If you are going to use history for your evidence, I absolutely insist that you use evidence in your history. I am growing ever tired of talkers, writers, and activists promoting poor history in order to serve their ideological ends. This practice takes the shape of individuals vaguely citing historical event(s) as support for their positions — but behind that, really, is an effort to present oneself as an expert: I know about this and am educated/wise/insightful enough to make the comparison — which makes my claims more impressive or convincing. (A good number of the people I see doing this are not actually historians, by the way.) Usually, the form of the presentation makes it impossible to ask follow-up questions — and follow-up questions I have.
The irony of this kind of educated conversation is that it has become clear to me how very ignorant people are — even smart and successful people — about historical events. For example, I’ve heard a number of individuals now condemning violent tactics in political protests and proponing non-violence as the better way with statements that seem to indicate that their knowledge of the examples they cite are limited. They point to Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr. as leaders of successful political movements — and sometimes contrast them with figures like Malcolm X. But, before we can have a conversation about the most effective tactics, we have to ground this conversation in actual historical facts. We can’t use history as our guide if we don’t look at the evidence. In order to do that, pundits and proponents need to support their positions with concrete examples and no longer simply rely on a voice of knowing authority.
Here, then, are some of my follow-up questions:
1. For those referencing Gandhi: What did Gandhi do specifically that successfully ended British rule in India? Please directly link an event/action(s) with Indian independence in your explanation. Was there anything problematic about his positions and, if so, what were these issues? Were there other contributors to the independence movement? If so, did they also embrace non-violence? What did they do as part of this movement? How did independence finally occur?
2. For the MLK proponents: In what ways specifically do you think King’s actions directly led to changes in civil rights in the US and what rights did he influence (Do you mean voting, desegregation, housing, or what?)? Did he instigate these tactics himself? Was he always successful in his efforts and if not, what were the issues there? Were other actors involved in the movement too and did they agree with King? What actions did they take? Did they all embrace non-violence? What effects, if any, did their actions have on changing civil rights?
3. For those invoking Vaclav Havel: Were the Czechoslovakian protests always non-violent? How did they begin? What actions specifically were taken (violent and non-violent), and how did these directly cause the overthrow of the government? What were the cited aims of the protesters/activists? Was this a reform movement or revolutionary one? (Incidentally, these same questions should be asked whenever anyone cites other Eastern European movements too.)
4. For those denouncing Malcolm X: What specific violent actions did he engage in with which you disagree? What actions did he take generally and did any of these directly link to changes in civil rights in the US? Which rights are those, if any?
I’m not trying to be hateful here. I just think that many of these people talking don’t actually know the history that they are trotting out in any real detail. I don’t know it all, and I practice history. I generally avoid making generalized statements then. When I do speak, I use specific examples in a limited way, and I have been doing a lot of research on these matters to educate myself lately, precisely because I don’t know all the answers. I insist that you give me your evidence then — in order to educate me and so I can decide for myself based on the real facts (and give the whole evidence — don’t omit the part that makes your position look bad).
I know these people are probably not used to being historians, but if you’re going to do the work, you have to be held to the same standards. Otherwise, I call BS.