When Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. accepted the Nobel Peace Prize in Oslo, Norway, December 11, 1964, his speech was an inspiring call to “make brotherhood, freedom, and justice realities in the United States of America.” The speech could have been written about the United States of America today.

While celebrating and honoring the high and joyous moment of receiving the award, he also provides a rare assessment of how this work profoundly affects the individuals who take action — the “devotees of nonviolence who have moved so courageously against the ramparts of racial injustice and who in the process have acquired a new estimate of their own human worth.”

The following direct quote from the speech entitled The Quest for Peace and Justice provides a simple guide to non-violent resistance.

The nonviolent resisters can summarize their message in the following simple terms:

  • We will take direct action against injustice despite the failure of governmental and other official agencies to act first.
  • We will not obey unjust laws or submit to unjust practices.
  • We will do this peacefully, openly, cheerfully because our aim is to persuade.
  • We adopt the means of nonviolence because our end is a community at peace with itself.
  • We will try to persuade with our words, but if our words fail, we will try to persuade with our acts.
  • We will always be willing to talk and seek fair compromise, but we are ready to suffer when necessary and even risk our lives to become witnesses to truth as we see it.

I’ve highlighted a few parts of the speech below that feel particularly relevant today, where our complex technology is simultaneously empowering and disempowering.

Modern man has brought this whole world to an awe-inspiring threshold of the future. He has reached new and astonishing peaks of scientific success. He has produced machines that think and instruments that peer into the unfathomable ranges of interstellar space…

Yet, in spite of these spectacular strides in science and technology, and still unlimited ones to come, something basic is missing…

Our problem today is that we have allowed the internal to become lost in the external. We have allowed the means by which we live to outdistance the ends for which we live…

We must still face prodigious hilltops of opposition and gigantic mountains of resistance. But with patient and firm determination we will press on until every valley of despair is exalted to new peaks of hope, until every mountain of pride and irrationality is made low by the leveling process of humility and compassion; until the rough places of injustice are transformed into a smooth plane of equality of opportunity; and until the crooked places of prejudice are transformed by the straightening process of bright-eyed wisdom.

Every day corporations accidentally or intentionally use machine learning and automated processes that operate at scale in ways that cause direct harm or incite violence. And in much more subtle ways, we participate in systems that oppress. The civil rights movement succeeded in changing laws, and now we face the challenge of changing our society.

 

via @TheKingCenter: “thread of #MLK speeches and sermons in which he speaks truth to power, shares about his philosophy of nonviolence and expounds on issues of injustice and what our righteous, rigorous response should be. Relevant. Revelatory. Revolutionary.”

It helps me to create little rules that provide default decisions for common and unusual situations. A couple of years ago, I wrote down my little rules for working life. Since then, I’ve collected a few more…

Communication

  • Speak the unspoken.
  • Have difficult conversations.
  • Find something remarkable, and remark on it, every day.
  • Not everything needs to be said.

Decision-Making

  • Be intentional: for me, it takes reflection and constant conscious effort for my words and actions to reflect my values.
  • Consider your influencers (the people who influence you), and choose them as intentionally as you can.
  • Have a plan. Learn something. Change the plan.
  • Play the long game. Sometimes we have to do stuff that we don’t care about in the short-term, in order to meet expectations from people who decide if we get paid or if we get privileges. Even while we do the stupid short-term things, we can sometimes set ourselves up for some potentially awesome, or at least potentially meaningful future.
  • Focus on the outcome. Imagine what happens after you reach your goal. Then what? Often the real goal is the next thing, or the thing after that.

Getting Unstuck

  • When you hit a wall, step back and learn. Learn more about the problem. Who else sees it as a problem? Who made this wall anyhow? It’s probably there for a reason and the problem might be an unintended consequence.
  • Get to know the people. The system is made of people, and usually those aren’t the same people who made the system.
  • Write stuff down. Sometimes what you think you heard wasn’t the same thing other people heard.
  • Wait a week and ask again. Or a month. Or just listen for the moment when someone else raises the same problem, and chime in.

“Curiosity is the most under utilized tool of leaders” — Amy Edmondson
“Don’t fight stupid, make more awesome” — Jesse Robbins
“Make new mistakes.” — Esther Dyson, 2008 post