Three Plane Rides and the Quest for a Just Society
Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., criticizes U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War during a speech at the University of Minnesota, St. Paul campus, 1967.

Three Plane Rides and the Quest for a Just Society

Aaron Preston
Aaron Preston
14 min read

In the paper that started the concept of “microaggressions” on its path to prominence, lead-author Derald Wing Sue recounts an incident that happened to him (an Asian American) and an African American colleague on a short plane ride from New York to Boston. Being a small plane with few passengers, Sue and his colleague were asked by a flight attendant (who happened to be a white female) to help balance the weight by moving to the back of the plane. They complied, but wondered why they had been asked to move instead of the three white men who were last to board, and who seated themselves directly in front of Sue and his colleague. “Were we being singled out because of our race,” Sue wondered, or “was this just a random event with no racial overtones?” Sue and his colleague—who was having the same thoughts—discussed the matter:

Were we being oversensitive and petty? Although we complied by moving to the back of the plane, both of us felt resentment, irritation, and anger. In light of our everyday racial experiences, we both came to the same conclusion: The flight attendant had treated us like second-class citizens because of our race.

Apart from noting that, just before asking them to move, “the attendant… seemed to scan the plane with her eyes,” presumably deciding whom she was going to ask, Sue gives no indication of what led them to this conclusion beyond the fact that both felt they were often on the receiving end of ambiguous behaviors which, like this one, could be construed either as perfectly innocent, or as subtle slights. Puzzlingly, recognition of this shared experience led them to conclude that the flight attendant’s decision was not innocent, and that they had just experienced what Sue would later define as a racial microaggression: “brief and commonplace daily verbal, behavioral, or environmental indignities, whether intentional or unintentional, that communicate hostile, derogatory, or negative racial slights and insults toward people of color.” At the back of the plane, Sue continued to brood:

While I kept telling myself to drop the matter, I could feel my blood pressure rising, heart beating faster, and face flush with anger. When the attendant walked back to make sure our seat belts were fastened, I could not contain my anger any longer. Struggling to control myself, I said to her in a forced calm voice: “Did you know that you asked two passengers of color to step to the rear of the ‘bus’”?

That went over about as well as you might expect: the flight attendant became indignant and defensive, and eventually “broke off the conversation and refused to talk about the incident any longer.”

*     *     *

Black intersectional feminist Gloria Jean Watkins, who writes under the pen name “bell hooks,” begins her essay “Killing Rage” with another airplane story. The opening lines read:

I am writing this essay sitting beside an anonymous white male that I long to murder. We have just been involved in an incident on an airplane where K, my friend and traveling companion, has been called to the front of the plane and publicly attacked by white female stewardesses who accuse her of trying to occupy a seat in first class that is not assigned to her.

She goes on to explain that the error was the airline’s: “[a]lthough [K] had been assigned the seat, she was not given the appropriate boarding pass.” That pass had been given to the “anonymous white male” at whom hooks directs her “killing rage,” rejecting his apology and yelling at him for missing his opportunity to take a stand against the injustice done to K, thereby being “complicit with the racism and sexism that is so all pervasive in this society.” hooks proceeds to illustrate what life is like under what she sees as the “white supremacist patriarchy” of American culture. From the cabbie they’d hailed to take them to the airport to the two young whites at the airline ticket counter—one of whom caused the error that results in the faulty boarding pass—to the flight attendant who forces K to give up her seat to the anonymous white male, she interprets any and all uncooperativeness and rudeness as forms of “racial harassment” grounded in racist hostility.

Accordingly, she feels compelled to resist, and escalates every last situation: she threatens to report the cabbie for discriminatory behavior; she responds to the distracted and discourteous service from the pair at the ticket counter with the quip that “I never see white males receiving such treatment in the first-class line,” and proceeds to have them call a supervisor to oversee an upgrade to first-class; she yells at the anonymous white male who had taken K’s seat next to her on the plane, and who becomes the target for all the anger she had accumulated over the course of all these events. Although she “wanted to stab him softly, to shoot him with the gun I wished I had in my purse,” she settles for pulling out a pad of paper and writing the title of her essay-to-be in bold letters that he can’t help but see: “Killing Rage.”

*     *     *

In March of 1968, Martin Luther King, Jr. told his own airplane story. A white man seated next to King had recognized him, and began to offer advice on how blacks could improve their state in America. “Now the thing you all need to do is something for yourself,” he said. “[A]ll other ethnic groups have come to this country and they had problems, too, just like you all have, but they lifted themselves by their own bootstraps.” Through a thick accent that prevented him from pronouncing the word “negro” correctly, the man told King how his own parents had come from another country and done just that. Although King didn’t refrain from telling the man that these remarks were insensitive and unhelpful, he didn’t respond with anger, accuse him of racism, or of being part of the white supremacist patriarchy.

Instead, King notes that the encounter made him “a little despondent… disturbed… that some of our white brothers and sisters don’t understand.” And although he didn’t feel like arguing, King proceeded to engage the man in constructive conversation, educating him on just how the situation of blacks in America differed from that of other immigrant groups: they alone had been brought to America in chains and kept as slaves for over 300 years, and were freed with no resources to start building their lives, whereas other immigrant groups came voluntarily with such belongings and wealth as they had, and were given land-grants, low interest loans, and federal subsidies. No group had truly lifted itself by its own bootstraps, and it was especially absurd to think that blacks should do so. “I believe in lifting yourself by your own bootstraps to the extent that that’s possible,” said King, but “It is a cruel jest to say to a bootless man that he should lift himself up by his own bootstraps. It is even worse to tell a man to lift himself up by his own bootstraps when somebody is standing on the boot.”

Why did King respond so differently than Sue or hooks? Had his experience of racism been less profound and painful than theirs? Probably not. Was he simply a better-adjusted person with a more buoyant personality? Possibly. But one clear difference is the philosophical framework through which King saw the world. Sue and hooks view the world through the concepts and categories of what Lukianoff and Haidt have called “common-enemy identity politics,” which has its roots in critical theory and certain strains of postmodern thought. For ease of reference, I’ll call this “identitarianism.” By contrast, Martin Luther King was a philosophical Personalist.

*     *     *

The intellectual movement that would become “Personalism” emerged in the 18th and 19th centuries. Under the combined influence of classical and medieval philosophy and Christian theology, the West had come to believe that ultimate reality consisted in a personal (or, rather, a tri-personal) God and the world He created, populated by independent personal beings. But the philosophers Baruch Spinoza (1632–1677) and Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel (1770–1831) challenged this view by treating all created beings, including human persons, not as independent entities in their own right, but as parts or aspects of a single, ultimate Being, an impersonal “God.” Not only did this mark them as pantheists from the standpoint of Judeo-Christian orthodoxy, but—in the eyes of some—it denigrated humans by failing to do justice to the private, internal life and moral autonomy proper to personhood.

Personalism began as an attempt to defend the personhood of God against Spinoza and Hegel’s impersonal views of reality, but soon turned to a defense of our own personhood from the denigrating tendencies of their philosophies. At the heart of Personalism is the choice to treat personal being as an irreducible, ultimate explanatory category—a choice that remains credible to this day, despite various pretensions to have reduced personhood to scientific or sociological categories. As contemporary Personalist Rufus Burrow, Jr. explains: “Personalism… maintains that person is ‘the supreme philosophical principle.’ This means that one who is interested in ultimate causes and reasons for things must seek for their explanation in mind or person.”

A key figure in late 19th century Personalism was Borden Parker Bowne, who began teaching at Boston University in 1876 and quickly established it as a center of Personalistic thought. Bowne’s student, Edgar Sheffield Brightman, was King’s first dissertation director at Boston University in the early 1950s. In his first book, King would identify Personalism as his “basic philosophical position,” declaring that “[p]ersonalism’s insistence that only personality [i.e., personal being, or personhood]—finite and infinite—is ultimately real strengthened me in two convictions: it gave me metaphysical and philosophical grounding for the idea of a personal God, and it gave me a metaphysical basis for the dignity and worth of all human personality.” The latter is directly relevant to the comparison with Sue and hooks. How did Personalism strengthen King in this conviction?

Personalism’s concept of personhood is built from the accumulated insights of Western philosophy and Christian theology, especially as expressed by Kant and a certain strain of post-Kantian Idealism. For most personalists, a person is an independently existing individual characterized by consciousness, free will, moral agency, and an array of cognitive and affective capacities capable of yielding self-consciousness, intersubjectivity, and insight into a broad range of moral and non-moral truths.

Personalism is noteworthy for emphasizing that moral agency is central to personhood. A.C. Knudson, Dean of Boston University’s School of Theology in the generation before King’s arrival, captured the Personalist perspective when he wrote that “[p]ersonality… implies a certain degree of privacy, and this privacy has about it something sacred. In every person there is a holy of holies, which it would be sacrilegious to invade.” It is from within the sacred space of our private thoughts and feelings that we exercise our moral agency. Through deliberation, evaluation, and volition, we initiate processes which spill over into outward acts bearing upon other persons. As British Personalist Henry Sturt observes, our sense of ourselves as moral agents encapsulates “the cardinal facts of our experience.” On the basis of this moral autonomy, most personalists followed Kant in attaching a unique and intrinsic worth, or dignity, to human persons—a worth that demands to be recognized wherever it occurs, both in oneself and in others. The ethical domain thus understood is so central to Personalism that Sturt’s compatriot Andrew Seth Pringle-Pattison said that Personalism “might [also] be described as ethicism.”

Given this focus, it is little surprise that Personalism rose to become arguably the world’s greatest force for good by the middle of the 20th century. As Yale’s Samuel Moyn has explained, Personalism was the driving force behind the human rights movement in Europe which culminated in the UN’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948. And King was not the only Boston-trained Personalist among the Civil Rights leadership. What’s surprising is the extent to which, given these remarkable accomplishments, Personalism has been forgotten in the academy, including, and perhaps especially, within mainstream academic philosophy. There is an important story to be told on this point, one that goes hand in hand with what the late philosopher and theologian Dallas Willard has called “the disappearance of moral knowledge,” and what sociologist James Davison Hunter has called “the death of character.” Alas, I cannot tell that story here.

Sturt and Pringle-Pattison were contemporaries of Bowne, and their thought helped to shape the broad Personalist ethos into which King would be inducted decades later. King’s own Personalist mentor, E.S. Brightman, would develop a Personalistic version of Natural Law theory, marks of which are scattered throughout King’s writings. For instance, in a 1957 sermon, King told his parishioners that “God has injected a principle in this universe… that all men must respect the dignity and worth of all human personality.” And in his famous “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” after explaining the views of Augustine and Thomas Aquinas on the distinction between just and unjust laws, King says:

Any law that uplifts human personality is just. Any law that degrades human personality is unjust. All segregation statutes are unjust because segregation distorts the soul and damages the personality. It gives the segregator a false sense of superiority and the segregated a false sense of inferiority. Segregation, to use the terminology of the Jewish philosopher Martin Buber, substitutes an “I it” relationship for an “I thou” relationship and ends up relegating persons to the status of things.

This is King’s Personalism at work.

*     *     *

Another place we see King’s Personalism at work is in his understanding of agapē love and the agapistic ethic he built upon it. For King, love “is not to be confused with some sentimental outpouring.” It is “something much deeper than emotional bosh.” Rather, “agapē [is] understanding and creative, redemptive goodwill for all men.” Understanding is principally a cognitive phenomenon, a matter of grasping the inter-relationships of parts in their respective wholes. It is just the sort of cognitive state one must be in if one is to “understand” where another person is coming from, since this requires a grasp of the complex states of heart and mind out of which attitudes and actions emerge. Hence it is also a key ingredient in empathy, but bare understanding need not involve full emotional identification. Of course, “all men” is meant in the inclusive sense of “all humans,” and really—Personalist that he was—when the notion of agapē is fully unpacked, King would likely want to revise this to “all persons.” Thus, King insisted that agapē…

…does not begin by discriminating between worthy and unworthy people, or any qualities people possess. It begins by loving others for their sakes. It is an entirely “neighbor-regarding concern for others,” which discovers the neighbor in every man it meets. Therefore, agapē makes no distinction between friend and enemy; it is directed toward both… it springs from the need of the other person—his need for belonging to the best in the human family.

In good Personalist fashion, agapē sees others first and foremost as persons with a need to grow into their own personhood, and that means developing into moral agents who act in accordance with the moral law—the law whose highest tenets are respect for personhood and agapistic goodwill for all.

The fact that King’s agapē does not begin by discriminating (in the sense of “distinguishing”) between people on the basis of any qualities they possess sets it at odds with identitarianism, which begins precisely by distinguishing people according to qualities that, historically, have been the bases for unjust and oppressive systems of social organization. Committed to a view of persons as constituted primarily by their “social identities,” it sees us neither as individuals nor as members of a common humanity, but as inherently divided into groups along demographic lines, especially those that trace the borders of old antagonisms.

King did not deny the reality of social identities, and in fact recognized a limited place for identitarian thinking in building the self-esteem of historically oppressed people. For instance, in his final book, he insisted that:

…the Negro must boldly throw off the manacles of self-abnegation and say to himself and the world: “I am somebody. I am a person. I am a man with dignity and honor. I have a rich and noble history, however painful and exploited that history has been. I am black and comely.” This self-affirmation is the black man’s need made compelling by the white man’s crimes against him. This is positive and necessary power for black people.

However, King’s identitarianism was circumscribed and conditioned by his Personalist belief that there is something about us more fundamental, and more morally significant, than our social identities—namely, our common status as persons. Thus, in the same book, King calls for “a genuine revolution of values” which “means in the final analysis that our loyalties must become ecumenical rather than sectional. Every nation must now develop an overriding loyalty to mankind as a whole in order to preserve the best in their individual societies.” King closes by returning us to the ethic of agapē: “This call for a universal fellowship that lifts neighborly concern beyond one’s tribe, race, class, and nation is in reality a call for an all-embracing and unconditional love for all people.”

Because identitarianism lacks any robust account of our common humanity, it is not merely unwilling, but incapable of adopting the posture of King’s agapē. What’s more, identitarianism’s extreme version of “standpoint epistemology,” which relativizes truth and knowledge to an individual’s subjective experience and viewpoint, undermines the possibility of genuine understanding across demographic categories. For instance, in her now (in)famous book White Fragility, Robin DiAngelo teaches that “[w]e make sense of perceptions and experiences through our particular cultural lens… [which] is neither universal nor objective,” that “no one can be taught to treat people equitably, because humans cannot be 100 percent objective,” and that:

Someone who claims to have been taught to treat everyone the same is simply telling me that he or she doesn’t understand socialization. It is not possible to teach someone to treat everyone the same. We can be told, and often are told, to treat everyone the same, but we cannot successfully be taught to do so because human beings are not objective.

Philosophers call this position “epistemic relativism,” and most have rejected it. Of course, there is a grain of truth in DiAngelo’s position, but by treating it as the whole truth, she and other identitarian theorists transform it into a stumbling block. Transcending one’s pre-existing “conceptual scheme” to recognize new truths is by no means an uncommon experience, and it is not necessary to be “100 percent objective” in order to be “objective enough” to treat others fairly and equitably.

By denying this, identitarianism guarantees that men cannot understand women, that whites cannot understand blacks and other people of color, that straight people cannot understand gay people, and so on. This is why, according to identitarian theorists, members of the oppressor class are never in a position to disagree with the oppressed about oppression, since only the latter have had the kind of socialization required to see oppression clearly. This, ultimately, is why Sue and his co-authors defined “microaggressions” to include both intentional and unintentional slights. It is why Robin DiAngelo teaches that we should “think impact, not intention.” Only the oppressed are competent to identify oppression; only women are competent to identify sexism; only people of color are competent to identify racism, and so on. For members of an oppressor-class, the private-access which the Personalist thinks we all have to our own hearts and minds is irrelevant: oppressors are necessarily blind to the true nature of their own actions; only the oppressed can tell them their real meaning.

*     *     *

From the perspective of Personalism, the willingness to dismiss a person’s self-understanding in this way is a refusal to acknowledge that interior space of consciousness and agency which Knudson identified as the Personalist holy of holies. It is therefore tantamount to a refusal to acknowledge one’s status as a person. And the attempt to override someone’s self-understanding and replace it with one’s own interpretation of their actions is exactly the sort of assault on that sacred space that Knudson condemned as sacrilegious.

It is the willingness to commit such sacrilege that distinguishes the reactions of Sue and hooks from that of King. And it is no coincidence that the framework of identitarianism, which is the lens through which Sue and hooks see the world, makes such sacrilege seem justified, even necessary, while King’s Personalistic framework rejects it not only as immoral, but as based on a pretense to knowledge which fails to do justice to the most fundamental facts about human beings as persons.

It would be naïve to think that these frameworks do not play an important role in shaping the actions of those who accept them, including the reactions of our three protagonists to those they encountered in and around their respective plane rides. With the death of George Floyd this past summer driving legions to pore over works on “anti-racist” reading lists, identitarianism has penetrated the American consciousness to an unprecedented degree. Many people of goodwill have unquestioningly adopted its terminology and its tenets out of a presumption that people like Robin DiAngelo are social-scientific experts in possession of well-founded views. But this is not the case. Identitarianism is grounded less in social-scientific fact than in undefended and often unarticulated philosophical assumptions—assumptions which, as we have seen, incline toward enmity and social discord.

On this Martin Luther King Day, 2021, I propose that we start paying equal attention to the philosophical assumptions that informed King himself—assumptions which incline toward peace and unity. I propose that we commit to the study of Personalism as a serious alternative to identitarianism.

Aaron Preston is a Professor of Philosophy at Valparaiso University. He has authored, co-authored, or edited three academic books (Analytic Philosophy: the History of an Illusion, Analytic Philosophy: an Interpretive History, and The Disappearance of Moral Knowledge). His current work focuses on the largely forgotten philosophical school of Personalism.

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Aaron Preston

Aaron Preston is a Professor of Philosophy at Valparaiso University. His current work focuses on the largely forgotten philosophical school of Personalism.