Fifty years ago today, April 4, 1967, Dr. Martin Luther King delivered a powerful speech in which he connected the U.S. civil rights movement to opposition to the Vietnam War.
His words about nonviolent action, compassion, and social change remain meaningful today – especially today.
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.
I have been thinking a lot lately about things like reaching out for truth in a “post-truth” society and reaching out to the “other” when the first impulse is to attack. Elizabeth Lesser offers not just advice, but powerful lived examples, in her October 2016 TED Talk, Say your truths and seek them in others:
You don’t have to wait for a life-or-death situation to clean up the relationships that matter to you, to offer the marrow of your soul and to seek it in another. We can all do this. We can be like a new kind of first responder, like the one to take the first courageous step toward the other, and to do something or try to do something other than rejection or attack. We can do this with our siblings and our mates and our friends and our colleagues. We can do this with the disconnection and the discord all around us. We can do this for the soul of the world.
Feeling discouraged about the racism, hate-mongering, xenophobia, and bullying that appear to be dominating the national conversation this election cycle? A friend, who knew that I would be, sent me this wonderful little animation this morning. I am sharing it to encourage hope — and action.
The film, The Coming Birth of The Empathic Civilization Will Be One of The Greatest Moments in Human History, is created by RSAnimate to animate a 2010 speech by Jeremy Rifkin. The speech was based on his 2009 book, The Empathic Civilization. The encouraging message from the film is that we have the biological and technical capacity to become an empathic civilization:
- The discovery of mirror neurons reveals that we are hard-wired to experience another’s suffering as if it is our own.
- Studies across a variety of disciplines show that we are soft-wired for “sociability, attachment, affection, and companionship,” rather than “aggression, violence, self-interest, and utilitarianism.”
- Our fundamental empathic drive is to belong.
- We show our solidarity with others through compassion.
- History shows that civilization has grown as the circle of empathy has widened from tribe, to religion, to nation-states. That is, “to empathize is to civilize.”
The challenge now is to take the next steps, to “rethink the human narrative” and human institutions in such a way that we can extend empathy to the entire human race, other creatures, and our biosphere. Moreover, Rifkin’s broader message is that we need to do so because we are at a “pivotal turning point for our species.”
The question is how. This is no small endeavor (as we can see in the headlines on any given day), but what a life-affirming project to pursue. If you are motivated for this kind of change, one place where you can go to examine the possibilities is the website, The Culture of Empathy. There, Edwin Rutsch has curated a collection of ideas and conversations on the subject from a wide range of scholars and practitioners. Maybe this wealth of wisdom will encourage your own ideas, too. At the very least, it will encourage hope.
As both Charles Blow and Nicholas Kristof noted yesterday, removing the confederate flag from public property is only a start to addressing larger issues of institutional racism in the U.S. Still, we cannot lose sight of the fact that symbolism matters, especially in social change movements. The movement to remove the confederate flag from public property has opened conversations, sharpened compassion for others, enabled people to see the symbolism of the flag in a new light, and spurred private action, as this story so aptly illustrates:
In Austin, Tex., a tall bearded man went into the tattoo parlor where Kelly Barr works with a request: the removal of a 10-year-old tattoo of the Confederate flag.
He told Mr. Barr that he had decided to get the flag removed when he saw the pained look on a middle-aged black woman at his gym on Monday.
“ ‘If South Carolina can take theirs down,’ ” Mr. Barr recalled him saying, “ ‘I can take mine down.’ ” I told him, “ ‘Right on.’ ”
Robertson, C. (2015, June 24). Flag supporters react with a mix of compromise, caution, and outright defiance. The New York Times. Retrieved from http://www.nytimes.com/2015/06/24/us/politics/supporters-of-confederate-battle-flag-watch-as-symbol-is-stripped-from-public-eye.html