One way to get out of the box that’s dominated by your values is to make an imaginative leap, like taking on the perspective of someone you admire, and trying to see a situation--any situation where you’ve “already made up your mind”--through their eyes.
Values fuel your commitments, but the deep motivations behind them can also close off disagreeable viewpoints before you’ve even had a chance to think about them. In other words, feeling that you’ve already made up your mind is just that--a feeling.
It takes an effort to keep yourself open for long enough that your mind can go to work. In fact, it’s probably fair to say that your mind is never truly open unless you’re making an effort beforehand.
One approach is to let your imagination and a truly admirable perspective interrupt all that moral certainty for a change.
1. Making This Kind of Imaginative Leap Takes Preparation
In order to take “a leap of the imagination” like this, you have to decide that you really want to see old things in a new way. Inhabiting another’s perspective takes preparation beforehand, because when you don't lay down a track for yourself to follow to this kind of end, it’s easier to forget where you’re going or get bogged down by the prejudices you were trying to escape.
You also have to want to leave the beautiful garden of moral certainty that you’ve created for yourself—this gated community where everything that you believe in feels well grounded, while looking both orderly and well-considered to everybody whose opinion matters to you.
So taking on a hero’s perspective—particularly when you suspect that you might disagree with some of it—requires your will as well as your imagination. You have to be suspicious enough of your own moral certainties and willing enough to see the world through, say, Martin Luther King’s eyes, that you actually plan to sit down and make the effort sometime.
Yes. My suggestion is for you to try to see your convictions through Martin Luther King's eyes.
2. But First, A Few Reminders About What MLK Stood For
Most of those who were alive when Martin Luther King was assassinated are now more than 30 years older than King was when he died—and all they have to remember him are teenage and grade-school memories. In other words, few of us ever reached mature judgments about him when he was alive.
As a result, in the years since his assassination in 1968, MLK was often appropriated by those (like us) who have attempted to pour his life or words into what they stand for. Taking a heroic figure from the past and making him serve your current interests has been called “usable history,” or making a person or event from the past serve your agenda today. Sometimes, this distorts the past for the sake of the present or future. It can simplify who an historical figure really was by sanding off the rough edges that made him remarkable in the first place. In politics, it’s happened to John and Robert Kennedy. In business innovation, to Steve Jobs. And when it comes to moral leadership during a troubled time, it’s happened to Martin Luther King.
An accurate picture of this remarkable man includes the following convictions—which never waivered.
For example, while MLK spoke passionately about the white racism that was holding his people down, he also spoke about anti-social behavior in poor black communities, telling a black congregation in St. Louis that “we’ve got to do something about our moral standards” as well.
“We know that there are many things wrong in the white world, but there are many things wrong in the black world too. We can’t keep on blaming the white man. There are things we must do for ourselves.”
He repeatedly urged his young followers to assume responsibility for their actions despite the racial barriers they confronted. While not always succeeding, King always tried to be “color-blind” by holding every combatant in the struggle for civil rights accountable for what they said and did. He was also convinced that everyone--black and white--shared a basic decency, even when their words and deeds suggested otherwise.
This is why a black commentator recently lamentedthe divisive place where at least some of this great man’s legacy had landed today:
“A generation of blacks who have more opportunity than any previous generation are being taught that America offers them little more than trigger-happy cops, bigoted teachers and biased employers. It’s not only incorrect, but as King and a previous generation of black leaders understood, also unhelpful.”
Why is it unhelpful? Because it denies what MLK saw as a unity among people that goes deeper than their actions and provides a ground for hope that's essential to problem-solving and reconciliation.
Another part of King’s legacy—and one that the passage of time has been less able to distort—is the power and eloquence of his words.
Martin Luther King (like Lincoln and Churchill before him) understood that people need to be stirred to appropriate action during times of upheaval. As much as anything, it was his beautiful words beautifully delivered that drove the Civil Rights Movement and continue to inspire us today. It’s a rare facet of leadership when you can carry a crowd or a nation on the shoulders of your words.
This is also true of great leaders like MLK: It is never just about how to resist your personal fears or political forces that are beyond your control. It is also about how you and your opponents can recover so that you’ll be strong enough to confront the inevitable aftershocks that follow.
So while MLK never stopped challenging injustice, he also never waivered in his vision of a better America at the other end—a hope that he struggled mightily to personify. We remember his resistance today, but what put King on a higher plane of leadership than anyone else in living memory was his ability to balance his confrontations of racial inequality with a restorative view of the future. For him, the anguish of non-violent protest was always relieved by his belief in human decency and resilience to overcome what divides us. The dream that sustained him was always for a recovered (and stronger) nation at the other end.
It was Martin Luther King’s ability to never stop speaking about how we should face what’s coming “now,” “next” and “ultimately” that reminds us of Lincoln during the Civil War and Churchill during the darkest days of World War II. It was his ability to find our basic decency and resilience at each stage that can continue to rally us today.
3. A Stirring Proposal
To get out of your moral comfort zone, the proposal is to try-on MLK’s perspective. As in these pictures from NYC’s Upper East Side last fall, the recommendation is for purposeful wandering beyond the confines of the tidy borders and careful gardens that your values have arranged for you. In other words, you become the dogs and dog walkers in this scenario, sniffing around the edges of what you believe and finding out whether you can be more open to those who disagree with your views about correctness.
Trying on Martin Luther King’s perspective wasn’t my idea. It came from Cornel West and Robert George a little over a week ago when every talking head and op-ed writer seemed to be recalling King’s legacy. West and George both teach at Princeton: West teaches something called “the practice of public philosophy” and George teaches jurisprudence. In the “Houses of Worship” column of the Wall Street Journal, they wrote as follows:
"One of us invokes “the radical King” in criticizing empire, capitalism, and white supremacy. The other recalls King’s principles in defending the unborn, Down syndrome and other disabled people, the frail elderly, and every life…
[Because of the range and depth of his views], in judging and acting, we must avoid sinning against King’s legacy by facilely claiming him for whatever policies we favor. A more fitting attitude, one consistent with what was truly radical about King, is to imagine him as a critic: “If Martin Luther King would be on the other side of where I happen to be on this question—why?”
This self-critical stance honors King by recognizing the centrality of his Christian faith to his work and witness…
King was truly radical in his literal reading of Jesus’ command that we love others unconditionally, selflessly and self-sacrificially. And by “others,” he meant everyone—even those who defend injustice. He believed in struggling hard, and with conviction, for what one believes is right; but he equally insisted on seeing others as precious brothers and sisters, even if one judges them to be gravely in error…
King saw himself as the leader of a love-inspired movement, not a tribe or “identity group,” and that is because his radical love ethic refused to divide people into tribes and identity groups."
You can readthe West-George piece here, so that nothing is lost in my excerpting from it. I also propose, with its authors, that you put MLK inside your head and imagine that he’s your critic.
“If Martin Luther King would be on the other side of where I happen to be on this question—why?”
You might be surprised where this act of the imagination takes you, and how quickly the moral barriers between you and those you disagree with so fervently might start to come down.
4. More of King’s Words
What made me write about King today was seeing a new documentary about the days in Memphis before his assassination, hearing part of his last speech at the Mason Temple on April 3, 1968, and then sitting in one place and listening to the whole speech from start to finish.
It’s a long speech, almost 45 minutes, but the singles, doubles and triples he sends into the crowd with that sonorous voice—like “if only he’d sneezed” after someone tried to kill him once before—flow with a kind of inevitability into his final grand slam and onto that fateful next day. Taken as a whole, it's magnificent.
And here’s why. Not only does it consistently bridge his now, his next and his ultimately with what he calls “dangerous unselfishness,” it also demonstrates how much Martin Luther King lived his own words.
Little was going well for King in Memphis that week. There were constant death threats against him and he had to be afraid to go out his door every morning. It wasn’t just the courage it took him to march on the City’s mean streets, he also had to look brave when he knew that he might be dead by the end of the day. It was the oppressiveness of mortality on MLK himself that elevated his last words—how he embodied it and then rose above it, right in front of us.
If you want another reason to let Martin Luther King act as a critic in your head, listento this speech. It’s a privilege to be in the same room with him just hours before he died, hearing him live the words that hitched his own fears to a wider hope.
5. Taking a Walk Outside The Lines
These pictures convey the wonderful orderliness of my moral perspectives too. What’s right and what’s wrong for me is always so certain, arranged and impervious to the lifted leg of anyone who falls outside of it.
I’m for this, so I also against that and that and that: all neat and comfortable and predictable. But isn’t life messier and more interesting than that?
My self-esteem depends on projecting the best moral viewpoint I can come up with so I can be admired by my fellow believers for our shared truths. But isn’t self-esteem about more than the approval of others?
Now that the weather’s getting warmer, leave your fenced-in community of beliefs and take a walk with a different point of view--for your own good, and everybody elses.
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See you next Sunday!
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