Martin Luther King, Jr. once described how he and his brother drove one evening where very few oncoming drivers dimmed their lights. Understandably frustrated, Dr. King’s brother declared that he would leave his lights on full strength the next time a driver failed to dim his lights. Dr. King quickly responded by stating, “Oh no, don’t do that. There’d be too much light on this highway, and it will end up in mutual destruction for all. Somebody got to have some sense on this highway.”
If we want to live in a society that carries on meaningful conversations about pressing political issues, we must again heed Dr. King’s timeless wisdom and begin to dim the lights.
Rarely does confrontation woo people to a new position. President Lincoln once stated it would constitute “a reversal of human nature” to expect a man to respond to an attack with grace. Lincoln further stated that a man closes himself to outside influences once another attempts to dictate, command, or shun him into accepting a new position.
[T]hough your cause be naked truth itself, transformed to the heaviest lance, harder than steel, and sharper than steel can be made, and though you throw it with more than Herculean force and precision, you shall no more be able to pierce him, than to penetrate the hard shell of a tortoise with a rye straw.
Alexander Hamilton in Federalist No. 1 remarked, “For in politics, as in religion, it is equally absurd to aim at making proselytes by fire and sword. Heresies in either can rarely be cured by persecution.”
Like Dr. King’s brother, we all must fight our natural urge to turn on our political brights when others turn on theirs. While we see truth as a key that unlocks all doors, our presentation of truth can cause others to lock themselves into an impenetrable fortress. But Lincoln reminded us that sometimes it is the soft and unassuming voice that calls the mighty from their high defenses.
When the conduct of men is designed to be influenced, persuasion, kind, unassuming persuasion, should ever be adopted. It is an old and a true maxim, that a “drop of honey catches more flies than a gallon of gall.” So with men. If you would win a man to your cause, first convince him that you are his sincere friend. Therein is a drop of honey that catches his heart, which, say what he will, is the great high road to his reason, and which, when once gained, you will find but little trouble in convincing his judgment of the justice of your cause, if indeed that cause really be a just one.
How often do we seek to develop a relationship with others before we present our case? President Theodore Roosevelt is attributed with saying, “People don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care.” One of the best ways we can demonstrate friendship, and begin to dim the lights a little, is to listen to others before speaking. In the book of James we read the admonition, “But everyone must be quick to hear, slow to speak and slow to anger; for the anger of man does not achieve the righteousness of God.” (James 1:19-20)
Listening to someone, especially someone with whom we anticipate disagreeing with, requires an intentional act of the will. As this comes unnaturally for most of us, listening speaks friendship and respect more loudly than words can convey. Of course neither Lincoln’s or James’ advice requires us to forever withhold our thoughts. But inevitably, listening and truly understanding someone’s opinions will work to make our responses more thoughtful and meaningful. We may also begin to see them as fellow stewards of this American experiment instead of obstacles to overcome, and as such watch the tone of our nation change.
Dr. King showed us that we each posses the power to dim the lights to help change the trajectory of our nation. As naturally as passion and vigor come to us in expressing our opinions, civility and reserve come awkwardly and unnaturally. But it does not mean we should give up the effort. We have it within our power to reign in the rancorous rhetoric, if only we turn off the political brights.