At one of our recent bi-weekly MAVRIC Conversations, the discussion turned toward the moment in a social media exchange where we stop being magnanimous in a disagreement and start looking for blood. Even when we’re arguing for something right and true—say, that all people are inherently worthy of dignity and respect, regardless of their gender, sexuality, race, creed, class, ability—there’s an undeniable temptation, as one man put it, “to go for the win.” It’s easy to get swept up in the contest and look for ways to cast your adversary beyond the pale, to seek their humiliation, to get that sweet, satisfying taste of victory.
It’s easy to begin to believe that your adversary is unworthy of dignity and respect because their ideas are sexist, racist, homophobic, or exclusionary in some other way.
We shared stories of conversations that turned sour or nasty, or times when we didn’t engage at all. I shared a story of a difficult engagement on Facebook with an old acquaintance from high school that got a bit heated, but ended well because I decided halfway through that I wanted to end the conversation by telling to greet his father, who was a teacher at our high school, that I remember fondly and with admiration. At every step of the exchange, I had to ask if my comment would make it impossible for me to earnestly affirm to this guy that I really cared about him and his family. It was a totally ad hoc principle, but it meant that I had to find a way to articulate my principles within the context of a relationship that had history and even a lot of warm feelings.
The conversation ended with this question: when we get into it with someone—whether on social media or around the Thanksgiving table—what goals could we seek in conversation, beyond victory? What could we want more than the win?
I was reminded of this conversation the other day when I came across a document drafted in 1963 by Dr. Martin Luther King and the other leaders of the Civil Rights struggle. It was “Commitment Card” that everyone in Birmingham, Alabama had to sign before they joined in the public demonstrations against the racist segregation in that city. The complete list is worth careful consideration, but the second commandment of this movement caught my eye.
Remember always that the non—violent movement seeks justice and reconciliation — not victory.
What might we we want more than victory? Justice and reconciliation. The Civil Rights Movement under Dr. King sought to affirm the ineradicable human dignity in every person and to seek our collective liberation from systems of domination that diminish that dignity. The radical charge of this commitment, it must be stressed, was its extension to the liberation of oppressors from these systems, too. For though they did not suffer the violence and indignity of racism, Dr. King understood that their racism linked their own self-worth to their domination of others; and Dr. King refused to meet them on those terms.
In the words of Alycee Lane, the 1963 pledge of nonviolence wasn’t limited to public protest or other forms of direct action—nor, of course, is it limited for us to tough conversations on social media. The pledge was about “speaking, thinking, acting and engaging the world — even at the most mundane level — from an ethic of nonviolence, so that we actually become nonviolence.”
Becoming nonviolence in our thought and action. Acting out of an unshakeable sense of the dignity of all human beings: sounds like the work to which we are called.
Are you a member of the Princeton community who would want to come to a MAVRIC Conversation, or learn more about what the MAVRIC Project is doing? Check out our Facebook page, or email Carl Adair, Steering Committee Chair, at carlca [at] princeton.edu.