3 min

Social justice’s shades of grey

Radical is in the eye of the beholder

Time magazine editor Richard Stengel once asked Nelson Mandela whether he embraced armed struggle because he thought non-violence would never defeat apartheid or because it was the only way to prevent the African National Congress (ANC) from disintegrating.

“Why not both?” Mandela asked.

Social justice strategies are rarely either/or propositions. They are often “and.”

Case in point: Martin Luther King’s call for non-violent demonstrations pushed the conservative buttons of eight white Alabama clergymen.

“We . . . point out that such actions as incite to hatred and violence, however technically peaceful those actions may be, have not contributed to the solution of our local problems,” they wrote.

A jailed King replied, “Your statement, I am sorry to say, fails to express a similar concern for the conditions that brought about the demonstrations . . . There have been more unsolved bombings of Negro homes and churches in Birmingham than in any other city in the nation . . . The purpose of our direct action program is to create a situation so crisis packed that it will inevitably open the door to negotiation.”

And yet, others — like the pugnacious Malcolm X — felt King’s embrace of a non-violent approach to black liberation was too tepid.But while King’s non-violent strategy is more historically palatable to the mainstream, his and X’s perspectives informed the narrative and evolution of black civil rights in the US.


More recently, the members of punk collective Pussy Riot were found guilty of hooliganism motivated by religious hatred and sentenced to two years in jail after their performance of an anti-Putin song in a Russian Orthodox cathedral. For their supporters, theirs is a freedom-of-expression fight with a state-religious orthodoxy that wields disproportionate power. For their detractors, their actions are sacrilegious.

“We dared . . . to unite the visual imagery of Orthodox culture and that of protest culture, thus suggesting to smart people that Orthodox culture belongs not only to the Russian Orthodox Church, the Patriarch and Putin, that it could also ally itself with civic rebellion and the spirit of protest in Russia,” one Pussy Rioter said in her closing statement at trial.


In Uganda, gay activists and their allies did what many probably thought was unthinkable: they staged their first Pride parade. The police raided the festivities, detaining and roughing up participants, who continued their celebrations after they were released.

For Uganda observers, the news of this “first” is a sign of unexpectedly quick progress.

An acceptable radical act.

Enter hacktivist group Anonymous, which recently conducted a virtual ambush of the Ugandan prime minister’s office website.

“Your violations of the rights of LGBT people have disgusted us,” their message reads. “ALL people have the right to live in dignity free from the repression of someone else’s political and religious beliefs. You should be proud of your LGBT citizens, because they clearly have more balls than you will ever have.”

It’s a message that chagrined those who applauded the first Pride but found Anonymous’s tactics ham-fisted.

It will provoke a reactionary response, they warn.

As opposed to previous state actions?

To recap: authorities raided Uganda’s first Pride, invaded various queer conferences, and called activist David Kato’s murder-by-bludgeoning the consequence of a demand for sex turned deadly. And let’s not forget that on-again, off-again “kill the gays” bill waiting to be resurrected — again.

Whether it’s a Pride march, a hacking job or appropriating sacred space, there is no monolithic approach to activism. And sometimes doing the unacceptable is the daunting, scary, but legitimate — if not necessarily legal — course to take. Black-and-white approaches ignore the shades of grey that are part of the long, fluid unfolding of social justice fights. These struggles are arcs, where many ideas and actions — both aggressively brash or painfully slow-to-work — are tested or discarded as past their due date.

After years of refusing to negotiate with the apartheid government, Mandela decided to renounce that approach — also seen as a radical move. He was deemed a sellout, a traitor who had sold out the movement.

But the move eventually led to South Africa’s first democratic election.

Radical is in the eye of the beholder. And, sometimes, the only strategy left when all other means are cul-de-sacs to nowhere.