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Words on a Screen

by Matt Blair on January 18, 2010

in History,Inspirations,Meaning,Quotes,Senses

Each year on Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, I set aside some time to read through one of his speeches.

Yes, read. Not listen or watch, but read.

True, Dr. King was more of a speechmaker than a pamphleteer. The audio and video recordings of his speeches are indeed powerful.

But it’s kind of like that moment when you think of a song you’ve loved for years, and realize you have no idea what it’s about, or maybe just an incomplete understanding.

The non-verbal elements that inspire and attract us to a well-delivered speech can distract us from the actual message.

Strip away the soaring tone, the cheer of the crowd, the scratchy black-and-white sense of historical import, the measured breath and gleam in the eyes, the hands resting on each side of the podium as the voice rises and falls, and what’s left?

The words.

Quietly reading the text of a speech removes many of those sensual elements that allow us to get swept away in the moment.

It also fills out the frame in a way that all the short clips and soundbites we hear so often never do: not just the heights at the end, but the slow, steady climb through the rhetorical switchbacks before we glimpse the summit.

Here’s an excerpt of an excerpt that I posted last year:

Procrastination is still the thief of time. Life often leaves us standing bare, naked, and dejected with a lost opportunity. The tide in the affairs of men does not remain at flood — it ebbs. We may cry out desperately for time to pause in her passage, but time is adamant to every plea and rushes on. Over the bleached bones and jumbled residues of numerous civilizations are written the pathetic words, “Too late.”

Hard not to think of pre-earthquake Haiti when reading a quote like that.

This year, I chose “Remaining Awake Through a Great Revolution“, from which this line also reminded me of Haiti — and North Korea and Zimbabwe and Detroit and so many other places:

“There is nothing new about poverty. What is new is that we now have the techniques and the resources to get rid of poverty. The real question is whether we have the will.”

And this is the passage that’s stuck with me throughout the day:

One day a newsman came to me and said, “Dr. King, don’t you think you’re going to have to stop, now, opposing the war and move more in line with the administration’s policy? As I understand it, it has hurt the budget of your organization, and people who once respected you have lost respect for you. Don’t you feel that you’ve really got to change your position?” I looked at him and I had to say, “Sir, I’m sorry you don’t know me. I’m not a consensus leader. I do not determine what is right and wrong by looking at the budget of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. I’ve not taken a sort of Gallup Poll of the majority opinion.” Ultimately a genuine leader is not a searcher for consensus, but a molder of consensus.

On some positions, cowardice asks the question, is it expedient? And then expedience comes along and asks the question, is it politic? Vanity asks the question, is it popular? Conscience asks the question, is it right?

There comes a time when one must take the position that is neither safe nor politic nor popular, but he must do it because conscience tells him it is right.


Cowardice, Expediency, Politics and Vanity as the four horseman of Inaction, with Conscience as the savior?

I could sign on to that worldview.

The King Institute has a list of Dr. King’s speeches, with transcriptions of most.

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Zoë Westhof has me thinking again, this time about what it specifically means to change the world. (I encourage you to go to her site and join the conversation, or add a comment below.)

What does change have to do with creativity?

Changing the world is a particular form of creativity in which our chosen medium is life itself. Tactics for creativity and tactics for change largely overlap.

This connection between change and creativity is a segue-way into a new series I have in the works on the topic of why creativity matters. Consider this a preview.

Attempts at change benefit from a creative approach, both to imagine the kind of transformation you want to accomplish and determine the scope of your ambitions.

And creativity generates change — if not directly, at least as a side-effect.  What we create may be radically different or only a slight variation, but if it is exactly the same as what already exists, we wouldn’t call it creativity, we’d call it re-enactment or repetition.

Creativity is the driving force behind everything we do that’s different from what we’ve already done.

The Tactics

Read history: Learning more about the past will constantly remind you how dynamic the world really is, and how lucky we are — in so many ways — to be living in this moment.

For example: Did you know that the life expectancy for the working poor in mid-19th century Bethnal Green, London was sixteen?! (via Stephen Johnson’s Ghost Map.)

Study past change agents: Those who did it well and those who botched it.  What went right and what went wrong?

Look for unlikely allies: Find people who seem very different from you, but, in your chosen arena of change, want essentially the same thing.

Develop empathy with opponents: Why do they want to hold on to the very things you are trying to change?  How can you ease their valid fears, undermine their irrational fears, and at least partially co-opt them?

Draw clear lines: Determine those whose minds can’t be changed. Ignore them if you can, marginalize them and mitigate their effects if you can’t.

Don’t wait for someone else: Maybe they are waiting for you?

Get yourself stabilized first: Change is a marathon, not a sprint, and you need to train and stay fit for the long haul. (See Bobby’s comment on Zoë’s post for a great example.)

Everyone has a role to play: All across the spectrum, from the radical marching in the street, to the contemplative researcher assembling the data to make the arguments that get people into the street, and everyone in between. Find your role, excel, and don’t waste time and energy fretting that you can’t do everything.

Don’t get discouraged by what’s beyond your reach: In today’s information environment, our sphere of awareness is vastly larger than our sphere of possible action. That’s a situation that sets us all up for disillusionment and despair.

We can’t individually fix every tragedy we know about.  The challenge is to stay connected at the global level, to the good and bad, while maintaining our momentum in making change on an achievable scale.

Challenge broad patterns and viewpoints, not just specific instances: Switching to low-power light bulbs is great, but if a public figure declares conservation a “personal virtue” you have an advocacy problem, not a light bulb problem.

Be open-minded: Change happens in unexpected and unplanned ways.

Beware of revolutions: Change that begins with a stated goal of shattering existing structures often spills a lot of blood, and what is shattered is rarely reassembled into something positive.  Most revolutions are disasters for just about everyone involved. (See the point above about studying history.)

Think of the world as malleable: something that can be hammered and shaped into new forms without breaking completely.

Beware of incrementalism: Tentatively proposing small change, and submitting it to a process of bureaucracy, negotiation and consensus-building is like running through the surf: you’ll expend a lot of energy, but you might not get very far.

Incrementalism is often a tool used by incumbents to shut change down.

Instead, make subtle and barely perceptible changes so far out of the range of expectations that they befuddle the establishment. Change the underlying reality before the status quo backers understand what you are up to, and put them in the position of defending a return to what has become an unpopular and undesirable past.

And don’t ask first.

Leave a trace: Leave No Trace is great for backcountry trails and Burning Man, not so great as a life philosophy. Your every action adds to your legacy. It is impossible not to have an impact. In every decision, try to make sure you bend the world towards your values, however slightly.

Slow and steady wins the race: Is it bad form to end a list of change tactics with a cliché?

Spread your ideas, and sow the seeds of the changes you want to see.

Just like art and culture, profound and lasting change is bigger than you and unfolds on a time scale longer than your lifetime.