If you were paying attention in the spring of 1992, you probably remember this quote coming from the mouth of Rodney King. His broadcast appeal to the violent masses was made only half way through the six-day-long rioting in Los Angeles.
And to be fair, “Can’t we all just get along?” were not his words. These were:
“People, I just want to say, you know, can we all get along? Can we get along?”
Frankly, I prefer the way our collective brains have chosen to remember what we think he said on May 1st, 1992: more eloquent.
Mr. King’s (mis)quote came to mind the other day when I read a similar appeal from a women who is part of a discussion group on social media. In so many words, she suggested that the members of the discussion group stop being “negative.” Based on her post, I concluded that she didn’t like the tone and tenor of some of the comments from some of the others and was appealing to their “better selves” to be more “positive” in the expression of their ideas and opinions.
I think this woman’s complaint comes up a lot on social media. There are entire memes dedicated to not being “negative.” Like this:
My own mother would routinely say, “If you can’t say something nice, then don’t say anything at all.” Admittedly, I’ve repeated this axiom to my children. In many ways, I think those are good words to live by.
In “many ways,” but not in all ways.
Because when one chooses to be “quiet” over being “negative,” that same person loses her voice. And etiquette (which coincidentally, if you rearrange the first five letters can spell “quiet”) should never yield to an airing of a grievance about “how things are done nowadays” or an authentic call for meaningful change.
Which led me to think of another quote: “Power yields nothing without a struggle.”
That’s not really the quote by Frederick Douglass, this is:
“Those who profess to favor freedom and yet depreciate agitation are people who want crops without ploughing the ground; they want rain without thunder and lightning; they want the ocean without the roar of its many waters. The struggle may be a moral one, or it may be a physical one, or it may be both. But it must be a struggle. Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will.”
Weighing King against Douglass, I think the former slave and abolitionist got it right.
King’s “getting along” is status quo. Douglass’s making a “demand” requires that the one who takes up the struggle, be it corporal or intellectual, understands that there is work to do to ensure that the harvest comes in.
The one who chooses to criticize “how things are done nowadays” risks the judgment of others,who find her words as “negative,” and will likely be asked to try to “just get along.”
Don’t do that. Don’t silence yourself.
I say, “Soldier on, Brave One,” which is a paraphrasing of this collection of ideas spoken by Gandhi: