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We are still awaiting the new society foretold by Dr. King

Published: Thursday, Jan. 24, 2013 5:01 a.m. CDT

When we see people behave in ways we don’t understand, how do we respond? One response is to trust labels that others have given them.

In 1851, Dr. Samuel A. Cartwright first described the mental disorder “drapetomania” — the desire of slaves to flee from servitude. His proposed treatment? A good whipping.

Years earlier, Dr. Cartwright apprenticed under Dr. Benjamin Rush. Dr. Rush treated mental disorders by restraining patients in chairs with ice on their heads, sometimes for more than 24 hours, or by strapping them to a board and spinning them around. His portrait is still featured prominently in the seal of the American Psychiatric Association.

This Monday, we celebrated a different legacy — that of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

In his Dec. 18, 1963, speech to Western Michigan University students, Dr. King proclaimed: “Modern psychology has a word that is probably used more than any other word used in psychology. It is the word ‘maladjusted.’ It is the ringing cry of modern child psychology: ‘maladjusted.’ Now of course we all want to lead a well-adjusted life… but as I move toward my conclusion, I would like to say to you today, in a very honest manner: There are some things in our society, and in our world, to which I am proud to be ‘maladjusted.’”

Dr. King didn’t merely champion political freedom, which he hoped would allow African-Americans to enjoy the same legal freedoms guaranteed to whites. He also championed personal freedom — the ability to adapt to the environment well enough to continue working toward something good.

Today, far too many of us have lost that freedom. Many students, trained by television and video games to think fast, aren’t free to adjust to classrooms that require sustained attention. Trained by television to receive information in sound bites, they’re not free to adapt to learning the historical and social contexts of the facts they’re presented. Raised with ubiquitous advertising for newer, better, faster, they’re not free to adjust to routine family life, which requires being patient with others — and just “being.”

Many of us adults struggle, too: We want quick fixes. We accept the labels our children are given. We want to “fix” them, instead of trying to understand what their behavior is telling us. Why do we keep doing this? Why do many descendants of slaves struggle to succeed a century and a half after slavery ended? Perhaps it’s for the same reason: people go with what’s familiar. We don’t have enough experience with alternatives.

Fortunately, such alternatives do exist. Some people find them —and with them, freedom.

In his April 4, 1967, speech at the Riverside Church in New York City, Dr. King expressed hope that the “shirtless and barefoot people of the land” were rising up and might usher in a new society — one that values personal freedom and whose citizens are willing to sacrifice some comforts to attain it. Here and there, I see signs of life. I plant more seeds. I keep hoping.

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