civil rights, ethics, Frederick Douglass, Joseph Cinque, Machiavelli, Margaret Garner, Martin Luther King, Nat Turner, power, principle
(This post is adapted from a talk I gave on February 20 to the Quincy, Illinois, Unitarian Church.)
In 1857, Frederick Douglass gave a speech at a commemoration in Canandigua, New York, of the abolition of slavery in Britain’s West Indies colonies. Slavery had been abolished in the West Indies twenty-three years earlier, and abolitionists in the United States often looked to that campaign for inspiration and lessons, and used it as evidence that American slavery could and would also be abolished someday.
But 1857 was a dark year for the abolitionist movement. The Fugitive Slave Law, passed by Congress in 1850, had survived court challenges and had made escape from slavery extremely difficult. The Kansas-Nebraska Act, passed in 1854, had legalized the expansion of slavery into the Western territories and led directly to the “Bleeding Kansas” conflict. And the Dred Scott decision had been handed down earlier that year, depriving enslaved persons of any Constitutional protection. So the United States appeared to be heading in the opposite direction from Great Britain, toward the permanent establishment of slavery and few legal means of combatting it.
So when Frederick Douglass stood up to speak at a ceremony celebrating slavery’s abolition in a different country than his own, you can imagine that such a celebration might feel rather hollow. And perhaps you can see why he felt the need to speak in unsparing terms.
About halfway through his remarks, Douglass says:
“Let me give you a word of the philosophy of reform. The whole history of the progress of human liberty shows that all concessions yet made to her august claims have been born of earnest struggle. The conflict has been exciting, agitating, all-absorbing, and for the time being, putting all other tumults to silence. It must do this or it does nothing. If there is no struggle there is no progress. Those who profess to favor freedom and yet deprecate agitation are men who want crops without plowing up the ground; they want rain without thunder and lightning. They want the ocean without the awful roar of its many waters.
“This struggle may be a moral one, or it may be a physical one, and it may be both moral and physical, but it must be a struggle. Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will. Find out just what any people will quietly submit to and you have found out the exact measure of injustice and wrong which will be imposed upon them, and these will continue till they are resisted with either words or blows, or with both. The limits of tyrants are prescribed by the endurance of those whom they oppress. In the light of these ideas, Negroes will be hunted at the North and held and flogged at the South so long as they submit to those devilish outrages and make no resistance, either moral or physical. Men may not get all they pay for in this world, but they must certainly pay for all they get. If we ever get free from the oppressions and wrongs heaped upon us, we must pay for their removal. We must do this by labor, by suffering, by sacrifice, and if needs be, by our lives and the lives of others.”
The radicalism of Douglass’ thoughts here is pretty apparent, but in case we missed his point, he goes on in the speech to do a remarkable thing. He cites a number of people whom he identifies as heroes in the fight against slavery, and they are not the usual list. First up is Margaret Garner, who in his words, “plunge[d] a knife into the bosom of her infant to save it from the hell of our Christian slavery.” The incident, which caused a great stir in the 1850s as Garner was put on trial for murder, served as the inspiration for Toni Morrison’s novel Beloved, currently the subject of censorship attempts at various schools around the country. Also on Douglass’ list is Joseph Cinqué, the leader of the rebellion aboard the slave ship Amistad, and the early rebellion leader Nat Turner. Douglass’ enumeration includes a number of other enslaved people who either killed or were killed in their pursuit of freedom. Not a peaceful protestor among them.
His point couldn’t be clearer. Progress is accomplished, he is telling us, by people who are confrontational, who are difficult, who are even kind of scary. Power concedes nothing without a demand. The limits of tyrants are prescribed by the endurance of those whom they oppress. Martin Luther King deliberately echoed Douglass’ words in his famous ”Letter from Birmingham Jail,” when he wrote, “freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor; it must be demanded by the oppressed,” although King took the path of nonviolence rather than Douglass’ approach, which I suppose we could call the any-means-necessary view. This is not a message I think most of us want to hear. It’s a call to make trouble, to be trouble. And if there’s anything in this world I dislike and try to avoid, it’s making trouble.
I suspect I’m not the only one who feels this tension. I believe deeply in the goals of social justice, equality, and progress. But by upbringing and temperament I try to get along with people. I avoid conflict, and I put a premium on being amiable and accommodating. So I find myself wondering if there’s any way to reconcile these two conflicting tendencies.
This question leads me to the Seven Principles of Unitarian Universalism:
The inherent worth and dignity of every person;
Justice, equity and compassion in human relations;
Acceptance of one another and encouragement to spiritual growth in our congregations;
A free and responsible search for truth and meaning;
The right of conscience and the use of the democratic process within our congregations and in society at large;
The goal of world community with peace, liberty, and justice for all;
Respect for the interdependent web of all existence of which we are a part.
It seems to me that the relevant principle to consider here is the second one, the call for justice, equity, and compassion in human relations. If that’s the goal, the question is how to reach that goal. Because it’s all too clear that justice, equity, and compassion in human relations are in short supply nowadays. They always have been, and it’s not my place to say whether the “arc of history,” as King called it, is bending upward or downward at the moment. I’d like to imagine that it’s bending toward justice, but I don’t have that degree of confidence. But what I can say is that if you want to increase justice, equity, and compassion, you need to be able to exert power.
The seven principles are reticent on how power should be attained and used, other than that we are supposed to recognize the inherent worth and dignity of every person, and presumably that includes people we consider distasteful or wrong. Even oppressors have inherent worth and dignity, I suppose. And the exercise of power should be done democratically, according to Principle 5. In an ideal political world, these general guidelines would work just fine. But in the world as it is, they seem to put us at a disadvantage in the effort to gain power, treating people respectfully and reasonably even if they are neither reasonable nor respectful. King gets around that dilemma by relying on patience and numbers. Present setbacks can always be seen in the arc of history as temporary things. And our own setbacks and victories fade when we see them as part of a larger movement. I may not be able to make a difference in the world, but perhaps hundreds of thousands, or even millions, of people acting like me might.
But these are big, abstract thoughts, and big abstract thoughts don’t help a person much in moments of decision or daily challenge. What I need at such moments is a reliable sense of how to act, how to behave when I want to influence people. How to gain and maintain power, in short, without violating my UU principles.
Anyone thinking about power has to consider Machiavelli. We don’t like to think that Machiavelli, with his famous statement that “the end justifies the means,” would be a proper model for our behavior. But we do have things to learn from Machiavelli. Remember that he began that passage by observing that if everyone was good, then it would be reasonable and logical to act in good faith at all times and to rely on mutual respect and goodness. But, Machiavelli says, people are not good. In fact, people cannot be trusted to do the right thing. So to act as if they will is to invite destruction.
Some of the statements attributed to Jesus appear to do just that. Love your enemies. Do good to them that hate you. When I hear these words, I have to admit, my first reaction is, “Is he kidding?” How could a person hope to accomplish anything in the world with that approach? I don’t want to get into the theological swamps here, so I’ll just say that I am not saintly enough to live up to those admonitions. On a good day, I can be respectful and decent to my enemies, but that’s as far as I can go.
So to circle around to the original question again. How to gain and use power ethically, within the framework of freedom and responsibility. I pondered this question for a couple of days until I realized I was making a fundamental error.
If you’re from my generation, you probably remember the Unitarian minister Robert Fulghum, whose book Everything I Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten was a huge cultural phenomenon in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s. If I were ever to write a version of that book, it would probably be titled, “Everything I Need to Know I Taught in Freshman Speech Class.” For a good 30 years at various colleges, I taught some version of freshman speech, a class that typically includes some basic elements of interpersonal communication and group communication as well as public speaking. And I remembered that in our group communication unit, we always did a section on power.
Power, simply defined, is your ability to get other people to do what you want. When you put it in those simple terms, you realize fairly quickly that there are a lot of different kinds of power. What Frederick Douglass was talking about is coercive power, the ability to make people follow your desires through fear of the consequences if they don’t. When the state trooper asks to see your driver’s license, you produce it, not because you share common goals, but because refusing could put you in a world of trouble. But in daily life, we don’t respond to, or use, coercive power that often. More often, we use other forms of power.
How do you get somebody to do what you want? I recall that when I worked at Columbia College, I had a co-worker who always got people to do things her way. What was her secret? Well, if you didn’t agree to do things her way, she would bite your head off, question your integrity, bombard you with scathing e-mails, and complain to the higher-ups. And I don’t even want to tell you how she treated her students. She was someone who took to heart Machiavelli’s precept that it is better to be feared than loved. I suspect many of you have similar stories of workplace ill behavior. People who exert power, not respectfully or responsibly, but through intimidation and bullying, or manipulation and emotional plays.
But other levers of power are also available to us. I am reminded of the Stephen Spender poem that is in the Unitarian hymnal: “I think continually of those who were truly great.”
Who, from the womb, remembered the soul’s history
Through corridors of light where the hours are suns
Endless and singing. Whose lovely ambition
Was that their lips, still touched with fire,
Should tell of the Spirit clothed from head to foot in song.
By “truly great,” Spender means people who are true to themselves, who act with imagination and integrity. These are the people he thinks of continually and tries to emulate. Each of us has our own personal library of those who were truly great in our lives, people whose example we try to live up to. That’s another kind of power, the power to affect people’s behavior by presenting them with a model to shape their decisions on.
And finally, if you want people to act in a particular way, the highest and best form of power is to get them to agree with you. Nowadays we use the word “rhetoric” pejoratively, as if there’s something suspicious about it, but rhetoric has traditionally been seen through the centuries as the art of persuasion. A skilled rhetorician is someone who uses the power of persuasion to get people to see things their way, and thus exerts influence by creating common consent.
We may despair of such a concept nowadays, in what has been called the age of disinformation, in which falsehoods and manipulations seem to proliferate faster than our ability to stamp them out. But I am not giving up hope on that form of power. I think it’s ultimately the answer to our dilemma, no matter how unsatisfying it may be in the short term. If we educate our fellow citizens, our neighbors, our co-workers, and especially our children, in the ways of recognizing faulty logic and manipulative argument, we inoculate them against the misuses of power that we see all around. If we provide them with an example of how to behave in our dealings with others, we give them support when they have to make those kinds of decisions. And if we rely on reason and moral persuasion when we argue, we can follow our UU principles while at the same time making the kind of demands on power that are necessary for change.