Wednesday, January 31, 2018

King-04: The Third Obligation of Civil Disobedience - Self-Purification

The third step that King identified in proper civil disobedience he called “Purification”

The first two steps were:

(1) Information gathering - make sure that you are serving justice. Far too many people claim that their cause is just when it is quite the opposite.

(2) Negotiation - provide a list of concrete demands that serve justice. These are concrete tasks that a just person would want to agree to.

Now, we are assuming that we have demonstrated that we are working for a just cause, and our just demands have been rejected. Or, as is the case with concrete demands, the opposition accepted them in word but not in deed.

We have decided that it is time for disobedience.

In describing the next step as “Purification”, it is hard to know from the term what King has in mind. However, this is how he describes ‘purification’.

We began a series of workshops on nonviolence, and we repeatedly asked ourselves: "Are you able to accept blows without retaliating?" "Are you able to endure the ordeal of jail?"

The interpretation that I favor is that this self-purification is a resolve to be an agent in the service of justice - to purify yourself of inclinations that might move you to serve injustice.

This is not a trivial step. When we are attacked unjustly, we will be tempted to react with righteous anger. However, we have a very difficult task ahead of us. Our goal is to focus people’s attention on injustice. If we are taunted into acts of injustice ourselves, we will be shouting ourselves in the foot - defeating our own objective in two ways.

First, it defeats the message. Our message is that the natural law - the moral law - is binding on everybody. It is not binding “on you but not me”. Our message is not, “You must consider yourself bound by the moral law, but it does not bind us.” Laws against arson, looting, vandalism, and the like are just laws. We cannot command that others obey just laws, while refusing to obey just laws ourselves. Recall that this was an important part of King's message. He demanded that others obeyed just laws (e.g., Brown vs. Board of Education), for the sake of which he insisted that his fellow protestors also obeyed just laws (laws against arson, destruction of property, looting, and assault), and only broke unjust laws (or just laws being unjustly enforced).

Second, as protestors, we would want people to be talking about the injustices we are protesting - the injustices committed by those with power and privilege - not the injustices we have caused. The people with power and privilege are going to want to change the subject. They do not want the news casts and private conversations to be about their injustices. They want those presentations and conversations to be about "what the protestors do wrong." We can fully expect that, no matter what the protestors did, those with power and privilege are going to assert "they went about it the wrong way." But the trick is to try avoid proving them right. The trick is to get people talking about what the protest was about, and not how it was done.

For that, King called for a period of "self-purification." King called for protesters to act in ways that will focus attention on the injustices of those with power and privilege - and to make it as hard as possible for them to make the conversation about the wrongs of the protesters.

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