Two Thoughts on Civility

I should be working on Unbound. (30K words and counting!) But I wanted to put two things out there first, both about the call for “civility” I’ve seen in various quarters.

1. Author Kari Sperring wrote this week about civility both as a protective mechanism against abuse, and as a behavior enforced by the threat of violence and abuse:

I absolutely support the right of those who are subjected to abuse, oppression, elision and exclusion to shout back, to push, to demand. This is not an area in which there can be compromise.

But there are also people of all races and backgrounds for whom this option is never available and they may speak and act as they do because it is their only safety.

2. I know many people have seen and quoted this already, but there are more who haven’t. What follows are excerpts from Martin Luther King Jr.’s Letter from a Birmingham Jail.

We know through painful experience that freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor; it must be demanded by the oppressed. Frankly, I have yet to engage in a direct action campaign that was “well timed” in the view of those who have not suffered unduly from the disease of segregation. For years now I have heard the word “Wait!” It rings in the ear of every Negro with piercing familiarity. This “Wait” has almost always meant “Never.” We must come to see, with one of our distinguished jurists, that “justice too long delayed is justice denied.”

I must confess that over the past few years I have been gravely disappointed with the white moderate. I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen’s Counciler or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate, who is more devoted to “order” than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says: “I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I cannot agree with your methods of direct action”; who paternalistically believes he can set the timetable for another man’s freedom; who lives by a mythical concept of time and who constantly advises the Negro to wait for a “more convenient season.” Shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will. Lukewarm acceptance is much more bewildering than outright rejection.

I had hoped that the white moderate would understand that the present tension in the South is a necessary phase of the transition from an obnoxious negative peace, in which the Negro passively accepted his unjust plight, to a substantive and positive peace, in which all men will respect the dignity and worth of human personality. Actually, we who engage in nonviolent direct action are not the creators of tension. We merely bring to the surface the hidden tension that is already alive. We bring it out in the open, where it can be seen and dealt with. Like a boil that can never be cured so long as it is covered up but must be opened with all its ugliness to the natural medicines of air and light, injustice must be exposed, with all the tension its exposure creates, to the light of human conscience and the air of national opinion before it can be cured.

The whole thing is worth reading, but these bits struck me as particularly appropriate, given certain conversations I’ve seen and participated in recently…