Most of us know Jackie Robinson, he was the first player to break Major League baseball’s color line in 1947. Few of us remember Branch Rickey, Rickey was the the GM for the Brooklyn Dodgers. As the story goes Rickey was eager to integrate the Dodgers and was considering Robinson.
Rickey was especially interested in making sure his eventual signee could withstand the inevitable racial abuse that would be directed at him. In a famous three-hour exchange on August 28, 1945, Rickey asked Robinson if he could face the racial animus without taking the bait and reacting angrily—a concern given Robinson’s prior arguments with law enforcement officials at PJC and in the military. Robinson was aghast: “Are you looking for a Negro who is afraid to fight back?” Rickey replied that he needed a Negro player “with guts enough not to fight back.”After obtaining a commitment from Robinson to “turn the other cheek” to racial antagonism, Rickey agreed to sign him to a contract for $600 a month, equal to $7,651 today.
Robinson lived up to his promise and let his play do the talking. He won a world series, a league MVP and was consistently one of the best players in the league. He excelled at all aspects and is given credit by some for innovating modern base stealing. He did not respond to angry fans and showed tremendous grace under outright hatred and abuse. We would all have forgiven Robinson if he’d lost his temper more often and fought back- the fact that he had the courage not to makes him a transcendent figure.
I think Robinson understood the racial climate of the times, segregation had been a way of life for so long and many saw no reason to change it. Among these people were extremists, truly hateful racists that were never going to be reached; but the bulk of the population were not so extreme and could be moved to change. By seeing athletes like Robinson and Joe Louis achieve excellence and greatness despite tremendous adversity from racial animus it elevated the moral cause for action to stop segregation and racial discrimination. Robinson went on to be a successful executive, the first executive VP of a major American corporation (Chock full o’Nuts), he also founded a bank and worked as a broadcaster.
Robinson knew how and when to fight- refusing to participate in an old timers game in 1969 to protest the lack of minorities in management and front office staffs.
Today it is frequently the advocates who shout the loudest that get the most attention. Part of this is our media saturated society- part of it is fundraising and rallying the base. Do these advocates reach the moderates whose minds they might change? I propose that they do not and only make issues more polarizing.
Gay marriage is one example, most people do not hate or fear gays. Conversely most gays just want to be tolerated and have equal protection under the law. Unfortunately many of the advocates that get the most attention are extremists. Gay groups that demand blanket acceptance and are downright hostile to religious people calling them ignorant or hateful. On the other sides fringe groups such as the Westboro Baptist Church or other hateful bigots get attention. Moderates are unlikely to change their minds and only become stronger in their views when they are called names and made to feel stupid, ignorant or hateful. You cannot fight hate with hate.
My friend- Adam, a gay man wrote a heartfelt letter to his mother explaining his feelings about her and his faiths and why he thought gays should be able to marry. He didn’t name call and he was respectful of her feelings while explaining his own. He gave her space to change her mind without pressure or ultimatums. He could have pointed out hypocrisies in her life or used stronger rhetoric that might have been more satisfying for a man who has faced quite a bit of adversity for his sexuality.
American’s opinions regarding gay marriage have evolved dramatically to the point where a slight majority now favors it in most polls conducted. Twenty years ago many gays were closeted and being gay was misunderstood by many Americans who didn’t even think they knew a homosexual. Over time gays have emerged, most of them seeking only tolerance in their communities. More Americans know and see gay couples and even families with children. They go to the same schools and in some case the same churches and temples. They live on the same streets and have similar lives. Moderates aren’t more accepting of gays because they saw a pride parade with militants french kissing in public or wearing provocative clothing. These kinds of displays only reinforce their position of being reluctant to tolerate legal gay marriage.
I encourage gay marriage advocates to be more like Jackie Robinson. Understand and empathize with the other side talk to them about their feelings and reasoning. Ignore the bigots and their traps. Provide solutions for the other sides problems. I think gay marriage laws would get more support if they all included protections for religious institutions. Take away the argument that churches might be sued for discrimination if they refuse to perform gay marriage ceremonies. In our free society private people and groups must be free to discriminate not without social consequences but without force of law. There will be churches and organizations that will embrace same sex marriage and gays can make them even stronger with their patronage and encourage more of them.
Another huge debate in our society is gun control. Traditional we have had gun rights and are losing in some places while gaining in others so it is a different issue than same sex marriage. However the same philosophy applies, advocates like myself for gun rights need to understand the other side and reach out to it. The best thing gun owners can do is practice their right with extreme caution and responsibility. Gun accidents are at an all time low but there are still more than 800 senseless accidental guns deaths a year. As gun owners we must self regulate, there is no reason ever for a negligent discharge. We must be responsible for our guns and control them ourselves keeping them 100% secure 24/7. This is the most powerful argument for keeping the government from taking our rights. Gun owners also need to seek training and keep their skills up, so if they have to use them some day they are ready and effective.
Gun owners can take a cue from the gay community’s openess. Moderate gun owners need to let their neighbors know that they have guns and support the right of self defense. Moderates who don’t own guns need to see that for every stereotypical conspiracy nut with an arsenal there are 100,000 responsible sensible gun owners who take their right and their responsibility very seriously. Every day more than 1 million Americans carry a gun with them. They are next to you on the freeway, at the grocery store, walking down the street. Their guns do not pose any threat to you and in fact enhance your security even though you may choose to be unarmed.
We need to dial back on the rhetoric. I once posted a satirical comment on my facebook page urging the unarmed to post gun free zone signs on their houses. After an hour and one angry comment I deleted the post. While I don’t back down from the point- it was needlessly argumentative and polarizing. Some gun rights advocates have started posting a phrase ΜΟΛΩΝ ΛΑΒΕ which means “come and take it” it is what the Spartans are reported to have said to the Persians when asked to surrender. I understand the passion and the righteous anger behind this sentiment. This kind of rhetoric might rally a base but it will turn off moderates closing their minds to our reasoning and evidence.
I have never been one to shy away from debate, I love it and am not afraid of arguments- I don’t take arguments personally and am rarely personally offended. However most people don’t want to argue or debate issues they believe. The develop strong opinions and don’t want to be challenged; they avoid conflict. Nobody wants to be wrong. It is rare that a person changes their mind overnight, it takes years and usually personal experience resonating with logic and information. Those of us who are advocates must remember this and do our best to be a part of this process. We have to learn patience and humility. We need to be more like Jackie Robinson was if we want to be a part of the movement towards the truth we believe in.