As the Martin Luther King, Jr. national holiday approaches, I was struck by Fort Lauderdale, Florida’s theme for this year’s celebration: “Non-violence is Contagious…CATCH IT.”
Contagious literally means “communicable by contact” and, of course, it generally signifies the transmission of disease. The earliest appearances of the word in the English language, while hundreds of years before the germ theory of disease was worked out in the nineteenth century, signified illness and infection (but also, by extension, moral corruption or defiling influence) flowing from a particular place, the air, or specific people.
Then there is this more recent connotation: the rapidity with which something spreads. The dictionary offers this quaint example—“Contagious laughter ran through the hall”—but no doubt this meaning also had its roots in disease, mirroring the exponential spread of epidemics (and the concomitant rise of the science of epidemiology) in the modern era. Contagion is a 2011 film from Steven Soderbergh that draws all of these meanings together as it tracks the rapid progress of a lethal contact transmission virus that kills within days and sparks worldwide panic. The movie’s tagline? “Nothing Spreads Like Fear.”
The people in Fort Lauderdale are tapping into another side to contagiousness.
Beginning in the seventeenth century, the sense of “influence” that contagion had acquired along the way was increasingly applied more positively, with references abounding to the contagion of sympathy and loyalty, of repentance and even adventure. “A contagion of goodness, of enthusiasm, of energy… almost impossible to resist,” is a line in a book published in the 1860s and included in the Oxford English Dictionary’s definition. More recently “contagion diffusion” names how innovations spread quickly and, increasingly, there is talk of “contagious compassion.”
Both negative and positive poles of this word share the dynamics of contact, influence, and rapid dispersal. The difference between these two senses, though, is monumental.
One signifies an overwhelming, implacable, mysterious phenomenon of destruction that threatens our well-being as individuals, communities, and even whole societies. The other connotes the spread of a more benign power and potential.
The first leaves us leery of contact. The second welcomes it.
The first implies that we are victims of a force out of our control. The second suggests that, while this goodness, enthusiasm, and energy is “almost impossible to resist,” we have a choice. Something about this spreading idea or vision or action touches us deeply and inspires us, but we still get to choose how or even if we will respond.
The Arab Spring and the American Autumn (and almost all the countless initiatives for deep social change over the past twelve months) are a contemporary form of this positive contagion that inventively interweaves the tangible (physical communicative contact, as growing communities have gathered and occupied space together) and the intangible (the virtual networks and interlocking cyber-meridians crisscrossing the world and helping people power to go viral).
As the people in Fort Lauderdale suggest, the nature of nonviolence itself is contagious. In its fullest incarnation nonviolence is, as Kenneth Boulding put it, integrative. It thrives as it connects and unifies, and it offers a compelling contagion of hope and unexpected power.
This nonviolent contagion is not new—indeed, it has been brewing for centuries, and has accelerated in the past 100 years. As we ready for the King holiday, I am reminded again of the contagion that Dr. King and the U.S. Civil Rights Movement unleashed. The Occupy movement is the latest case of this dissemination. It carries on a struggle from 40 years ago in a way that, in an odd twist, echoes and seeks to build on the legacy of Dr. King. As art historian Matthew Jesse Jackson suggested in 2006:
Let’s say it’s the year 2300 and we’re looking back at the art of the 20th century. My guess is that the most influential artist of the past hundred years will not have been Andy Warhol, Marcel Duchamp, or Pablo Picasso. That distinction will belong to Martin Luther King Jr., a visionary performance artist with an impeccable sense of timing who achieved the virtually unthinkable for a critic of social inequality: He shut down Wall Street every year.
When Wall Street is closed on Monday, we can thank Dr. King and company’s people-power movement for this fact—and for the contagious example it has bestowed on a new movement tackling monumental inequality.
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Waging Nonviolence is a leading publication on social movements around the world, and we’re looking to expand our coverage and work with new writers.