Thursday, August 09, 2012

Dilemma of the sympathetic

Rosa Parks was not the first option of the Montgomery, Alabama, branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People as they became determined to fight segregation. Indeed, the Montgomery NAACP reviewed the cases of three willing Blacks who had been arrested for infractions of the segregation policy before choosing to go with Rosa Parks, who was in fact the secretary of that town's NAACP and was well known for her hard work habits, temperance, calm demeanor, good marriage, probity and integrity. She was indeed a sympathetic victim of injustice and the campaign galvanized around her to its successful conclusion after a year of struggle. NAACP was interested in moral authority and in winning.
Why worry about the quality of the victim? Is it fair that anyone, even a drunk or violent drug addict, should be discriminated against because of his race? 

Of course not, but Edgar Nixon and Jo Ann Robinson, the two Black organizers first determined to fight the bus sitting policy in Montgomery, understood what has never (to my knowledge) been acknowledged, that there is a background rate of bad luck for all races and there is a bank of characteristics or behaviors aside from Riding While Black that could result in some sort of discrimination or even persecution. Whether they expressed it or not, they knew that, as Bernard Lafayette noted years later, when you stand for the rights of the minority you must garner the sympathy of the majority in order to win. Putting themselves in the minds of southern Whites, they could imagine a newspaper reader learning of a pimp challenging segregation and thinking, well, who cares? That person is nothing like me. But Rosa Parks presented a completely sympathetic character, even if the readers were from Minnesota instead of Alabama, and, sure enough, the nation outside the former slave states read about Parks and the long boycott and public opinion grew solidly and strongly in favor of those who challenged segregation. Part of this relates to what psychological researchers call perspective taking, developing affinity for another. Victory was only a matter of carrying on with nonviolent discipline. This pattern continued through school integration, lunch counter sit-ins, and voter registration struggles. Nonviolent discipline created unity and victory after victory, even in the face of brutality, possibly much faster because of the brutality. It is one of the classic templates of Gandhian dilemma action--checkmate!

Nicolas Kristof speaks of developing sympathy for victims and there are two primary issues. One, focus on a person rather than on statistics. Humans feel for one person more than for 182,359 of them, which is irrational at most levels but rational from the standpoint of the same organizing principle that states that winning generates hope and thus aids recruitment into a cause; I can maybe do something for one person, but thousands are beyond my agency.

Two, choose a little girl for your sympathetic victim if one can be found. No humans generate as much of our sympathy combined with our protective urges, and thus get us up out of our chairs and active.

Is this cynical and manipulative to think like this? Perhaps. But I would expect victims would prefer this sort of cynicism to what Jonathan Schell called "yet again going down in noble defeat." Think Bring it on: In it to win it. That is caring best for all victims and that is boosting the power of nonviolence.

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