Order and Chaos: Non-Violence is a Form of Education

Civil rights

In this July 15, 1963 photo, firefighters aim their hoses on civil rights demonstrators in Birmingham, Alabama. (AP Photo/Bill Hudson)

[O]ver the past few years I have been gravely disappointed with the white moderate. 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. – Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.; Letter from a Birmingham Jail

I so love this quote from MLK – in part for its ideas, and in part because it comes from a man we’ve historically deified as a peacemaker among races, rather than as a non-violent but simultaneously threatening force of activism during his lifetime.

MLK was not a purveyor of negative peace – the movement he facilitated disrupted dominant ideologies, and shined a light on the chaos that much of America experiences to preserve the order and comfort that others get to enjoy. Non-violent protest was not an act of peacemaking – it was an expedient form of public education. It was a powerful way to let ‘law and order’ reveal its truest function in our society – to show that preservation of order in fact involves a lot of chaos and violence, often rained down on those who have done nothing to deserve it. Non-violent protest was a powerful way to say, “Look at these policemen and firemen, these agents of public safety whose sanctioned role is to preserve order in our society. Whose order do our institutions preserve? Whose chaos do our institutions perpetuate? Observe the chaos and danger some people must endure, so that a few may experience order and safety.” And because some of these protests were televised, the Civil Rights Movement was the first time in history where someone else’s suffering could cover incredible distances in a short span of time, traveling into living rooms all over the country – bringing black images of chaos into white spaces of order and comfort.

Televised non-violent protests in the Sixties, similar to present-day social media updates bearing news of senseless murders, unveils a discomfiting truth – which is that all order and peace and comfort is bought and paid for by someone else’s suffering (often unheard and unseen, often silenced and hidden) somewhere else in the world. Someone is always enduring chaos in our world, so that others may experience order. So, when my world is disrupted, when chaos (that has always existed) comes into sudden and uncomfortable consciousness, it’s hard to acknowledge that I have so much to learn about how other humans live, and harder still to realize that how other humans live (or don’t) is actually endorsed by the way I live.

Waking up is hard. Waking up is only the beginning.

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3 thoughts on “Order and Chaos: Non-Violence is a Form of Education

  1. I feel such a rage inside. The rational adult in me says, ” There has been an awful illustration of oppression long before I came to be”. The everyday me is ill from witnessing constant evidence of black people (male,female, child, or trans) being devalued and demoralized and left helpless…. that is enraging. The constant hate-crimes and murders that are allowed to continue without penalty is enraging.
    I appreciate the power of your pen, Irene; you share your truth and I hope people are listening. Thank you for writing.

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