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On ‘Hypocrisy’ – Ruminations on Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

2011 January 13


Do I contradict myself?  Very well then I contradict myself.  (I am large, I contain multitudes.)

– Walt Whitman, Song of Myself

Dr. King awaiting medical attention for the letter-opener in his chest

As Martin Luther King Day approaches, tributes and dedications far more eloquent than any I could produce will undoubtedly surface in many forms and venues.  Surely some will seek to further heroize the man, others to demean his memory by recalling some failing or other.  I suppose each of these tasks is necessary in their way, if not, perhaps, a bit redundant.  Personally, I have no intention of writing a middling biographical reflection, nor do I wish to call attention to some overlooked utterance.  I don’t suppose I am the right person for that sort of thing and I’ll leave such charges to those who are up to them.  However, as I reflect on the noble work and invaluable successes of one of history’s greatest mammals, I am drawn to one particular detail that I feel, if I may, warrants some attention.  That is: his undeniable and perhaps disappointing humanity.

Celebrations of this kind, if left unattended by reflection, have an unbecoming tendency to escalate to fetishism, which has the counterproductive effect of not really addressing truth at all, but rather creating some slender fiction.  While fiction in some forms (literary is my favorite) is quite affecting, in this form it is useless at its best and is distinctly poisonous when recited in schools or other settings where education is desired.  I am certain much work will be done in the coming days to combat this tendency, and we should all seek it out fiercely, lest we perpetuate some tedious and pedestrian fixation.

When considering Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and weighing the value of his contributions (if this is possible) to the progress of human decency and the flourishing of Western society, I return dependably to an ostensible blemish on his moral character: that he spent the last night of his life, as he had spent a great many prior, beside a woman who was not his wife.

This is a troubling fact for some.  It is certainly difficult to reconcile with the image so long drawn in classrooms and memorial halls.  In these versions, Dr. King’s moral character remains preserved as it never was in truth.  These neglect as well his marked fondness for alcohol and the undeniable verity that a significant portion of his doctoral thesis was written three years earlier by someone else.  I find the image conjured by such wishful minds to be distinctly unflattering, because it elevates the man beyond his means and consequently diminishes his unique and unparalleled contributions to human flourishing to mere duties of one so divinely endowed.  On the contrary, it is precisely his mere humanity that makes his performances so transcendent.

In fact, I find the alleged inconsistencies in Dr. King’s character to be quite inspiring.  I am reminded of my favorite passages in the Bible, in which we discover in Gethsemane that Jesus is, perhaps, quite a bit more human than many would like to think.  Begging for the preservation of one’s life is not the sort of attitude we should like to see demonstrated in the world’s most famous martyr.  And yet.

To my taste, Dr. King got far more right than his predecessor and did so while maintaining more than a few extramarital indulgences.  What is to be made of this?  Christopher Hitchens reckons: “These things, which of course disturb the faithful, are rather encouraging in that they show that a high moral character is not a precondition for great moral accomplishments,” and I’m inclined to agree.  Of course, there is the added detail that Dr. King’s controversial taste in women has nothing at all to do with his effectiveness as a proponent of equality and nonviolence, and this was certainly attested by his effectiveness as a proponent of equality and nonviolence.

Problems like these are encountered throughout history (as with Thomas Jefferson’s private dispositions to the manifold exploitations of his slaves and with the uncomfortable fact that Abraham Lincoln’s motivations for the Emancipation Proclamation might have been more political than moral) and each to similar effect.  Ultimately, we are reliably confronted with human complexity.  We must, in every case, meet it, rather than turn from it.

I must borrow the structure of Bertrand Russell’s famous comments on the intricacy of human character when I ask:  Was Dr. King what he seems to the skeptic – a plagiaristic and adulterous hypocrite?  Or was he what he seems to the memorialist – an unimpeachable beacon of egalitarian advancement and resolute moral strength?  Was he perhaps both at once?

One Response
  1. Matthew Hunte permalink
    January 15, 2011

    I recommend Judith Shklar’s Ordinary Vices,specfically the chapter on hypocrisy.

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