Thursday, January 13, 2005

MLK on Nonviolence: How to Reform our Elections

This is part of an ongoing diary series I'm writing this week, looking forward to the King Holiday on January 17th.

Yesterday, I covered the Six Priniciples of Kingian Nonviolence, which explain how to assume nonviolent attitude. Today's diary on the Six Steps of Kingian nonviolence explains the "how's" of nonviolence. Effective application of Kingian nonviolence involves much more than holding a protest just for the sake of protesting. Nonviolence also does not preclude other efforts to resolve conflict, including introducing legislation, diplomacy or negotiation and power brokering. As Dr. King wrote in his book, "Why We Can't Wait":

"Direct action is not a substitute for work in the courts and halls of government.  Bringing about passage of a new and broad law by a city council, state legislature or the Congress, or pleading cases before the courts of the land, does not eliminate the necessity for bringing about mass dramatization of injustice in the front of a city hall.  Indeed, direct action and legal action complement one another; when skillfully employed, each becomes more effective."

One of the greatest lessons Dr. King has to teach to the modern left today is that effective social change occurs when the grassroots works with politicians of good will and organizations dedicated to challenging unjust laws. The largest problem with the left right now is that these efforts are fragmented, and there is no one concerted focus on one issue that involves celebrities, politicians and common, everyday people who want to speak out against injustice.

For instance, we have the opportunity to put pressure on our government - even on a Republican dominated Congress and Executive Branch - to enact true election reform, but we must understand that this needs to be done in concert with politicians, celebrities and journalists of good will. Democratic politicians must also realize that they cannot pass any effective legislation for positive social change right now without involving the liberal and progressive grassroots, which is ready and able to use direct action to put pressure on the Congress and the Executive Branch.

The Six Steps of Kingian Nonviolence show exactly how this can be done. They are as follows:

Information gathering and research to get the facts straight

Education of adversaries and the public about the facts of the dispute

Personal Commitment to nonviolent attitudes and action

Negotiation with adversary in a spirit of goodwill to correct injustice

Nonviolent direct action, such as marches, boycotts, mass demonstrations, picketing, sit-ins etc. to help persuade or compel adversary to work toward dispute-resolution

Reconciliation of adversaries in a win-win outcome in establishing a sense of community

Let's take the issue of election reform, and see how to apply Dr. King's method of nonviolence in order to affect the passage of legislation that would fix our broken elections system.

Information gathering and research to get the facts straight

This is a vital first step in any effective social change action. You have to have all of the facts on hand, and you also need to know what your opponent's issues are, where he is coming from and why. It does no good to analyze your opponent through the lens of partisanship. Partisanship dehumanizes your opponent, and does not allow you to analyze a situation with logic and objectivity.

Let's now use our example of election reform. In this first step, we need to sit down and understand all of the facts surrounding the disenfranchisement of voters during the 2000, 2002 and 2004 elections. We need to be able to prove based on facts and logic that large segments of the American populace were disenfranchised, either because they were poor, minorities or elderly. We also need to understand the current laws on the books protecting voting rights, and understand recent court decisions involving equal protection under the law.

We also need to understand this issue from the Republican point-of-view. We need to be able to articulate their arguments against election reform, understand the legal and ethical basis of these arguments, and be sensitive to the reaction many Republicans have when the subject of election reform is brought up: that this is a liberal/progressive smokescreen issue whose only purpose is to discredit the legitimacy of George W. Bush. We don't have to agree with these folks, but we do have to understand their position and separate our feelings of hurt and mistrust from our analysis of them.

Education of adversaries and the public about the facts of the dispute

This is where you "PR" your side of the issue. You contact commentators, journalists of good will and celebrities who have the public's ear, and inform them of the facts surrounding your issue and the logic of your argument. Press conferences, blogging, letters to the editor, contacting elected representatives (even Republican ones) are all a part of this process. NOTE: traditional forms of blogging are NOT a direct action: they are a part of this education process. Mass email and telephone campaigns can serve as a form of direct action if their point is to put pressure on one's opponent, but they also tend to reside in this area of adversary education.

Returning to the issue of election reform, this step would comprise of folks calling their local radio talk shows, sending letters to the editor of local and national newspapers, and emailing journalists of goodwill and asking them to cover this issue. It's also important to reach out to celebrities and commentators to keep this issue alive and talked about. Most importantly, it is important to email all of your elected representatives - even the Republican ones - and tell them how important this issue is to you and why. This should not be done in place of direct action, but rather as a supplement to it so that when you take to the streets folks understand why you're doing so.

Personal Commitment to nonviolent attitudes and action

In this step, you review the Six Principles of Kingian nonviolence and commit yourself spiritually to following them. In our example of election reform, this would include refraining from calling Republicans "Rethugs" or similar names; it would mean cutting down on the partisan attacks and showing respect to George W. Bush as our elected President, as hard as that can be. Part of "getting your nonviolence on" is ensuring that petty attacks and language don't detract from the facts surrounding your case. You're basically ensuring that your opponent has no other talking points than those attempting to refute the facts and logic of your position.

Negotiation with adversary in a spirit of goodwill to correct injustice

This is the behind-the-scenes maneuvering that occurs prior to any direct action. It's important to attempt to negotiate with your adversary before putting pressure on them: it shows that you are attempting to work with them in the spirit of goodwill, and not just grandstand for the sake of grandstanding.

In the area of election reform, this would be when politicians propose legislation, organizations like the ACLU follow up with members of Congress to lobby for legislation, and when various celebrities get involved to help reach compromise on the issue. If the legislation gets stalled and the opponent only shows a passing lip service to resolving the conflict, then you proceed to the next step: direct action.

Nonviolent direct action, such as marches, boycotts, mass demonstrations, picketing, sit-ins etc. to help persuade or compel adversary to work toward dispute-resolution.

We all know what this is. What's important to note is that this step comes next-to-last in the application of Kingian nonviolence. There's a very good reason for this: Dr. King saw immediate results when he could frame the issue, attempt negotiation and then apply pressure when the negotiations failed. He was not immediately successful when people protested just for the sake of protesting because they were upset. The example he gives is the Albany movement, where desegregation was successfully fought by the local white authorities. Even so, there is a long-term benefit to simply taking to the streets, as Dr. King writes about the lessons learned from Albany in "Why We Can't Wait":

"When we planned our strategy for Birmingham months later, we spent many hours assessing Albany and trying to learn from its errors. Our appraisals not only helped to make our subsequent tactics more effective, but revealed that Albany was far from an unqualified failure. Though lunch counters remained segregated, thousands of Negroes were added to the voting-registration rolls. In the gubernatorial elections that followed our summer there, a moderate candidate confronted a rabid segregationist. By reason of the expanded Negro vote, the moderate defeated the segregationist in the city of Albany, which in turn contributed to his victory in the state. As a result, Georgia elected its first governor pledged to respect and enforce the law equally."

Even with these benefits, however, the stated goal of the Albany movement was desegregation of lunch counters and public places, and that immediate goal was not realized because the direct action happened in a vacuum, without the other steps of Kingian nonviolence preceding it.

Reconciliation of adversaries in a win-win outcome in establishing a sense of community

This is the benefit of nonviolence: because you have treated your opponent well, and you haven't dehumanized him or called him names; you can now allow your opponent to save face after applying pressure on him to change the injustice he is perpetuating by his actions and policies. Nonviolence leads to a true and lasting peace, where your opponent not only recognizes the error of his ways, but also can see his self-interest in supporting your position. This doesn't happen for every single adversary, and it may not happen immediately. But it is much easier and quicker to reconcile with your adversary if you have treated him with respect, than if you had not.

In our example of election reform, the best possible reconciliation would be for Republican members of Congress to see that an unequal system adversely affects them just as much as it affects Democrats, and that it is in everyone's interest for people to have confidence when they vote that it is not a meaningless and empty act. Cynicism does not breed productive democracies; and this country will be a better country when all people feel they have true representation. Reconciliation in this example would be a bi-partisan effort to reform our elections systems.

I have attempted in this diary to outline as briefly as I could the application of Kingian nonviolence to election reform.  There are some areas I have left out, notably a discussion of Dr. King's views on what he termed the "Triple Evils" in analyzing issues (see There are many books I could suggest to folks who are interested in learning more about Dr. King's method of applying nonviolence for social change; the two that immediately come to mind are Dr. King's book, "Why We Can't Wait", and "The Autobiography of Martin Luther King, Jr.", by Dr. Clayborne Carson of Stanford University, which goes into more detail on the Albany movement.

I hope this leads to a constructive dialogue about what we can do as a community to address the issue of election reform. As the King Holiday approaches, I cannot see a more fitting tribute to Dr. King that a discussion of protecting the right to vote for all Americans, which was such a major hallmark of the civil rights movement.

At 2:43 PM, Blogger Carnacki said...

Excellent post. Well done



Post a Comment

<< Home