I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: “We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal.” — Martin Luther King, Jr.
The true meaning, mind you– not merely what is reflected in the law, but in how we see each other. How we evaluate each other’s worth, respectability, humanity. Not by the color of each other’s skin, but the content of our characters. That, in turn, will reveal our collective character.
Dr. King’s foundation for his beliefs was unquestionably in his faith. Being a Baptist minister, that is where he found his strength: “I have a dream that one day every valley shall be exalted, every hill and mountain shall be made low, the rough places will be made plain, and the crooked places will be made straight, and the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all flesh shall see it together.” For him, the glory of the Lord could only be revealed when people of different colors could love and value each other as equals. Jennifer Sanborn writes:
You see, for me, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. is first and foremost a Baptist minister, and a child of the same. I imagine it is because I am also the child of a Baptist pastor (and grandchild of two others) that I take particular pride in placing “the Reverend” at the start of his name. “Reverend” is a title that he earned with his education and his occupation, but also a title to which he was called, bringing unparalleled dignity and relevance to what it means to serve society as a religious leader.
I’m sure many people feel similarly, now as well as when MLK originally gave that iconic speech, which was essentially a sermon to America on the meaning of loving one’s fellow man. As a non-believer I find no conflict in welcoming that sermon, and only a slight bit of discomfort in wondering how he would have responded if asked whether atheists would be included in the pluralistic group exhorted to “sing in the words of the old Negro spiritual, ‘Free at last! free at last! thank God Almighty, we are free at last!'” I won’t remotely pretend, however, that there is any comparing the lot of atheists to that of black Americans in 1963. That isn’t the point. The point is, from whence is a committment to equality derived for those who don’t believe it was God-given?
It would be a fair bet to say that prejudice almost always precedes rationalization, whatever that rationalization is. I’m pretty sure that human nature, perhaps ironically, includes both the justification for equality as well as the explanation for why humans are so prone to denying it. And that is because of two salient facts:
1. Both science and religion have, at many points and many places in history, been used to rationalize bigotry.
2. And yet, neither one has ever or will ever come up with a good reason to treat people unequally.
If either of the above points seems at all contentious, remember that the numerous mentions of slavery in the Bible were used as a primary reason to believe that black slavery was part of God’s divine order in the South, as well as the legacy of Spencerian “social Darwinism” which maintained that certain races were inherently inferior. After all, if it weren’t so, why were they doing so poorly? Why were they so easily conquered and used for the purposes of the more powerful white Europeans and Americans, if not because they are inherently inferior by evolution or design, whichever your preference?
I’m still in the midst of my very long quest to discover what exactly human nature is, anyway, but the revelation of the above facts in my life can be attributed primarily to the cognitive psychologist Steven Pinker around 2004. You see, after (and before) publishing a book called The Blank Slate which used powerful data from experimental psychology to demolish both the idea that there is no such thing as human nature as well as various myths about exactly what that nature is, Pinker and every other psychologist who uses evolution as a means to explain why humans behave as we do has been hounded by accusations that their work will be used to justify prejudice.
And you know what? That’s exactly what has happened. And it still happens. People think that if they can show differences between the psychology of men and women, homosexuals and heterosexuals, blacks and whites, they will be able to show that treating any one or more of those groups as inherently less human is justified. I really don’t want to get into all of the specific attempts to show that, because it would take away from the fundamental point that there’s nothing we can discover about a specific group of humans that would justify, for example, slavery. Nothing that would justify physical or cultural genocide, rape, internment, disenfranchisement. And that is because the humanity of humanity doesn’t need to be determined by conducting some elaborate experiment– it is literally standing right before us.
I believe that tribalism is instinctive– that people find an element of safety in clinging tightly to those who are like themselves. They will certainly base that in-group/out-group association on ideology, but it’s even easier to base it on traits that are evident at a glance. Familiarity and similarity are the primary triggers for empathy, which means that strangers and people not like us are the “best” enemies. And that is why, again and again throughout our history, we have been able to deny the humanity of certain groups of people in order to persecute them. Not by knowing them, looking them in the face, having a conversation…because that would demonstrate that they’re more like us than we thought.
I suppose that’s where I find my fundamental belief in equality– the abject failure, despite our best and most heart-felt efforts, to show that any class of humans really doesn’t deserve the label of “human.” Martin Luther King Jr. managed to punch through that barrier of prejudice for so many people because he emphasized how much we have in common, how similar we are fundamentally, and how different life could be if we were just willing to encounter each other as fellow human beings, fairly and honestly. That’s why his speech had and continues to have such a tremendous impact, and why we continue working to make his dreams come true.
*This post first posted Monday, Jan. 17, 2011