The Lesson of Middlebury -- Beyond the Manichean Mindset

On March 2, student protestors at Middlebury College shouted down a conservative speaker, Charles Murray, chanting "your message is hatred." Their actions, like others recently, show intolerance for diverse views in higher education.

The protests also illustrate the Manichean model of change-making which students have learned from my generation. But there is a “different kind of politics” which teaches skills of a common citizenship that engages the more complex humanity of others of different views and interests. It has proven successful on local levels and needs to be taken to scale. We need such citizenship more than ever. The philosophy of nonviolence can enhance its moral and spiritual power as well as its public reach.

The Middlebury student group, the American Enterprise Club, which invited Murray structured the event as a debate. They asked Allison Stanger, a progressive professor, to respond. When she implored the crowd to let him speak and let her challenge his views, they shouted her down as well. When Murray and Stanger tried to leave the room, a group mobbed them. Someone injured Stanger when she sought to protect Murray.

Whatever one’s views of Murray, the student actions recalled the mob violence across the South which I often saw as a young man in the civil rights movement working for Martin Luther King’s organization, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC). The Middlebury incident reminded me of King’s speech, “Where Do We Go from Here?,” in 1967. “Through violence you may murder a hater, but you can’t murder hate,” he said.

SCLC’s citizenship schools, which I worked for, advanced “first class citizenship” and didn’t demonize even the most overtly racist segregationists. SCLC’s philosophy was to hate “the sin not the sinner.”

Free speech is a crucial value for education, as a group of 44 Middlebury professors affirmed after the student action. Another dynamic is also at work. Today’s generation has learned a Manichean formula for making change: find an enemy to demonize, use a script that defines the issue and portrays those on the other side in good-versus-evil terms, inflames emotion, and shuts down critical thought, and convey the idea that those championing the victims will come to the rescue.

The formula was developed by the environmental group Citizens for a Better Environment in 1974 for what is called the canvass. The canvass involves paid staff going door to door on an issue, raising money, and collecting signatures. Over the past four decades many canvass operations have developed, including the Public Interest Research Group (PIRG) network on college campuses.

I defended the canvass method in Citizen Action and the New American Populism, a 1986 book with Heather Booth, founder of the Midwest Academy training center which became the central hub for spreading the method, and Steve Max. I remember well the urgency we felt in the face of massive mobilization by corporate interests to roll back environmental, consumer, affirmative action, progressive tax and other legislation in the early 1970s. We saw the canvass as a way to fight back. And it had successes on environmental and other issues, even during the Reagan presidency.

We estimated that the canvass reached at least 12 million households a year in the mid-eighties. In “A Tale of Two Playgrounds,” a paper I delivered at the American Political Science Association annual conference fifteen years later, I estimated, on the basis of further research, that at least 3.5 million young people had canvassed.

In the interim I had come to be concerned about an unintended consequence of the canvass method: the Manichean model of the canvass polarizes civic life and erodes our common citizenship, communicating politics as warfare. It has also spread far beyond the canvass, including robo-calls, internet mobilizations, television ads, documentaries in the vein of Michael Moore, and the “axis of evil” framework used by Karl Rove in the aftermath of 9-11. The approach, in other words, is used by both right and left. As Elizabeth Williamson described in the Wall Street Journal, Saul Alinsky’s Rules for Radicals, a classic primer for Manichean politics, is used by Tea Party activists as well as progressives.

The digital revolution could expand Manichean thinking exponentially. As nine authors observe in a recent Scientific American article, “Will Democracy Survive Big Data and Artificial Intelligence?”, new technologies worsen polarization, “resulting in the formation of separate groups that no longer understand each other and find themselves increasingly at conflict with one another.”

In such an environment, touting free speech is important but also not sufficient. We need to build on alternatives to Manichean politics with proven appeal which teach a common citizenship.

For instance, working with a team, I started the youth civic education initiative Public Achievement in 1990 to counter the Manichean model through what we called "citizen politics," politics revolving around citizens not politicians, teaching skills of working across differences, and advancing the idea of citizen as co-creator. Public Achievement has spread to many communities and schools and several foreign countries.

Public Achievement is paralleled by grassroots efforts such as public deliberation, cross-partisan strands of community organizing, schools which seek to become civic centers in the life of communities, and government efforts which practice an empowering partnership approach, involving citizens and civil servants in public work that improves community life. All represent what can be called a citizen-centered politics in which citizens develop capacities for collaborative, cross-partisan action and a sense of common citizenship. All are attractive to young people and others. The challenge is taking such efforts to scale.

Here, we need a new and compelling public philosophy in which citizens are central and citizenship is the common ground, preceding particular organizational forms or programs. Martin Luther King’s understanding of nonviolence as neither pacifism nor simply a tactic has large potential to help develop such a public philosophy of citizenship.

King combined power and love. “Power without love is reckless and abusive and love without power is sentimental and anemic,” he argued in 1967. He earlier observed that nonviolence is empowering. “Hate…corrodes the personality and eats away at its vital unity,” King wrote. “The nonviolent approach…first does something to the hearts and souls of those committed to it. It gives them new self-respect. It calls up resources of strength and courage they did not know they had.”

His approach, and that of many others who were my mentors, called for struggle against injustice and bigotry – with dignity, determination, and discipline, not with demonization.

Students are hungry for such resources and ways of thinking. Just after the election, Peter Levine, director of the CIRCLE the leading research center on youth engagement made a little chart about “how to respond”

It was either shared or “liked” on 2,700 Facebook pages. His suggestion of “dialog across partisan divides” proved especially popular.

People want to go beyond politics as usual. Developing a new public philosophy of nonviolent citizenship provides a starting point beyond the Manichean method.

It could also help to reopen the path for our nation to a “more perfect union.”


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