The New Year and the Bend of the Arc
As we begin 2017, there is something I’ve been thinking about, that I’d like for you to consider for the new year. It starts with a famous quote, the best-known version of which is from Martin Luther King, but which goes back to the transcendentalist Theodore Parker. The quote is:
“The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”
In the main I agree with that quote. There are things about it, however, that I think many of us elide.
The first is the word “long.” I think both Parker and King understood that moral endeavors can be measured in years, decades and sometimes centuries. This is not an argument toward complacency; indeed I think it’s an argument against defeatism and fatalism in the face of setbacks and stalemates. We live in moments and days and it’s often hard to see past them, and it’s easy to believe when we are struck a hard blow that all is lost. All is not lost. The arc is long. Nothing is ever fully decided in the moment or the day. There are years and decades and sometimes centuries yet to go. The arc continues to bend, if we remember that it is long, and that we need to imagine it extending further.
We need to imagine that because of the second thing: The arc is not a natural feature of the universe. It does not magically appear; it is not ordained; it is not inevitable. It exists because people of moral character seek justice, not only for themselves but for every person. Nor is the arc smooth. It’s rough and jagged, punctuated in areas by great strides, halting collapses, terrible reverses and forcible wrenching actions. There are those, always, who work to widen the arc, to make that bend toward justice as flat as they can make it, out of fear or greed or hate. They stretch out the arc when they can. If people of moral character forget the arc is not ordained, or become complacent to a vision of a smooth, frictionless bend toward justice, the work to flatten the arc becomes that much easier.
Right now, today, here in 2017, there are those working very industriously to flatten out the arc. They have lately seen little penalty for their hate, or their dissembling, or their disdain or greed; they have contempt for justice other than a cynical appreciation of its features when and only when it is to their advantage; they don’t care for anyone or anything outside the close horizon of their own interests. They have won a moment; they have won a day. They will try to win more than that, now, however they can, flattening the arc with hate and fear and greed.
On this day, in this year, in our time: Help to bend the arc back.
As you do, there are things to remember.
Remember the arc is long. It’s not one moment or one day or even a year or four years, even when that moment or day or year seems endless.
Remember the arc is not inevitable. It needs you. You are more important than you know, if you don’t give in to despair, to complacency, or to apathy. Add to the moral weight that bends the arc toward justice. You can’t do it alone, but without you the work becomes that much harder.
Remember that those who are working to flatten the arc hope you give up and give in. They are relying on you to do just that. Disappoint them. Disappoint them in big ways. Disappoint them in small ways. Disappoint them each day, and every day, in all the ways you can. Do not consent to this flattening of the arc.
Remember finally that this arc toward justice never ends. We are human. We are not perfect. We will not arrive at a perfect justice, any more than we will achieve a perfect union. But just as we work toward a more perfect union, so too we bend the arc toward justice, knowing the closer we get, the better we and our lives are, as individuals, as communities, as a nation and as a world. This is a life’s work, not just work for a moment, or day, or year. You won’t see the final result. There isn’t one. It doesn’t mean the work doesn’t matter. It matters. It matters now. It matters for you. It matters for everyone.
It’s a new year. There’s work to be done. I hope you will do it, and that you find joy in the work.
See you on the arc.