Back in the 1980s, when my mother’s favorite film aired on TV, she would try desperately to get our family to watch it. “C’mon,” she’d beg, “there’s an incorrigible goose and a sweet little Quaker family… You’ll love it!”
A goose and Quakers? Needless to say, we never saw the film. We were too busy watching “Gremlins” to bother.
Little did we know then, Mom’s favorite flick — “Friendly Persuasion,” a 1956 production starring Gary Cooper as the patriarch of a Quaker family in 1862 struggling to maintain pacifist views in the face of the Civil War — addresses complex philosophical notions about non-violence that have modern relevance.
The movie was nominated for six academy awards including Best Picture, and in the 1980s, President Ronald Regan gave a copy of the film to Soviet Premier Mikhail Gorbachev, suggesting that the two countries resolve their differences peacefully.
Yeah, but “Gremlins” has Phoebe Cates and that cute little fuzzball, Gizmo. So, there.
In all seriousness, I regret that I spent my youth too focused on applying frosted strawberry lipgloss to think deeply about civil rights and violence in America. Later, as a military spouse, my attentions turned to foreign enemies during my husband’s 28 years on active duty. I wasn’t really concerned about conflicts on US turf.
But today, some are predicting that the United States is on the brink of a second Civil War, or at least a second civil rights movement.
Racial tensions are peaking. Violent extremist groups are making a comeback. Media is no longer hiding its bias, but rather using it to attract like-minded viewers who won’t decry their version of the news as propaganda. Diversity of thought is not tolerated in an era celebrating diversity of religion, race, gender and sexual identity. Republicans and democrats are digging their heels in, pulling each other apart in a mean-spirited tug-of-war on every issue. Everyone is so focused on aggressively vilifying the opposition, hope for compromise seems lost and violence is considered justifiable.
If we’re ever going to find a solution to our current civil rights conflict, Americans must stop yelling “Lalalala, I can’t hear you!” with our fingers jammed in our ears. It’s time to try — yep, I’m gonna say it — a little friendly persuasion.
I’m not advocating that we waste a Sunday afternoon watching an old movie about some goodie-two-shoes Quakers. I’m saying that friendly persuasion can be a powerful tactic for change.
Martin Luther King, Jr. proved this in the 1950s and 60s, when his peaceful resistance movement prompted the most sweeping reforms in racial equality since slavery was abolished. Many activists today don’t believe that a central figure like King is needed for civil rights reform. Protests are sparked organically via social media and grassroots efforts, without a charismatic public leader at the helm of each cause. But as the current civil rights conflicts get uglier and bloodier, King’s methods should be considered.
King advocated “nonviolent direct action” as a means of “disarming the opponent” and felt that riots were ineffective. “[R]ioting is not revolutionary but reactionary because it invites defeat. It involves an emotional catharsis, but it must be followed by a sense of futility.”
King said that nonviolence “helps us to see the enemy's point of view, to hear his questions, to know his assessment of ourselves. For from his view we may indeed see the basic weaknesses of our own condition, and if we are mature, we may learn and grow and profit from the wisdom of the brothers who are called the opposition.”
And on hate, he said, “Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.”
As military families who are accustomed to worrying about the safety of active duty soldiers and sailors in combat against foreign enemies, we must consider that disputes between fellow US citizens — be it marching in the streets or commenting on social media — require rational, respectful debate rather than physical force and hate speech.
I still have no interest in that silly goose, but I must admit, my mother was right. Friendly persuasion is a worth a look.