We need to recognise the nuances of today's cultural divides, and move away from the idea that anyone not in favour of an idea must be dead set against it, writes Ken Crawford.

The ancient Greeks, notably Heraclitus, identified a tendency for life to polarise and swing between opposites. The arrival on the world stage of an extreme, polarised figure, such as Hitler, might in some sense create the grounds for his opposite. Such an individual duly came on the scene shortly after Hitler's departure – the Baptist minister and activist Martin Luther King. Where one preached a powerful narrative of racial hate and division that was deeply seductive to an embittered people, the other preached a sermon of love and unity to a people on the point of a violent uprising.

After King was murdered in 1968, aged only 39, his civil rights movement faced the question of how to continue his work at a time when Malcolm X had set out a very different vision. While activist movements such as Black Lives Matter are prominent in the media today, the greater influence has surely been through academia and its cultural impact on politics and media.

King's civil rights movement drew in many white intellectuals and students from the American universities in the 1960s. They were not universally welcome, but King judged this a matter of personal insecurity and accepted the help. After King's death these intellectuals and their successors took King's work into the American campuses and sought to embed it in the wider culture. They became academic activists, championing what they believed to be the greatest cause of their time.

An exploration of cultural evolution of academic activism since the 1960s would be a book-length study, so for the purposes of brevity, it seems to me that this academic activism has had a beneficial outcome in equal opportunity legislation and arguably helped make society more tolerant than it might have been. However, polarised intellectual positions have also been created in which King's love of the other and search for reconciliation seems to have been forgotten and a culture of quasi-religious intolerance created.

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If we recall Heraclitus, polarised, one-sided positions are likely to create the grounds for their opposite. King's life and work has the potential to create a new era of cultural liberation and unity but at present it has become one of cultural suffocation and demonisation. There are important cultural debates that need to happen but because activists have made these subjects taboo they have set the grounds for polarised opposites to develop, unmediated by any intelligent dialogue or compassion, a culture war.

In my opinion a key missing component from contemporary life is the failure to understand the need to reconcile the psychological opposites, to hold together, at the level of the individual, what seeks to pull society apart in polarised, one-sided positions. These seem to express in culture as 'isms', doctrines by which an individual or group seeks to control how others should think and live. These doctrines choke the living spirit, the positive spark of inspiration in humanity that might find the way that reconciles the opposites.

One-sided cultural doctrines can have powerful archetypal underpinnings (devil v redeemer; good v evil) that make them psychologically compelling, attracting the crowd and mob mentality. The devil is always seen in the other, never ourselves. The culture wars are rife with such positions, deeply attractive to the intellect and the call to domination, but clever and incisive arguments cut rather than heal, and once cut human vanity wants to deal a cut in return. We need to become big enough personalities to contain the warring psychological opposites and outgrow simplistic good v evil archetypal positions. With that foundation we might have productive cultural discussions.

Though King was a champion of the blacks, or people of colour, of America, he was at pains to seek a reconciliation that was not framed in terms of defeat and humiliation of the white man but with love, friendship, and brotherhood as the goal. These are the hard miles of learning to love those that hate, not just an intellectual standpoint. King is an example of an inspired individual who sought a way of mediating the opposites.

At the cultural level King failed, killed by the hate of what he prophetically called 'a sick white brother', but at the individual level he succeeded. In the face of persecution directed against himself and his family he refused to hate the white man or turn to violence. He did not listen to those is his movement who urged the 'killing of a few whites to show we mean business'.

Since the legacy of King's life and work has not been fully appreciated, its potential is yet to be fully realised. While being respectful of their progress and successes, the people of our time probably need to evolve King's work beyond the point the political and academic activists have taken it. As a starting point one could do worse than read King's autobiography as edited by Clayborne Carson, decide for yourself what has value and quietly integrate it into your own life.

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