Did MLK Need Malcolm X?

In my freshman year I took Introduction to Psychology, in which I learned about something called the “Door in the Face" technique.  It’s a subtle of convincing people to give you what you want, and it’s easiest to explain using an example. 

Let’s say that you want to convince your parents to get you an iPhone.  First, you ask for something like a laptop, something far more extreme than what the person you're attempting to persuade (referred to as "the respondent") would be willing to give.  After they deny that initial request, you then ask for your real, much less extreme, desire, which in our scenario is the iPhone.  Studies show that this technique makes respondents between three and four times more likely to give persuaders what they ask for.

Interestingly, a pattern somewhat similar to the Door in the Face technique arises in civil rights movements.  Usually, such movements consist of more than one faction, some of which are more radical than others, as can be illustrated by the competition between the ideologies of Martin Luther King and Malcolm X in the early 1960’s.  Over time these civil rights movements change society for the better, but that change generally reflects the goals and demands of the moderate versions of these civil rights movements rather than those of their more radical counterparts.

It’s possible that this pattern is essentially the Door in the Face technique played out on an enormous scale: When confronted by both a moderate and radical faction of a civil rights movement, a group in power is much more likely to give in to the demands of the moderate group than they would have been if confronted by only that moderate movement.  For example, if you want to convince someone who doesn’t support feminism that the oppression of women is a real problem in society that needs our attention and action, first try to convince them of radical feminism, which holds that the oppression of women is not only the original and most universal form of oppression, but also the primary form of oppression and the basis upon which all other forms are built.  Similarly, peaceful protests that follow in the wake of violent riots may be more likely to impact on those in power than protests that aren’t preceded by such a riot.  In other words, the more moderate factions of civil rights movements may have their radical counterparts to thank for a great deal of the progress they make.

This doesn’t mean that I believe violence in the service of civil rights is justified or that moderate civil rights movements always go far enough, nor is this meant to imply that moderate civil rights movements only succeed because of the existence of more radical factions instead of based on their own merits.  This is just to say that as much as different factions of the same civil rights movement may differ on the goals of their movement, their worldview, and their ideals, they’re still fighting for the same thing, and they can all still help change society for the better.  In the graphic novel V for Vendetta, the main character at one point says “Away with our destroyers! They have no place within our better world.  But let us raise a toast to all our bombers, all our bastards, most unlovely and most unforgivable.”  I think it’s important to remember that even the most radical factions of civil rights movements are trying to make that better world a reality, and even more important to realize that they may well do more to create that better world than we give them credit for.