Martin Luther King Jr. is remembered for his work on behalf of the poor and oppressed, his commitment to nonviolence and his struggle against racism and injustice. We also remember his soaring rhetoric. His words are poetic, prophetic and philosophical. They make us think. And by making us think, they make us better.
King said, for example, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” This is a powerful sentence. It impels us to repair a broken world.
Contemporary political discourse lacks this soulful potency. Our language has become clueless and inconsiderate. People speak without thinking.
Iowa Congressman Steve King recently said, “White nationalist, white supremacist, Western civilization – how did that language become offensive?” After his words were condemned, he said they were taken out of context: “That ideology never shows up in my head, I don’t know how it could possibly come out of my mouth.”
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This is the problem. Our words are not careful or considered. Our speech becomes contradictory and confused. It also becomes vulgar and vicious.
The other day, Democratic Congresswoman Rashida Tlaib said of President Donald Trump, “we’re gonna impeach the (expletive).” The president also plays with profanity. In November he made light of Rep. Adam Schiff’s last name in a tweet.
Some applaud the demise of political correctness as the triumph of authenticity. But rudeness only ever begets rudeness and vulgarity only breeds contempt. Considerate speech discloses virtue. It demonstrates that we care about our audience and the ideas we are promoting.
We can only think as well as we speak and write. Words are the containers of thought. When language withers, thinking becomes cramped. When language soars, the human spirit goes with it.
Martin Luther King’s words had this uplifting power. His speeches are inspiring. His writings are edifying. He quotes the Bible – but also Socrates, Hegel and Reinhold Niebuhr. His rhetorical skill owes something to the books he read.
These days it is difficult to imagine a politician even reading a book. A quarter of Americans have not read a single book in the past year. On average, Americans only spend 20 minutes per day reading, while we spend three and a half hours watching TV.
This is the era of binge-watching and meme-surfing. Everything is quick and careless. We serve fast food feasts in the White House. As our attention span shortens, our horizons contract. As our vocabulary shrinks, so too does our capacity to think.
This explains our susceptibility to propaganda and “fake news.” Martin Luther King warned about this in an essay he wrote as a young student at Morehouse College in 1947. He said, “To think incisively and to think for one’s self is very difficult. We are prone to let our mental life become invaded by legions of half-truths, prejudices, and propaganda.”
When the young MLK warned of the “morass of propaganda” he was likely thinking of the propaganda of the fascists and Communists of his era. He was also thinking of the half-truths and prejudices of the racists he struggled against.
The context has shifted, but propaganda and prejudice continue to plague us, along with the problem of white supremacy. And the solution remains the same. We need to think better, read more, speak carefully and listen to those who suffer.
We must also think critically about the words of our heroes. King was not a perfect wordsmith. He plagiarized parts of his dissertation. And some of his ideas leave us wondering. Is it true that the arc of the universe bends toward justice, as King suggested? Was he right to say that love conquers hate? Is King’s dream of a world of equality and brotherhood realistic?
We honor King’s legacy when we think deeply about his words. Some of King’s best phrases have become trite through repetition. I have a coffee mug inscribed with the phrase, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” That sentence no longer provokes when it becomes a slogan or another piece of propaganda.
So let’s be more careful with words. Let’s stop praising what King called “sincere ignorance and conscientious stupidity.” Let’s speak better, think better and act better. Stupidity anywhere is a threat to wisdom everywhere. And careless thinking breeds thoughtless speech.
Andrew Fiala is a professor of philosophy and director of The Ethics Center at Fresno State: @PhilosophyFiala
Monday MLK events
Commemoration program: 11 a.m., guest speaker Joseph Jones, president of Fresno Pacific University, Veterans’ Memorial Auditorium, 2425 Fresno St.