poly·sty·rene /ˌpäliˈstīrēn/ n: a rigid transparent nonconducting thermoplastic used esp. in molded products and foam.

Yesterday, a status update went viral on facebook. People began posting and reposting the quote that was attributed in its entirety to Martin Luther King.

This quote was:

“I mourn the loss of thousands of precious lives, but I will not rejoice in the death of one, not even an enemy. Returning hate for hate multiplies hate, adding deeper darkness to a night already devoid of stars. Darkness cannot drive out darkness: only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate: only love can do that.” Martin Luther King, Jr.

The message was posted in response to the United State’s killing of Osama Bin Laden on Sunday and was posted by numerous facebook users, of which I was one. By yesterday evening, articles began springing up pointing out the inaccuracy of the quote. The Atlantic had an article entitled “Out of Osama’s Death, a Fake Quotation is Born.”This headline is inaccurate. The quote wasn’t a fake, a fraud, made up. A part of it, less than a third, was misattributed.

The first sentence of this quote was not written or said by Martin Luther King, Jr., but the rest of it was. Okay, I thought, we all have a little egg on our face. We should make sure we have researched the quote before posting, but it is the solidarity of that message, the need to speak to that sentiment of love and of nonviolence after this violent act that counts, right? Apparently, wrong.

More articles emerged talking about the “fake quotation” and how immediately it went viral without people checking their facts. (I won’t even go into the fact that this is a facebook status message, not an investigative report.)

This kind of focusing on the minor detail in lieu of the whole, the attempt to find the piece that invalidates the whole message is what I detest most about news networks like Fox News, who spread information completely skewed and out of context to masses who are genuinely and earnestly seeking information. It reeks of that “Gotcha” mentality. Look what we found, look at this detail and how silly, how stupid, how wrong this sentiment, this speech, this movement, this entire group of people is. Taking this first sentence that was misattributed and blowing it out of proportion makes us lose sight of what was really happening here. Individual people were taking action, were responding in a way that was in opposition to the jubilant celebration of Osama Bin Laden’s death.

Here is what I take from the status updates of yesterday. People who posted were trying to call on a bit of solemnity in relationship to the killing of a man by our country. People who posted felt conflicted about the act of violence that occurred when the U.S. took the life of Osama Bin Laden. Even if he was a person who was responsible for the needless death of thousands of innocents, he was also a human being. Our act of murdering him was returning hate with hate, violence with violence. People who posted felt conflicted about and embarrassed by the drunken St. Patrick’s Day style celebrating and jubilation that they witnessed after seeing images of our fellow Americans thumping their chests and screaming “USA,” holding American flags and hanging out of trees. Maybe they, like me, had a hard time reconciling that sort of response to a man’s death, even if it was the death of a man who had caused such tragedy and suffering to our community. In status updates that their friends posted, these facebook status posters found a sense of solidarity, of community and of compassion in the midst of a situation they were wrestling to understand and make sense of a personal level. They were looking to the words of one of our greatest leaders of nonviolent social change. They were seeking to model him. They were trying to think about what creative problem solving we might employ to be a country that engages in peaceful diplomacy, that attempts to find ways to better understand others in the world so that this kind of violence is not necessary.

By posting the words of MLK and by what I write here, I am not saying I don’t understand the ways in which this feels like necessary closure to those Americans who lost family and friends in the attacks and even to those who didn’t. We, as a country, were all affected in a major way by 9/11. I grieve with my fellow Americans for the losses we suffered, and I understand how this event can feel like a satisfying resolution. What I am saying is that our response involved more violence, involved stoking the fire of hatred, and I am not at ease with that. (Furthermore, I don’t believe that this act will resolve our problems with al Qaeda nor cause them to disengage and desist. I think it might exacerbate it all. But this is not my focus here. My focus is this one status update, this one response.)

I think its important to recognize that what a large group of people felt called to do yesterday, in the wake of the death of Bin Laden, was to think of major leaders of the nonviolent movement, like Martin Luther King, Jr., like Gandhi, like Dorothy Day. People that said: No. No matter what the violence. No matter what the mistreatment. We will, in fact, conquer, but we will work as a peaceful people.

For me what makes the United States great is not the times we use force but the times we use creative thinking and diplomacy to relate to other people and to get the outcomes we need.

And I don’t want to sit by while the fine line is scrutinized, while these statuses are viewed as unfortunate and inaccurate. The sentiment embedded in the quote was there. These facebook users wanted to suggest and seek out the ways in which we can add lightness to the dark, the ways in which we can drive out hatred with the power of our love. And that is what is important in this: the amount of people that message resonated with. Not that the first sentence of it didn’t come out of the mouth of Martin Luther King, Jr.


Filed under weekly words

7 responses to “poly·sty·rene

  1. Wonderful post, Lisa. Thank you so much for your articulation of this point, sadly all too subtle for much of the US’ media.

    By the way, the quote that IS from MLK, is a direct quote from the Dhammapada!

    frank jude

    • the dictionary project

      Thank you for this response, Frank Jude. Thank you too for connecting to the original source material for MLK 🙂

  2. Ben Quick

    I couldn’t agree more Lisa. Way to many USA! USA! chants floating around. There’s this U of A party advertised on fb called “Patriot Bros and Terrorist Hos.” A good dose of racism and sexism in one sentence fragment. A couple of former students had signed up to go, and I had to call them on it.

  3. Ben Quick

    Make that too. What a teacher I am!

  4. Kristen

    I think you and Julia should run for office. You have my vote!

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