rhetoric and our communication with each other.
In the last few years, people who disagree (on the news, in social media, around the water-cooler, etc.) appear to have become increasingly polarized, insulting, bombastic, rude and ad hominem (referencing personal attack) in those disagreements. I’m not sure there is a scientific way to quantify and prove that assertion, but there are evidences and examples all around and (despite whatever bias you might have) the examples of such incendiary communications can be found all across our various spectra of opinion: conservative to liberal, religious to atheist, rich to poor, etc. I think such forms of communication are extremely unhelpful and do more to cause strife and division than they do to educate and persuade, but my opinions on such matters are not the focus of this article.
Today is Martin Luther King Jr. day in the United States, and I consider him a personal hero as a civil rights leader and communicator. I believe that Dr. King is easily one of the top five communicators that the United States has ever produced. He is an exemplar of brilliant and persuasive communication who never (that I know of) stooped to attack his opponents with base insults or bombastic speech. WHAT WOULD MARTIN LUTHER KING JR. SAY ABOUT OUR CURRENT POLITICAL CLIMATE AND THE WAY THAT CONSERVATIVES AND LIBERALS OFTEN LAMBASTE EACH OTHER? I believe he would pointedly demonstrate to us a better way, and I believe that we can see abundant evidence from the writings and interviews of Dr. King that clearly back up that assertion. DR. KING WAS NON-VIOLENT IN HIS PURSUIT OF CHANGE IN BOTH LANGUAGE/COMMUNICATION AND DEMONSTRATIONS. I’m not shouting, there, i’m just trying to emphasize an important point: Martin Luther King Jr. was one of best and most effective communicators in human history – his communication style was non-attacking, graceful, and wise…and yet marvelously effective The point is: we don’t have to attack each other to communicate with impact…in fact, attacking each other waters down and weakens our communication and the impact it might have! But don’t take my word for it – let’s hear about it from Dr. King, the master communicator.
You might think you have reasons to be angry at your ideological opponent – they’ve hurt you with their words and their actions, and you are fed up and not going to take it anymore. They deserve your anger and your harsh speech. THEY’VE EARNED IT! Well, it is very likely that your opponents aren’t nearly as hateful and attacking as Dr. King’s vile and racist opponents. It’s very likely that your opponents have not BOMBED YOUR HOME, like they did to Martin Luther King Jr. in 1956. Here’s how Dr. King responded after his home was bombed:
“I could not go to sleep. While I lay in that quiet front bedroom, with a distant street lamp throwing a reassuring glow through the curtained window, I began to think of the viciousness of people who would bomb my home. I could feel the anger rising when I realized that my wife and baby could have been killed. I thought about the city commissioners and all the statements that they had made about me and the Negro generally. I was once more on the verge of corroding anger. And once more I caught myself and said: “You must not allow yourself to become bitter.” I tried to put myself in the place of the police commissioners. I said to myself these are not bad men. They are misguided.” (MLKJr. after his house was bombed in 1956) (Source: Stride Toward Freedom. Written by MlkJr in 1957)
Note the wisdom of Dr. King: He had been dangerously threatened and treated horribly, but he would NOT let himself fall into corrupting anger and bitterness. Perhaps, since Dr. King was a Christian and a preacher, he was remembering Paul’s words in Ephesians 4:
And don’t grieve God’s Holy Spirit. You were sealed by Him for the day of redemption. 31 All bitterness, anger and wrath, shouting and slander must be removed from you, along with all malice. 32 And be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving one another, just as God also forgave you in Christ. Ephesians 4:30-32
Here’s another excellent example. In 1956, Dr. King had led a year-long non-violent protest and boycott against racist and unjust bussing practices in the city of Montgomery, Alabama. On the occasion of seeing some of those unjust practices overturned, Dr. King gave a victory speech of sorts at a Montgomery church. Read his words and consider their tone:
Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Speech at Holt Street and First Baptist Church. December 20, 1956, Montgomery, Alabama
I cannot close without giving just a word of caution. Our experience and growth during this past year of united non-violent protest has been of such that we cannot be satisfied with a court “victory” over our white brothers. We must respond to the decision with an understanding of those who have oppressed us and with an appreciation of the new adjustments that the court order poses for them. We must be able to face up honestly to our own shortcomings. We must act in such a way as to make possible a coming together of white people and colored people on the basis of a real harmony of interests and understanding. We seek an integration based on mutual respect.
This is the time that we must evince calm dignity and wise restraint. Emotions must not run wild. Violence must not come from any of us, for if we become victimized with violent intents, we will have walked in vain, and our twelve months of glorious dignity will be transformed into an eve of gloomy catastrophe.
What a remarkable call for peace and charity. If anybody had a right to be angry at their opponents, it was Dr. King. But, note the wisdom and restraint and desire for peace in this victory speech. I have heard numerous voices on the left and right allege that bombastic and invective speech is necessary now because the other side is too far gone, and they won’t be persuaded or changed by words that lack profound insults, anger, and hyper-pointed language. In fact, the very opposite of that is true, and the effectiveness and impact of Dr. King’s Civil Rights Movement demonstrates that almost nobody will be persuaded by insulting language and personal attacks. People who engage in such rhetoric are simply alienating their opponents (and those in the middle) more and more. It does not work, and you may not use the fact that the other side uses attacking and bombastic rhetoric to justify your own use of such communication. Dr. King’s opponents vilified him at every turn but his wiser and measured response was ultimately more powerful, more persuasive and won the day. I’m not advocating for boring, vanilla speech that doesn’t make any strong points and aims to never offend. That was NOT Dr. King’s way. I am, however, advocating for communication that is graceful, wise, non-violent, non-attacking and unity-seeking, while also being powerful and persuasive. If you don’t think that is possible, you are missing the legacy and impact of Dr. King who proved that it was possible and change-inducing.
5Act wisely toward outsiders, making the most of the time. 6 Your speech should always be gracious, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how you should answer each person.
Consider another speech from Dr. King, his most famous one:
“I have a Dream” Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. August 28, 1963
But there is something that I must say to my people, who stand on the warm threshold which leads into the palace of justice: in the process of gaining our rightful place, we must not be guilty of wrongful deeds. Let us not seek to satisfy our thirst for freedom by drinking from the cup of bitterness and hatred. We must forever conduct our struggle on the high plane of dignity and discipline. We must not allow our creative protest to degenerate into physical violence., we must rise to the majestic heights of meeting physical force with soul force.
We must hear again Dr. King’s call to resist bitterness and hatred, even when the other side is wrong, wrong, wrong – as Dr. King’s opponents most assuredly were. I concur with King’s call to dignity and discipline. But note that it is not a bland, tasteless and weak dignity and discipline, as the last quote above illustrates. Instead of meeting force with force, hatred with hatred, invective with invective, insult with insult, we must meet those things with what Dr. King calls ‘Soul Force,’ which, I believe, is much more powerful AND revolutionary than violence, insults, vile language, and the like. As the apostle Paul notes below, we can impact our opponents more by loving them, doing good to them, and not repaying evil for evil with them, than we can by BECOMING JUST LIKE THEM and trading insult for insult, evil for evil. I don’t know if you’ve noticed it or not, but there is almost nothing substantial that separates those on the more extreme end of the conservative or liberal political spectrum. They both behave the same way in defense of their positions, they both attack in the same manner (while decrying the barbaric attacks of their ideological opponents) and the tone of their communications is both almost exactly the same. And what is the result of all of this bombastic speech? Disunity, division, and a growing weakening of our country.
Do not repay anyone evil for evil.Try to do what is honorable in everyone’s eyes. 18 If possible, on your part, live at peace with everyone. 19 Friends, do not avenge yourselves; instead, leave room for His wrath. For it is written: Vengeance belongs to Me; I will repay, says the Lord. 20 But If your enemy is hungry, feed him. If he is thirsty, give him something to drink. For in so doing you will be heaping fiery coals on his head.21 Do not be conquered by evil, but conquer evil with good.Romans 12:17-21
One more example from Dr. King of how to persuasively communicate without vilifying your opponent or making an enemy out of them. The genius of Dr. King is in this: he sought unity, reconciliation, friendship and partnership with his opponents – vile and misguided and wrong as they were – rather than seeking their annihilation and destruction. This lesson is one of the key truths from Dr. King that Americans in 2019 must learn. Listening to liberals and conservatives debate with each other, one gets the idea that one or the other would just as soon see the other side utterly destroyed, rather than won over to truth. Consider these principles from Dr. King on how to resist evil AND win over those who are supporting injustice:
Source: Stride Toward Freedom, by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
First, it must be emphasized that nonviolent resistance is not a method for cowards; it does resist… A second basic fact that characterizes nonviolence is that it does not seek to defeat or humiliate the opponent, but to win his friendship and understanding. The nonviolent resister must often express protest through noncooperation and boycotts, but the resister realizes that these are not ends in themselves; they are merely means to awaken a sense of moral shame in the opponent. The end is redemption and reconciliation. The aftermath of nonviolence is the creation of the beloved community, while the aftermath of violence is tragic bitterness.
A third characteristic of this method is that the attack is directed against forces of evil rather than against persons who happen to be doing the evil. It is evil that the nonviolent resister seeks to defeat, not the persons victimized by evil. If she is opposing racial injustice, the nonviolent resister has the vision to see that the basic tension is not between races. As I like to way to the people in Montgomery: “tension in this city is not between white people and Negro people. The tension is, at bottom, between justice and injustice, between the forces of light and the forces of darkness. And, if there is a victory, it will be a victory not merely for fifty thousand Negroes, but a victory for justice and the forces of light. We are out to defeat injustice and not white persons who may be injust.”
A fourth point that characterizes nonviolent resistance is a willingness to accept suffering without retaliation, to accept blows from the opponent without striking back. …One may well ask: “What is the nonviolent resister’s justification for this ordeal to which he invites others, for this mass political application of the ancient doctrine of turning the other cheek?” The answer is found in the realization that unearned suffering is redemptive. Suffering, the nonviolent resister realizes, has tremendous educational and transforming possibilities…
A fifth point concerning nonviolent resistance is that it avoids not only external physical violence but also internal violence of spirit. The nonviolent resister not only refuses to shoot his opponent, but he also refuses to hate him. At the center of nonviolence stands the principle of love. The nonviolent resister would contend that in the struggle for human dignity, the oppressed people of the world must not succumb to the temptation of becoming bitter or indulging in hate campaigns. To retaliate in kind would do nothing but intensify the existence of hate in the universe. Along the way of life, someone must have sense enough and morality enough to cut off the chain of hate. This can only be done by projecting the ethic of love to the center of our lives.
One final Postscript. Dr. King was a pacifist in terms of his approach to Civil Rights, but he was not PASSIVE. There is a vast difference between the two things. I believe Dr. King would passionately advocate for dignified dialog that avoids bombastic insults and vilifying one’s opponents. He would NOT, however, advocate passivity. It must be realized that Dr. King’s civil rights movement – which I believe was the most effective civil rights movement in world history – was indeed dignified but DYNAMIC. Far more dynamic than 99.99 percent of the people on social media who hurl insults and attacks as easily as they can take a breath. See below for some words from Dr. King which demonstrate that he was far from passive, nor was he advocating patient passivity in the face of evil:
Now I would like to mention one or two ideas that circulate in our society—and they probably circulate in your society and all over the world—that keep us from developing the kind of action programs necessary to get rid of discrimination and segregation. One is what I refer to as the myth of time. There are those individuals who argue that only time can solve the problem of racial injustice in the United States, in South Africa or anywhere else; you’ve got to wait on time. And I know they’ve said to us so often in the States and to our allies in the white community, “Just be nice and be patient and continue to pray, and in 100 or 200 years the problem will work itself out.” We have heard and we have lived with the myth of time. The only answer that I can give to that myth is that time is neutral. It can be used either constructively or destructively. And I must honestly say to you that I’m convinced that the forces of ill will have often used time much more effectively than the forces of goodwill. And we may have to repent in this generation, not merely for the vitriolic words and the violent actions of the bad people, but for the appalling silence and indifference of the good people who sit around saying, “Wait on time.” And somewhere along the way it is necessary to see that human progress never rolls in on the wheels of inevitability. It comes through the tireless efforts and the persistent work of dedicated individuals who are willing to be co-workers with God. And without this hard work, time itself becomes an ally of the primitive forces of social stagnation.Recently found December 7, 1964 Martin Luther King Jr. speech in London.