The morning after the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated, my high school history teacher asked, “How many of you think Dr. King’s work for civil rights was important?” Most of us raised our hands. “If you really believe that, then why weren’t you working with him yesterday?” he challenged.
I had no answer. For the first time I realized that even a classroom of 15-year-olds could do something to right wrongs. It wasn’t sufficient merely to have opinions.
As we celebrate Martin Luther King Day this year, more than four decades after his assassination, I worry that we have lost some of this message — about how we identify injustices and act appropriately to effect change.
Yes, things have improved since 1968. Overt racial discrimination is not the problem it was back then. But hatred is, and will always be, with us, causing great damage to our country and our world.
Hatred, like other human emotions, varies in strength. One of the ways to keep it in “check,” to use King’s phrase, is when leaders speak out against it, so it doesn’t seem unremarkable or acceptable, but rather is taboo. Too many leaders today — political, religious and otherwise — either ignore hatred or, worse, endorse it. Likewise, hatred that would be deplored against one target is too often ignored against another, for political or other considerations.
A basic way of identifying this phenomenon is to take a situation, change the “players” and see if the same rules apply. For example, if Jews or blacks or any other group were blamed as frequently for society’s problems as some media figures and activist groups blame “illegal immigrants” these days, I suspect that the racism would be more clearly seen.
On the international stage, compare the treatment of Israel in the United Nations and in much of the foreign press to how other countries are treated. Increasingly, rather than focusing on the difficulties involved in the political problems of two groups with indigenous ties to the same land, Israel is vilified and the Palestinians lionized, regardless of what either side does.
Some say love is the opposite of hatred. I don’t believe so. Many haters (David Duke, Louis Farrakhan, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad) wrap their hatred of others in love for their self-defined own. Rather, the opposite of hatred may be what King implicitly understood: the intersection of altruism and empathy, the capacity to see ourselves as the “other,” and to take action when we see hatred, despite political and other differences.
How many people who rant about “illegal immigrants” can imagine themselves in the position of the people they vilify? What must it be like to worry about being on the edges of society, having politicians and others scapegoat you to the point where, as happened a year ago in Long Island, a group of teenagers thought it was okay to beat up Hispanics as sport, leaving an Ecuadorian immigrant dead?
Conversely, how many supporters of immigration rights can put themselves in the place of a middle-class home owner who barely managed to buy a home, and has to worry about the impact of a rental home down the street that is overflowing with day-laborer tenants?
How many pro-Palestinian activists can put themselves in the position of an Israeli, someone with deep religious and historical ties to the land of Israel, threatened by the president of a nearby country who wants to see it wiped out, and by terrorism from Hamas, a group that is so antisemitic it even wrote Jew-hatred into its charter? Could they switch the scenario around, assume Americans were Israelis, Canada was Hamas-controlled and Mexico was Iran, and wonder what they would want the American government to do to protect its citizens?
Conversely, despite the missteps of Israelis and Palestinians alike, how many Israel supporters spend time putting themselves in the shoes of Palestinians, wondering what it would be like to live with checkpoints in the West Bank, let alone under the oppressive rule of Hamas in Gaza?
Martin Luther King said, “Like an unchecked cancer, hate corrodes the personality and eats away its vital unity. Hate destroys a man’s sense of values and his objectivity. It causes him to describe the beautiful as ugly and the ugly as beautiful, and to confuse the true with the false and the false with the true.”
King’s message is one we still very much need to heed. Unless we can push hatred to the margins, and remind ourselves of the value of empathy, our ability to tackle today’s urgent problems becomes that much more difficult.
Kenneth Stern is director of the American Jewish Committee’s Division on Anti-Semitism and Extremism.