On Martin Luther King Day, Let’s Commit to Norms of Nonviolence

Kristin Hansen • January 17, 2022 • 9 min read

“Here is the true meaning and value of compassion and nonviolence, when it helps us to see the enemy’s point of view, to hear his questions, to know his assessment of ourselves. For from his view we may indeed see the basic weaknesses of our own condition, and if we are mature, we may learn and grow and profit from the wisdom of the brothers who are called the opposition.”

— Dr. Martin Luther King

On Martin Luther King Day, and in the wake of the recent one-year anniversary of January 6, 2021, it feels important to reflect on the concept of nonviolence as foundational to confronting America’s current political, cultural, and informational divides. 

The seismic events of the past several years — the 2016 and 2020 elections and the deep cultural schisms they exposed, the global pandemic’s health and economic repercussions, the simultaneous national epidemic of drug-related deaths, George Floyd’s murder and a renewed racial justice movement, rising anxiety and conflict over climate change mitigation, and a media and social media landscape splintering into distorted fragments of reality — have functioned as repeated “Rorschach tests” for all Americans. You know, as in, “Look at this amorphous inkblot and tell me what you see.”

From each inky image, unfortunately, we draw conflicting conclusions not only about what should be, but what is. Like any group of experiment subjects staring at the same indistinct blobs, we marvel at others’ inability to see what we see so clearly.  It’s a rhinoceros, of course.  No, it’s obviously an ocean liner.    

In America’s relentless Rorschach regimen, however, the exercise is never merely academic.  It is existential.  The “others” stare at the same inkblots but fail to see the real, common threats to our shared existence. Stare at the same inkblots and embrace a future that disregards and tramples on our own dignity. Stare at the same inkblots and perceive a distorted, threatening version of …. us. A zero sum mentality takes hold: if “they” act on their inky interpretations, then “we” are doomed.

Worse, our Rorschach test administrators are far from neutral observers, instead goading us on to see what they want us to see and disparaging other interpretations. “Look at what the radical socialist Left is trying to do,” whispers the politician over our shoulder. “Clearly these people are all hopeless racists,” exhorts the journalist from across the room. Slowly the inkblots morph from black to red, as our blood boils and we begin to imagine the previously unthinkable — our communities and our country descending into less-than-peaceful means of resolving our seemingly irreconcilable differences. 

In the past few years, we’ve had enough glimpses down that perilous abyss to sit up, take notice, and heed Martin Luther King’s call to nonviolence.  It may seem incredibly basic, even anemic in the face of so many societal challenges, but can we as Americans find common ground in the notion that we will confront our differences — even or especially the ones that feel most threatening to us — in ways that reject violent expression and embrace peaceful interaction?

Of course, you say.  I’m not a violent person.  I would never accept or tolerate, let alone participate in, acts of violence against fellow Americans. 

That’s a good start. Embracing nonviolence, however, is about so much more than what we would “not” or “never” do. It is also very much about what we will do, individually and societally, to establish and sustain powerful norms of nonviolence.  

What does it mean to be actively nonviolent, rather than just passively peaceful? In the words of Dr. King:

“In the nonviolent army, there is room for everyone who wants to join up. There is no color distinction. There is no examination, no pledge, except that, [just] as a soldier in the armies of violence is expected to inspect his carbine and keep it clean, nonviolent soldiers are called upon to examine their greatest weapons: their heart, their conscience, their courage and sense of justice.”

What does it mean, then, to exercise our heart, our conscience, our courage, and our sense of justice as members of today’s “nonviolent army?” 

It means, first and foremost, inspecting ourselves. Perhaps we can never imagine ourselves committing or condoning acts of violence against fellow Americans.  But dig deeper.  Can we keep our violent thoughts, feelings, and language choices in check?  Can we resist the impulse to engage in Schadenfreude when the “other” is harmed in some way? Fight the urge to be amused, entertained, or validated by a politicians’ use of hate speech, ad hominem attacks, or violent imagery? Recognize and reject the headline that seeks our clicks, likes, shares, and posts by verbally savaging a fellow human being? Can we instead proactively elevate voices (including our own) that appreciate, compliment, praise, respect, and honor those of different backgrounds and beliefs?

Further, can we resist succumbing to the numbing and normalizing that occurs when brutal acts of violence seem to be all around us, on a daily basis? School shootings, mall shootings, workplace shootings, police shootings, violent robberies, domestic abuse, always reported and lamented compactly, to fit 24-hour news cycles and make room for tomorrow’s sensational tragedy.  In America’s fetid stew of everyday violence, unique in modern Western economies, we create the context in which political violence, too, can be seen as tolerable and consistent with America’s unique brand identity.

Once we fully awaken ourselves to America’s violent undercurrents, and to the power of nonviolent conflict resolution as practiced by Dr. King in another era, we can do the important work of establishing and strengthening norms of nonviolence across America today

This work starts in homes, schools, physical communities, and virtual communities. Have we taught ourselves and others how to resolve conflict peacefully? Have we proactively stated our collective commitment to nonviolence? Have we reached those who may see violence as acceptable under some circumstances, both to hear their deepest concerns and to share ours? 

We may think that some within our communities are simply “unreachable,” that they will inevitably embrace violent thoughts, words, and even deeds either as a means to an end, or simply as an end unto itself. Dr. King’s response to this is emphatic:

“I am convinced that even violent temperaments can be channeled through nonviolent discipline, if they can act constructively and express through an effective channel their very legitimate anger.”

The work of establishing norms of nonviolence extends upward into broader society. As citizens and as consumers, what will we accept and reject?  Speak out for or against?  Whom will we choose as our heroes and villains? Can we be guided, in each of these choices we make, by a principled and active commitment to nonviolence between fellow Americans?  Perhaps hardest of all, can we extend goodwill, charity, and even love towards those with whom we ourselves most fervently disagree? To quote Dr. King a final time:

“Nonviolence is absolute commitment to the way of love. Love is not emotional bash; it is not empty sentimentalism. It is the active outpouring of one’s whole being into the being of another.”

On Martin Luther King Day, then, let us commit ourselves to bringing the heat down in our communities and our country.  Being more curious, less furious.  And above all, embracing norms of nonviolence even in the face of our inevitable, intractable differences. This seems like an idea that more than half of America can get behind.

To learn more about bridge-building, peace-building, and nonviolence efforts in America, consider joining or financially supporting organizations like these:

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