Most people, including many African-Americans, see Malcolm X as a simplistic hate-monger. The story of Malcolm X is a very complicated one. Indeed, Malcolm himself is a very complicated man. Before he toured Mecca, hate-mongering could be used to characterize an aspect of what he did, although arguably not the majority of his focus.
That’s a longer discussion for a different day.
However, one thing that is certain, is that after his trip to Mecca and his break from the black muslim movement, the way in which he saw the world, and the way in which he tried to speak to Americans and the larger international community, was truly a model that progressives should understand, study, and adopt.
The brilliance of the mind of Malcolm X was his ability drastically re-frame issues and narratives.
Progressives are often smart, have great proposals, are even simply right, but we are bad, at least in America, at drastically re-framing the underlying assumptions of the debate.
We engage with conservatives and others about our proposals and vision for America, but we do so without the necessary re-framing of the issue towards a frame that most supports our point of view. The frame (framing) in which a picture or painting sits (the issue) will drastically affect how that picture (the issue) is seen by those who look at it. Especially by those who are looking at the picture (issue) for the first time.
Malcolm X was simply a master at this type of drastic re-framing. Here’s a telling example:
“If violence is wrong in America, violence is wrong abroad. If it’s wrong to be violent defending black women and black children and black babies and black men, then it is wrong for America to draft us and teach us how to be violent in defense of her. And if it is right for America to draft us and teach us to be violent in defense of her, then it is right for you and me to do whatever is necessary to defend our own people right here in this country.” – Malcolm X
This point is from a debate about non-violence in the context of the civil rights movement. However, it illustrates how effective drastically re-framing a debate can be. It eviscerates not one, but a few underlying assumptions most Americas would come to the table with.The onus gets put back on those advocating for war to explain the internal inconsistencies in their own justifications for war, and it also puts the onus on them to explain their criticism of those who did not support non-violence in the civil rights movement in the U.S..
And it all happens in two sentences.
George Lakoff has been a leading proponent of the importance of framing, but I think Malcolm X’s ability to frame, leaves Lakoff in the dust.
Progressives bring interesting ideas and approaches to government, but they don’t create a foundation of of underlying assumptions or ideology on which to place these policy structures.
I think often progressives have their agenda, but try to message it so that it doesn’t sound like what it actually is. Instead, we try to make it come off as un-threatening and centrist as possible hoping that nobody will notice what it really is. We do this “hiding” because we believe that America isn’t ready for unabashed progressives, and we need to make it seem centrist to stand a chance of being understood.
So put aside Lakoff for a time, and pick up some of Malcolm’s speeches, particularly in the last year of his life.
You may not agree with everything that he says, but you will undeniably see a true master of re-framing at work.
One that all progressives can stand to learn from.