Sunday, January 15, 2017

MLK Day 2017: The Moral Arc, Philosophy, and Science Fiction

I don’t have a lot of heroes, but Martin Luther King, Jr. is one of them.

While the life and work of Martin Luther King, Jr. have a special significance for African Americans that I in no way mean to undermine, I also think we all have much to learn from King.  For all his personal faults and the ways his message has been diluted and distorted in recent decades, he was one of the best that this country of ours has ever produced.  This is why Martin Luther King, Jr. Day is my favorite American holiday.

I’ve written posts for MLK Day in previous years (see my posts from 2015 and 2016).  This year, amid continuing racial disparities and a contentious election season that has emboldened old fashioned bigotries, King’s famous quote about the arc of the moral universe feels especially apt.  I admit to finding some comfort in it in the last few months, most recently when the US President-elect went on Twitter to belittle John Lewis, a beloved American hero and Civil Rights icon who worked directly with King.  

Here's the quote with some of its context from King's 1967 speech, "Where Do We Go From Here?"
And I must confess, my friends (Yes sir), that the road ahead will not always be smooth. (Yes) There will still be rocky places of frustration (Yes) and meandering points of bewilderment. There will be inevitable setbacks here and there. (Yes) And there will be those moments when the buoyancy of hope will be transformed into the fatigue of despair. (Well) Our dreams will sometimes be shattered and our ethereal hopes blasted.   
...    Let us realize that the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.

As John Scalzi has noted, this quote shouldn't be taken to indicate a sort of fatalism that universe will somehow make everything come out okay in the wash.  We can't just sit back and let things take their course.  King (and his inspiration, Theodore Parker) meant that the struggle for a better world will not always move in a straight line.  It may be held back.  It may veer in an unhelpful direction.  But we shouldn't despair for long; doing so is a sure way to fail.

Philosophy, Science Fiction, and Moral Imagination

I've written before about the value of philosophy and science fiction as ways to imagine a better future, to give us something to work toward.  The concept is perhaps most clearly described in a recent anthology called Octavia's Brood: Science Fiction Stories From Social Justice Movementswhich is inspired by the science fiction author Octavia Butler (another great American!).  The editors, adrienne marie brown and Walidah Imarisha, refer to what they call "visionary fiction."
Visionary fiction encompasses all of the fantastic, with the arc always bending toward justice.  ... Once the imagination is unshackled, liberation is limitless. 
- Introduction, Octavia's Brood (p. 4)
A typical objection here might be that visionary fiction or utopian philosophy are all well and good, but they have no impact in the real world.  In fact, they may serve as distractions from political action as head-in-the-clouds escapism.  I'll be the first to admit that I'm personally more comfortable in the shining realms of science fictional and philosophical imagination than in the grimy districts of political activism.

One of the things I admire most about King - as well as his hero, Gandhi - is the way he coupled moral imagination of what could be with specific actions that might help us get there.  If you read his "Where Do We Go From Here?" speech (and you should), you'll find that, aside from lofty claims about the moral universe, support for universal basic income, opposition to the Vietnam war, and citations of dead philosophers, quite a bit of it consists of reports of specific actions of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and other organizations.

Where Do We Go From Here?

Like King, we should ask ourselves: Where do we go from here? 

I won’t presume to speak for African American communities (there are too many white people trying to do that already), but in the last few months it seems to me that the left is settling on two main approaches. One might be called the high road approach, which has been explicitly championed by Barack and Michelle Obama. The other might be called the fight fire with fire approach, which is most clearly championed on social media accounts of those disheartened by the election (e.g., memes about giving the incoming President as much respect as as he and the Tea Party gave President Obama).

I have some sympathy for both approaches.  Playing hardball and fighting fire with fire may be necessary in the difficult times ahead.  If we are to live in a world where public discourse at all levels increasingly resembles the comments on a YouTube video, we need some people who can get down in the mud and play dirty.  The left needs its attack dogs.  I don't dispute this.  But fighting fire with fire needs to be a controlled burn, lest it consume us all.

Some of us should take the other approach.  In unkind and indecent times, cultivating kindness and decency are revolutionary acts.  As King and other proponents of the philosophy of nonviolence like to point out, ends and means are often mixed: you can't get to mutual respect via entirely disrespectful means.

Again, I'm not saying the fiery approach might not be necessary at times.  Some of this may be a matter of personal temperament (I would make a poor attack dog), but I think a high road approach based on love and respect for all is worth keeping around.

A common objection is that we owe no respect to those who do not respect us; to love those who hate you is a sign of weakness, ultimately a failure of self-respect, and an acquiescence to injustice.

In answering this objection, King offers an analysis of the conceptual confusion at play (once again from "Where Do We Go From Here?").
You see, what happened is that some of our philosophers got off base. And one of the great problems of history is that the concepts of love and power have usually been contrasted as opposites, polar opposites, so that love is identified with a resignation of power, and power with a denial of love. It was this misinterpretation that caused the philosopher Nietzsche, who was a philosopher of the will to power, to reject the Christian concept of love. It was this same misinterpretation which induced Christian theologians to reject Nietzsche's philosophy of the will to power in the name of the Christian idea of love.
Now, we got to get this thing right. What is needed is a realization that power without love is reckless and abusive, and that love without power is sentimental and anemic. (Yes) Power at its best [applause], power at its best is love (Yes) implementing the demands of justice, and justice at its best is love correcting everything that stands against love. (Speak) And this is what we must see as we move on.

I'll let Nietzsche scholars sort out whether King is right about Nietzsche, but I think the opposition between love and power that King identifies here is familiar.  My concern is that our culture is moving even more to the side of power without love, a culture in which shallow selfishness and aloof cynicism are celebrated at the expense of love and basic human decency.

But as King says, what we need is not love without power, but love implementing justice.  We don't need more well-wishes without action or moral imagination without moral backbone.

It's easy for us, especially for relatively privileged white people like me, to say, "that's too bad, but it's not my problem.  What can you do?"  It's easy, in other words, to feel love without the exercise of power.

It is more difficult, but nonetheless the right thing to do, to be inspired by King to couple love and power to create justice.  That arc will need a lot of bending in the coming years.  We'd better get to work.

Happy Martin Luther King, Jr. Day!


  1. Thank you for this post! It gave voice to what I have been trying to explain to my friends, that making sure every choice I make (concerning the times ahead) have to come from a place of love and not the rampant fear and hatred that brought us here. I agree that some times fire needs to be fought with fire, but my choice to not let anger consume me is not my "normalizing" bad behavior. In fact, I believe allowing anger to rule out choices does far more towards normalization than showing love and compassion.

    1. Thank you for the comment.

      I like your point about normalization. Hating the hater (as Gandhi once put it) would serve to normalize hate. What we can learn from King and Gandhi is how to oppose injustice without hatred. And I think that's an especially important lesson right now.