Between Hope and a Hard Place

January 17, 2011 Leave a comment

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In her keynote address at Boston’s Martin Luther King, Jr. breakfast, Dr. Melissa Harris-Perry invited us to consider the meaning of Dr. King’s 1967 book, Where do We Go From Here: Chaos or Community (excerpt here) at in this political moment. She reminded us what was going on in 1966, as Dr. King wrote. The Freedom Movement had achieved many legal and legislative victories by then, (Brown vs. Board of Education supporting school desegregation and the Voting Rights Act to name just a few). The Movement and its victories created justifiable hope that the lives of people on the margins of our society could improve. At the same time, poverty and racism still created the need for continued struggle. By 1966-67, many felt their hope was no longer justifiable in the face of violent backlash and intractable injustices. In the face of withering criticism including charges of cowardice, Dr. King continued to urge the country toward community rather than chaos, without shrinking back from the justice issues before him.

Dr. Harris-Perry suggested that we are facing a similar question today. At our crossroads, will we choose chaos or community? While cautioning against simplistic attempts to compare President Obama with Dr. King, she pointed out that both men led multigenerational, interracial movements that raised great hopes – hopes that were not easily or quickly fulfilled. Noting the great hopes that arose during the 2008 presidential election, she posited that the current bitterness of the political climate is fueled in no small part by the disappointment of those whose hopes have not yet been fulfilled. It would be easy for President Obama to lead us into chaos. Instead, he’s calling us to choose community. While some want him to fight back harder in the face of criticism and political setbacks, and call his desire for dialogue and compromise cowardice, he’s calling away from chaos and toward community.

Here’s where Dr. Harris-Perry’s talk turned toward IISC’s ongoing conversation about love as a force for social change. Community, it turns out, is a building block of democracy. Dr. Harris-Perry reminded us that “the desire to be seen is a deep human need” and that “mutually-affirming recognition” allows citizens to BE together and to experience the kind of reciprocity that is essential to democracy. “Empathy,” she said, “is political work” because “citizens need recognition as much as they need fair economics and politics.”

Empathy—truly seeing and being seen—is at the heart of social justice and social change. As citizens of a democracy, indeed as citizens of the world, we’re called to see others, without requiring them to be (or become) just like us. We’re called to see the injustices that affect others and to see those injustices as affronts to our own well-being. We’re called to a kind of “dangerous unselfishness” that puts the needs of others (for recognition, for the basics of life, for justice itself) at least on par with, if not ahead of, our own needs. Dr. Harris-Perry charged us to go forth heeding Dr. King’s call to this kind of dangerous unselfishness, noting that we “have the right and responsibility to choose community over chaos.”

At IISC, we will continue to do our part to create conditions where empathy and community can emerge in support of justice and social transformation. Tell us how you’re exercising your right and bearing your responsibility to choose community over chaos. We’d love to compare notes!

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  • Thank you so much for making this powerful link Cynthia, I’m interested in finding ways to foster love in the context of movement, practices that facilitate the development of empathy as a core skill – a way of being-with. If we can work ourselves to death trying to move policy in all the concrete ways that we know how to, then why should we not devote time and energy to the development of love within the very context of our work?

  • Jen Willsea says:

    Wonderful, Cynthia! I was re-reading parts of Where Do We Go From Here this morning and it just so good. A friend also reminded me today of the part in King’s Letter from Birmingham Jail, where he talks about “being extremists for love.” That definitely reminded me of the conversation we’ve been having at IISC too!

  • Curtis says:

    Thank you, Cynthia. I really like this notion of empathy being political work. So much of what I have been experiencing lately in the advocacy world has come across as being rather soul-less, owing to the extreme transactional and analytical emphasis. When policy gets put before people, I get this uncomfortable feeling in my gut. It feels like people are playing dangerous games. I agree with you and Dr. Harris-Perry that really seeing others is so fundamental to this work.

  • Cynthia Silva Parker says:

    Yes to all of you. I like the reminder about being an “extremist for love.” That’s one thing we could use a lot more of!

  • Joanne Silca says:

    Faith Hope and Love are the mainstays of life.

  • Joanne Silva says:

    Love & Ta TAA from Mom

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