On being wrong…
One of the things I’ve had at the back of my mind, encouraging me to start blogging again, is the idea of writing a series of posts about things I’ve changed my mind about over the years. I have a few goals with this:
- Personally, it’s a convenient way of staking out what I actually believe in, which may not be as obvious as I think it is, especially in terms of the themes that connect disparate ideas. An awkward conversation with my uncle a couple of months ago, in which I wholly failed to explain why the shift from environmental advocacy to the well-being movement was not only logical but also a much smaller jump than it looked to him, brought home how poorly I’ve been doing this lately.
- There’s some value in specifically setting out what I believe in now, because it’s so easy to assume that something someone said a decade ago must still be what they think today. Another conversation highlighted the importance of this one – in this case a long slow email discussion with an old friend about why I don’t love The Economist like I used to, in which he mentioned that he doesn’t exactly know what I believe today since we’ve only been able to speak infrequently in the 9 years since I left Britain.
- In the grand scheme of things, this feels like my little way of chipping away at the absurd prevailing media culture in which it’s unacceptable to accept ever having been wrong, and changes of opinion are regarded as mortal weakness. In the spirit of Dougald Hine‘s beautiful New Public Thinking project, I think it’s important to have the courage to admit I was wrong in public. My doing this won’t have the impact of, say, a politician doing it, but every voice shifts the Overton Window a little, and at least I can afford to do this.
- Some of these will also serve as a sort of mea culpa to people who I argued with at the time, but later realised were right. If that were the main purpose I wouldn’t need to say this publicly – it’s the other reasons that have me putting these in a blog.
…About the marriage equality campaign
For most, if not all, of the time I’ve lived in the U.S. marriage equality has been a big political issue. I’ve always found it absurd that marriage can be restricted to a particular sanctioned combination of genders, and I don’t even understand why a homophobe should care about gay marriage. But I have in the past been quite critical of some of the more radical, aggressive, impatient campaigners, feeling that their pushiness set back the cause and they should be subtler and less pushy. Over a few years, I’ve slowly been convinced that not only was this a misreading of the correct strategy, it was also something I had no right to say as an outsider to this campaign.
I hadn’t intended to start this series with this topic, but as it happens I read Martin Luther King’s Letter from a Birmingham Jail today. I am a huge admirer of Dr. King—in fact, I can’t think of anyone I admire more—so his words tend to be particularly persuasive to me. The letter is just like his speeches, in that it’s almost perfectly written, with the combination of a an impeccably logical argument, a patient listing of unarguable grievances, and a continual building of the rhetorical pitch. I couldn’t read it without hearing his voice in my head and being carried along with him.
In this instance, it wasn’t that his words started the process of change, but they formed a sort of capstone, summing up the reasons why I’ve changed my mind about this. There were two parts in particular. The first:
I have just received a letter from a white brother in Texas. He writes: “All Christians know that the colored people will receive equal rights eventually, but it is possible that you are in too great a religious hurry. It has taken Christianity almost two thousand years to accomplish what it has. The teachings of Christ take time to come to earth.” Such an attitude stems from a tragic misconception of time, from the strangely irrational notion that there is something in the very flow of time that will inevitably cure all ills. Actually, time itself is neutral; it can be used either destructively or constructively. More and more I feel that the people of ill will have used time much more effectively than have the people of good will. We will have to repent in this generation not merely for the hateful words and actions of the bad people but for the appalling silence of the good people. Human progress never rolls in on wheels of inevitability; it comes through the tireless efforts of men willing to be co workers with God, and without this hard work, time itself becomes an ally of the forces of social stagnation. We must use time creatively, in the knowledge that the time is always ripe to do right. Now is the time to make real the promise of democracy and transform our pending national elegy into a creative psalm of brotherhood. Now is the time to lift our national policy from the quicksand of racial injustice to the solid rock of human dignity.
From this I took a sharp rebuke against the idea that I, as an outsider to this particular liberation struggle, can ever tell the group fighting for nothing more than rights I already have that they should slow down. It’s one thing to be an outsider and appreciate that a group is discriminated against and suffers as a result. It’s quite another to understand what it feels like (something Dr. King’s letter is particularly eloquent about) and have a sense of the history and depth of the grievance. Without being able to gauge that, I should have just shut my trap.
For the full significance of this, back to Dr. King:
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 don’t really need to explain the parallel here, do I? I have gradually become convinced that when I’m being the [privileged outsider] moderate it’s important to just step aside and let the people who really understand the issue speak.
To be honest, I feel a little stupid about both of these issues. They’re things I should have been able to see 10 years ago. There’s a third mistake, which I feel much less stupid about and which will be a bit of a sub-theme in these posts: misreading a situation in the U.S. because I mistook it for being exactly like the somewhat equivalent situation in Britain, where I grew up.
The marriage equality movement in Britain has mostly been content to work in a more gradualist way than their counterparts in the U.S., and it’s mostly been rewarded with slow but steady progress. So naturally when I moved to the U.S. and saw this argument going on with so much more energy but so much less visible progress, I assumed that they’d be better off copying the Brits. It took the viciousness with which homophobia was exploited as a turnout booster in the 2004 elections for me to understand just how much worse things were here, and it took me a few more years to really see the impact of separate but “equal”. Only after some years of seeing how things really work over here, and learning about history that’s barely taught in British schools (“what do you mean, things happened in the U.S. between independence and the Cuban Missile Crisis?”) could I understand why the strategy and timing that made sense in Britain just don’t transfer.
When I see similar issues today, I am mindful of this misjudgement and do my best not to prefer the “negative peace which is the absence of tension” to real progress.