On Being Maladjusted: King, Gandhi, Thoreau, Russians and a Brave Teen Girl
“There are some things within our social order to which I am proud to be maladjusted and to which I call upon you to be maladjusted. I never intend to adjust myself to segregation and discrimination. I never intend to adjust myself to mob rule. I never intend to adjust myself to the tragic effects of physical violence and to tragic militarism. I call upon you to be maladjusted to such things.”
The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., (1929 – 1968) boldly spoke these words to a packed room full of eager students at the University of California, Berkeley in 1957.
Yes, bold and courageous words. But how maladjusted do we dare to be?
Civil rights activist, Rosa Parks (1913 – 2005) had the answer on that fateful December day in 1955, when she refused to give up her seat to a white passenger on a bus in Montgomery, Alabama saying,
“People always say that I didn’t give up my seat because I was tired, but that isn’t true. I was not tired physically…No, the only tired I was, was tired of giving in.”~ Rosa Parks
It appears that she was maladjusted from an early age.
“As far back as I can remember, I knew there was something wrong with our way of life when people could be mistreated because of the color of their skin.”~ Rosa Parks
Mahatma Gandhi (1869 - 1948) also had the answer of the extent that we dare to be maladjusted. After he was thrown off a train to Pretoria by security officers saying that the first-class cabin was for “whites only,” he vowed never again to submit himself to injustice or exploitation.
“Civil disobedience becomes a sacred duty when the state has become lawless or corrupt. And a citizen who barters with such a state shares in its corruption and lawlessness.” ~ Mahatma Gandhi, The Essential Gandhi: An Anthology of the Writings on His Life, Work and Ideas
Maladjustment is undoubtedly the principal force behind the society-changing action of “civil disobedience,” a term coined by the American abolitionist philosopher and essayist, Henry David Thoreau (1817 – 1862), who viewed it as “the foundation of liberty.”
Taking it further, he asserted,
“If an injustice requires you to be the agent of injustice to another, then, I say, break the law.” ~ Civil Disobedience (1849)
Many heard this radical message.
Mahatma Gandhi clearly heard Thoreau’s message when he organized and led the 26-day Salt March, protesting the tax on salt imposed by the British. Thousands followed Gandhi to the coastal village of Dandi (now, Gujarat) where he defiantly and illegally produced salt from the water. This act of civil disobedience ignited the independence movement in India.
Rosa Parks intuitively heard Thoreau’s message when she illegally refused to move from her seat on the segregated bus. The 381-day Montgomery Bus Boycott was the result and it ignited the modern Civil Rights movement in the United States.
As Dr. Martin Luther King (who extensively studied the works and writings of Thoreau and Gandhi) noted,
“It may be that the salvation of the world lies in the hands of the maladjusted.” ~ Martin Luther King, A Testament of Hope
Thoreau’s “radical” philosophy of civil disobedience clearly influenced Martin Luther King, Gandhi and others to be maladjusted to injustice and other social imperfections.
But Thoreau wasn’t the first.
The King James Bible demands Christians to “Be not overcome of evil, but overcome evil with good.” Romans 12:21
Can this passage be interpreted to mean that one should not adjust to societal wrongs but rather to change them through acts of good (e.g., nonviolent resistance)?
Using Biblical overtones, Russian novelist and satirist, Yevgeny Zamyatin (1884 – 1937), agrees.
“The World is kept alive only by heretics: the heretic Christ, the heretic Copernicus, the heretic Tolstoy.” A Soviet Heretic: Essays by Yevgeny Zamyatin
Defined as “one who differs in opinion from an accepted belief of doctrine” (Merriam-Webster Dictionary), heresy today transcends the realm of religion, entering and facing modern societal problems. Slavery, discrimination, injustice, unfairness, violence, economic and social inequality, environmental harm, cyber-bullying are but a few modern problems. But the list grows as society evolves. The maladjusted— modern-day heretics—confront these problems on a daily basis.
Also relying on the Bible (and studying Thoreau), Russian novelist and essayist, Leo Tolstoy (1828 – 1910) wisely counseled that knowing when to be maladjusted requires only one thing:
“In the name of God, stop for a moment, cease your work, look around you.”
The moment of becoming maladjusted will be clear. This moment came for an enslaved teen girl, Cora, in the 2017 Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, The Underground Railroad, by author Colson Whitehead (1969 - ). Watching the merciless beating of a young boy for spilling “a single drop of wine,” Cora knew that she had to act.
“She had seen men hung from trees and left for the buzzards and crows. Women carved open to the bones with the cat-o’-nine-tails. Bodies alive and dead roasted on pyres. Feet cut off to prevent escape and hands cut off to stop theft. She had seen boys and girls younger than this beaten and had done nothing. This night the feeling settled on her heart again. It grabbed hold of her and before the slave part of her caught up with the human part of her, she was bent over the boy’s body as a shield.”
Cora stopped the beating. Although she had previously witnessed and endured innumerable acts of cruelty through her short life and had “adjusted” to this fate for herself and the other slaves on the plantation, today, she said “no!” On this day, she refused to accept this fate. She became maladjusted and she acted accordingly. For this, she received a severe (very severe!) beating but also saved the life of the young boy.
Her “maladjustment” made her, in the powerful words of Frederick Douglass (c. 1818 - 1895), “unfit to be a slave.” Her life was forever changed.
Now consider this…
There was a time, in America, when slavery was acceptable to some people. There was a time, in America, when segregation was acceptable to many people. There was a time, in America, when racial, ethnic, gender, and age discrimination were acceptable. There was a time when slavery, segregation and discrimination were also legal.
Many people had been born into these “acceptable” and legal conditions and had adjusted to them as a way of living, simply a fact of life—just like Cora in The Underground Railroad. These conditions were considered to be “just way things are.”
I remember the movie, The Butler, when Cecil’s father was working as a sharecropper who had just witnessed the rape of his wife. When his son questioned his father for failing to stop the assault, his father answered, “This is a white man’s world; we’re just living in it.”
“It may well be that the greatest tragedy of this period of social transition is not the glaring noisiness of the so-called bad people but the appalling silence of the so-called good people.” ~ Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
These previously “acceptable” situations are no longer acceptable to us today. But it takes a “maladjusted” person to speak up and start the change.
Perhaps the American poet and businesswoman, Muriel Strode (1875 – 1964), summarized it best when she said,
“I will not follow where the path may lead, but I will go where there is no path and leave a trail.” ~ The Open Court (1903)
This is not the sound of “appalling silence.” Rather it is the footsteps of the maladjusted, marching on a new path to a better world.