A Malcolm and a Martin
June 9, 2006
I've been thinking a lot recently about how to be a good advocate or evangelist for an idea, movement, or cause. The short version is, you gotta have a Malcolm, and you gotta have a Martin. I've used the phrase before in referring, of course, to Malcolm X and Martin Luther King, Jr., but more broadly to the idea that change requires both revolution and evolution.
Any cause or effort starts with people who are suggesting that we tear down the old and replace it with the new. But most causes actually succeed when someone who's more conciliatory helps make the change seem palatable, or even better, inevitable.
The downside of a movement requiring both an extremist and a moderate in order to advance is that many times, those two viewpoints, even though they share a common goal, can tend to see each other as their worst enemies. This is why a lot of more radical efforts are plagued by infighting and big egos. Progressives tend to be the worst in this regard -- instead of seeing the establishment or conventional wisdom as their enemy, they fight hardest against the person that's 99% in agreement with them. I guess that last 1% can seem like a big deal sometimes.
Now, this idea is pretty obvious to a lot of people. But I'm always surprised how often people don't realize they're playing one of these roles and are unwilling to consider the importance of their complement. The other thing that's surprising is how often people switch; It's often noted that by the time Malcolm became El-Hajj Malik El-Shabazz, he was closer in words and spirit to Martin Luther King, Jr.'s ideas than to where he started.
This is true in much more mundane realms than civil rights, of course. It can be as simple as trying to get people to pay attention to work you're doing, or to care about an issue that matters to you. Be aware whether you're the moderate progressive or the radical revolutionary, and recognize the value of those who have the same goals but are taking a different path. Being effective at persuasion is a really tricky thing.
But as I mentioned in my post the other day, you need to have someone hold an extreme position to get a moderate change. And whether you're being an extremist or not, you have to have pretty thick skin. The hard part with both of those constraints is that they make it easy to lose perspective when you're trying to make an argument.
I'm still a beginner at this stuff, but I thought it might be interesting to share what I've figured out so far. It helps me when I'm talking to a group of people and want to make sure I'm not antagonizing them or alienating them with my own position. And I figure having jotted this down here means I can refer to it in the future myself the next time I forget.