There’s an expression I’ve heard in the gay rights movement as a kind of rallying cry, “Every time you see an ambulance go by, it’s either a supporter of gay rights being born, or an opponent dying.” I don’t cite this line to single out the gay rights movement; I think most of us feel this way when we’re in a fight. For an example on the other side, look at the way Mark Shea used to call me and people like me ‘brownshirts.’ A brownshirt isn’t someone you negotiate with, it’s someone you neutralize. (He’s since given up the phrase, hurrah!). The “Every time you see an ambulance…” phrasing isn’t an exceptional sentiment, it’s just unusually pithy and happens, demographically, to be true.
It was true during the civil rights era, too. Martin Luther King Jr. and others were changing minds, but, by drawing attention to racism at all, they were making it impossible for new generations to grow up thinking school segregation was just a fact of life — too quotidian to be controversial. What is extraordinary about Martin Luther King is that he didn’t just want to beat the other side; he wanted them to join him, rejoicing.
Every racist that died still a racist was a loss, even if their passing helped shift the political calculus. When activists stood in front of fire hoses and endured beatings, they weren’t just making a play for the TV cameras so people could think, “How dreadful those people are. I don’t want to be on their team any more, I want to stand with the people being beaten.” They also hoped that the people beating them could watch that footage on the evening news and feel a sickening lurch. They might be able to feel ashamed without feeling despair, and decide to change.
This is not an ideal I’ve lived up to. Once, while in a personal fight with a college classmate, I kept thinking, “I just need her to lash out in public. Then everyone will take my side.” I didn’t want to humiliate her for the sake of having her be humiliated (mostly), but I did want her to embarrass herself in public, so that she would be powerless, and I wouldn’t have to keep making contingency plans around her temper. It didn’t occur to me to hope that we could end up on the same side, healed and happy.
Sometimes, it can be really urgent to beat people before you convert them. (i.e. this was probably the case in World War II, and almost certainly not the case during my college spat). But you should choose your tactics and language carefully, so that you’ve got a good chance of winning the war for hearts and minds once the immediate threat has been addressed. And you have to sustain the same fervor once you are personally safe, and the only people being hurt by hatred are the people hating.