Michael Gale


Musing about Martin Luther King in the lead up to MLK Day on Monday and thinking about how the actions of a few people standing up against injustice are so inspiring. The Civil Rights Movement in the US resonated around the world and provided so many great images and stories. It was a peaceful movement and many people claim therein lay its great success because it enabled a mass acceptance and appeal. This Gandhi like approach to political change resonates strongly across popular culture. The same is said of “people power” in the Philippines that removed Marcos and then in Russia that brought down Communism. More recently of course we have the Arab Spring. There are so many other examples. However I am not convinced that the core agent of success was peaceful protest. I think it was the more complex idea of a just cause. The anti-Vietnam War protests and the Hippie movement were essentially peaceful as is the Occupy Movement but those all had an equal number of detractors and were much less effective at creating real change. I think the reason is that they were controversial. I think it doesn’t matter if you seek change peacefully as in the Suffragettes, opportunistically like the fall of the Berlin Wall or violently like the American Civil War. You can be the Egyptians protesting peacefully in Tahrir Square or the Libyans launching a civil war. The thing that causes a snowball effect of support is the sense that a cause is just and right and the success in creating heroes and the right media message so that the inescapable fairness of a cause shines through and then it gains mass popularity and thus political support. Clearly the Civil Rights Movement fought the idea that treating people differently because they were black was acceptable and most people naturally knew in their hearts that of course discrimination on the basis of color is wrong. But many many white people at the time and still today do actually have an almost instinctive negative or fearful perception of blacks and so a movement that was so obviously right and also assuaged collective guilt had real power. Supporting the Civil Rights Movement made people feel better about their own prejudices. I think so many westerners got interested in change in the middle east in 2011 because they recognize the justice of people seeking freedom and democracy but also because they are guilty about their own prejudices against Arabs and Muslims, particularly post 9/11. So in musing this through I think you can create a massively popular movement for change if the issue is just in the sense that most people will see it to be so (if there is a significant body of opponents who believe they are just in their opposition it doesn’t work, hence why the gay rights movement has found it so much harder) and you need people to have a guilt they can assuage by enthusiastically supporting the cause.

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