Malcolms, Martins and Uncompromising Positions

On February 16 , the inimitable Andybob wrote an impassioned article on the need for ‘fence sitters’ who self-identify as MHRAs to stop tone policing the de facto leaders of the movement. It’s the latest in a recent spate of articles on this topic.  This is a subject that hits close to home for me, and on which I’ve been of two minds in the past.

Temperamentally, I’m very much a peacemaker; I always do my best to empathize with those on all sides of an issue, and I enjoy explaining to the myopic what they’re failing to see in their opponents. I don’t respond well to aggression and absolutism, and generally avoid employing them in my own communication. I’d be lying if I said I’ve always liked the manner in which AVfM makes some points, and probably have even said so in a comment or two. Given all this, the message I’ve been internalizing lately is “fuck off – the movement is better off without you.”

Understandably, this doesn’t sit well with me. I like to think I do a non-negligible part for the cause, both temporally and fiscally. But I feel like I know where the frustration against moderates is coming from; I’ve only been involved in the MHRM for a couple of years, so I have no idea of the callouses that one has to grow in order to soldier on for so long in the face of such brutal opposition. I get it.

But, like most “irreconcilable” differences between people who fundamentally agree on most things, this growing divide is largely based on confused premises and false dichotomies. So let’s just reconcile these two camps (piece of cake).

Rectangles and Squares

Before I get into the meat of the reconciliation, a fundamental principle of argumentation needs to be identified and embraced: universal affirmatives are non-reversable. A simple illustration of this principle is in the following:

  • Universal affirmative (true): All squares are rectangles.
  • Reversal (false): All rectangles are squares.

Simple enough in theory.

Why do I bring this up? At the heart of this MHRM civil strife is a subtext; it isn’t something that Andybob explicitly wrote, but it is foundational to the rift. The subtext is the conflation of “persistence” with “aggression,” of “being accusatory” with “being inflammatory,” of “being confrontational” with “being rude.” I’m not saying the latter set is morally bad, but the two sets of terms are hardly synonymous, and it’s not doing any favors to anyone to claim that a person pointing out this conflation is somehow ignorant. In short, one can be inflammatory in their uncompromising pursuit, but not all uncompromising pursuits are inflammatory.

What Andybob says is:

“By uncompromising… I mean [not] allowing people to weasel out of acknowledging that their opinions are based on assumptions which denigrate men and promote the bigoted notion that their rights and welfare matter less than everyone else’s.

“…It can only be challenged by standing up to feminists and debunking their gynocentric narratives with intellectual integrity, pristine logic and a refusal to compromise.”

I one-hundred percent agree with this assertion. Visualized, it looks something like this:


Diagram 1

However, as far as I understand the conflict, the issue is not whether the above is true (it clearly is), it is whether one of these is true:


Diagram 2                                                       Diagram 3

Those what seem to assert that Diagram 2 is the case often retreat to the motte of Diagram 1 when challenged. And, frankly, those who favor Diagram 3 don’t have a motte to which they can retreat. I think that this is where the rift begins.

But, you know the best part about the above? It doesn’t matter![1] Here’s why.

Malcolms and Martins

Successful social movements generally have (and, more importantly, need) two types of leaders: Malcolms and Martins.

Malcolms[2] are those who are intentionally inflammatory in their uncompromising pursuit of social change. After all, most people are lazy and have plenty of problems to deal with throughout the course of everyday life. Unless a problem either is (1) made personal for them or (2) made impossible to ignore, it will be ignored. Malcolms are good at both tactics (and at #2 in particular).

The thing about Malcolms is this: they tend to be very threatening, not only in principle but in tone. By definition, change is going against an existing power structure. The thing about the powerful is that, unless they have incentive to do otherwise, standard operating procedure is to violently squash threats.

That’s where Martins[3] come in. They provide the disincentive for the powers that be to ruthlessly quash the movement – the second part of the one-two punch. First, the Malcolms spark rage and fear by bombastic means. This is generally necessary but incomplete, as it puts people on the defensive and short-circuits their capacity to access empathy for anyone outside of their tribe. The Martins, though, are able to kindle that empathy while still keeping alive the flame of attention that the Malcolms work to fan. As Gandhi said:

“The goal of nonviolence is not the humiliation or defeat of the opponent but the winning of the enemy’s friendship and understanding.”[4]

The conscience of your enemy becomes your ally – you overcome their defensive tribalism by expanding their tribe to include you.

Let us be clear: both approaches are generally necessary in a non-bloody revolution. If police were to brutally put down an advancing column of armed Black Panthers (i.e. – Malcolms), it would be disturbing to onlookers but would not have produced a groundswell of support for the fallen. However, when police savage an advancing column of unarmed civilians who refuse to raise a hand to defend themselves (i.e. – Martins), that’s when you get busloads of white people driving south to join the marches. Conversely, nobody gives a shit about a frail old brown man on a hunger strike unless it’s in the context of massive sectarian riots in Kohat. One draws the gaze, the other humanizes it.

Knowing that both approaches are necessary, I doubt it’s a good thing for social movements when their leaders insist on only one approach and belittle the other breed of leaders. For example, even though Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr. had heated debates over the tenor of the civil rights movement, Malcolm still said:

“The goal has always been the same, with the approaches to it as different as mine and Dr. Martin Luther King’s non-violent marching, that dramatizes the brutality and the evil of the white man against defenseless blacks. And in the racial climate of this country today, it is anybody’s guess which of the ‘extremes’ in approach to the black man’s problems might personally meet a fatal catastrophe first — ‘non-violent’ Dr. King, or so-called ‘violent’ me.”

This seems much more wise than if he had said something along the lines of, oh I don’t know, this:

“I offer those who prefer the softly, softly approach my best wishes, as I would any fellow traveler. There is a place for them – it’s just that, in my opinion, that place may as well be at the feet of [the white man] who may want to adopt them as a special project for proving to the world that they really do care about [the black man].”


It is a mark of maturity to recognize that a difference of temperament is generally not a difference of character. Teenagers think that any music other than their preferred genre “sucks,” while adults think that music that they don’t prefer is just that – music that they don’t prefer. A teenager who has an aggressive approach to leadership thinks that those who lead from behind are “pussies,” while an adult understands that both types of leadership have their place, their weaknesses, and (yes) their strengths.

This is how I’ve made peace with the whole dichotomy. When I hear “lead, follow, or get out of the way,” I translate it to this:

Lead. Lead in your own way, and get out of the way of other leaders.

And that’s my plan.


[1] In the context of strategic philosophy. It very much matters in increasing our ability to empathize with one another which, I think we can all agree, is a practice that MHRAs (specifically) and men (generally) should take seriously.

[2] Named after Malcolm X, but also exemplified in characters like Muhammad Ali Jinnah and Harvey Milk.

[3] Named after Martin Luther King Jr. See also: Mohandas Gandhi, Jonathan Larson, and Socrates.

[4] Keep in mind that the enemies here are not activated feminists, who are largely an implacable 10% of the population. The “enemy” whose approbation must be won is the apathetic, the disengaged – the other 90%. After all, even King said, “If your opponent has a conscience, then follow Gandhi. But if your enemy has no conscience, like Hitler, then follow Bonhoeffer.”

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