‘Selma’ — And How To Win Converts

Matt K. Lewis Senior Contributor
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We spend a lot of time these days playing to the base and preaching to the choir, hurling fiery banter and red meat, and then — when we win (forgive me for the mixed metaphors) — dancing in the End Zone.

This might be fun, but it’s not how to win friends and influence people. It’s not how you win converts. Dale Carnegie would not be impressed.

You probably assume I’m talking about the behavior of Republicans and Democrats, conservatives and liberals, and I sort of am. But that’s not what inspired this rant. Instead, it was sparked by Jamelle Bouie’s observation in Slate that today’s “Black Lives Matter” activists could learn a thing or two from the movie “Selma.”

During a recent episode of Slate’sCulture Gabfest” podcast, Bouie expounded on this:

At every step, [Martin Luther] King is giving LBJ — he’s giving…all of his opponents, or all of the reluctant members of his coalition — a way to say ‘yes’ [and] to sort of save face. And I think that’s something that, in my read of the burgeoning “Black Lives Matter” movement, I’m not really seeing much of …

… A good example of sort of not giving the other side a way to say ‘yes’ is…where people were interrupting brunches by reading off the names of young black people killed by the police. And I kind of get why you would do that. And it strikes me as something that alienates more than it does do anything. And even if it doesn’t alienate, I’m really not sure how you’re supposed to respond to that if you’re someone on the fence. Like, if I were in that situation, I wouldn’t know how to respond ….

(For what it’s worth, I would argue that blocking traffic is also a counterproductive form of protest.)

With respect to Bouie’s comments, I suspect we would all do well to learn these lessons. There’s a reason why King was a more effective leader than the alternatives in the radical black power movement. Whether you view graciousness and forgiveness as a higher calling, or merely as a Machiavellian strategy to earn sympathy, we rarely win converts by “showing up” the other guy up or rubbing his nose in the dirt. In fact, such behavior causes opponents to double down in their opposition, and turns off fence sitters.

How often are we, in the words of Bouie, giving the other side “a way to say ‘yes’ [and] to sort of save face?” I suspect not very often.

We would do well to follow the positive examples of men like King and Abraham Lincoln. We are more likely to win converts when we act “With malice toward none” and “charity for all.”

Listen to Bouie’s comments below (starting at around the 14:30 minute mark):

Matt K. Lewis