In his “Letter From Birmingham City Jail,” Martin Luther King Jr. wrote that the greatest threat to black freedom was not necessarily “the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate, who is more devoted to ‘order’ than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice.”
King’s legacy is oft pointed to as an example of the whitewashing of historical civil rights leaders. The dominant narrative of King as a soft, unfailingly forgiving, and color-blind pacifist ignores the critical indictments of white people that he made; by demanding that people of color, women, and other disadvantaged social groups gain empowerment on “white” terms, so-called moderates themselves become the main obstacles to progress.
Nowhere is this more evident than in the attempts to dominate the “rules” of dialogue between protesters, activists, and the public. Women are called a b---- for acting assertive, while the same behavior is seen as confidence in a man. When student protesters shut down a campus to protest a war, it’s intellectual and brave; when Black Lives Matters (BLM) marches through that same campus, it’s obnoxious and destructive.
In other words, loudness is commendable when we agree with it, but we reject that kind of loudness when it condemns something about us. By using words like “shrill,” “obnoxious,” and “loud,” we falsely conflate two ideas: We ignore and muddy the distinction between how passionately someone is making an argument, and how clearly that argument is coming across.
I like to think of that distinction as the difference between loudness and noise.
When speaking at a debate, we all agree that it’s best if each participant is quiet, respectful, and calm, since that’s how we most easily share and listen to each other’s ideas. Anyone who has watched a single Republican debate in the past year knows that this isn’t how it plays out. We get heated and passionate when our ideas are misconstrued and ignored, and we get angry in order to force people to listen to what we’re really saying.
If we, as a society, all carefully considered people’s criticisms of us, perhaps loudness wouldn’t be necessary. The reality is that people don’t like to think they’re the problem. White people, and people in general, don’t enjoy being told that they’re doing something wrong. So you force them to listen by stopping traffic, hijacking airwaves, and raising your voice in a debate when the people around you brush you off as “too sensitive.”
Noise, in contrast, is when you express your ideas with such force that clarity is lost, and people are unable to even understand what your argument is. This doesn’t get people to listen to you, or get your idea across; if you express yourself with such violence that no one understands you, no one will even be able to listen.
To put it bluntly, I believe that those who accuse third-wave feminists and BLM activists of being shrill or overly emotional are confusing the difference between loudness and noise.
Those who do it unintentionally simply haven’t taken the time to listen and understand the arguments being made. But those who intentionally confuse the discussion are the true gatekeepers of progress in our country. They are the conservative (and liberal) talk show and TV hosts who poison the national conversation with racism and sexism, telling the starving, abused, and dying people in marginalized communities to just “calm down.”
Sometimes, though, protesters can fail to get their points across coherently. The Bernie Sanders rally that was shut down last August remains a complicated case study in the difference between loudness and noise. The activists, who took the microphone away from Sanders and demanded silence from the crowd, openly admitted their disruption was “unthinkable, ... unapologetic, and ... unrespectable.”
Were the activists being loud, and using harshness to get their points across to otherwise self-satisfied, petulant, and complacent white liberals? Or were their demands becoming indiscernible noise to many in the crowd, who, understandably, didn’t see why the most liberal candidate was the one being punished for his lack of support?
While I lean toward the former, both interpretations have some truth. But just a few days later, Sanders’ campaign website was significantly updated to feature a section on racial justice, and his platform began to incorporate more vocal consideration of racial issues. The desired change happened, even if the method was condemned by the public. As King foreshadowed, the “presence of justice” required giving up the “absence of tension.”
It’s not my intention, nor my place, to decide how loud or angry protesters and activists are allowed to be. Rather, I only have two small suggestions: one for protesters and one for the protested. First, if you are angry and have a point to make, do so with however much passion and righteous fury you feel, but make sure that the argument you’re making is clear.
And second, if you are someone sick and tired of protesters yelling and screaming at you, rather than dismissing them as “crazy” or “emotional,” take a moment to listen to what they’re actually saying, then decide if it’s loudness, or noise.
Reach columnist Alex Bruell at email@example.com. Twitter: @BruellAlex