This week marks the 51st anniversary of the assassination of Malcolm X. It is important to remember how this great champion of civil rights was moving quickly towards a vision of universal brotherhood towards the end of his life, a vision inspired in large part by his pilgrimage to Mecca in 1964, and his sense of deep spiritual kinship with the people he met on that journey. “Never have I witnessed such sincere hospitality and overwhelming spirit of true brotherhood as it is practiced by people of all colors and races here in this Ancient Holy Land,” he wrote in his “Letter from Mecca.” “I could see from this, that perhaps if white Americans could accept the Oneness of God, then perhaps, too, they could accept in reality the Oneness of Man—and cease to measure, and hinder, and harm others in terms of their ‘differences’ in color.”
The last speech he gave in public was his famous response in the Oxford Union Debate, December 3, 1964, on the topic “Extremism in defense of liberty is no vice, moderation in the pursuit of justice is no virtue.” Critics liked to characterize Malcolm as a racist radical, and his support of this phrase in the debate confirmed this sense of him for his opponents, but in fact the phrase originated on the political right, first uttered by conservative Barry Goldwater in his July 16 speech that same year when he accepted the presidential nomination of the Republican Party. Most of the debaters arrayed against him at Oxford opposed the phrase, including conservative MP Humphrey Berkeley, the speaker before Malcolm, who characterized him as a segregationist champion of apartheid, and charged him with plagiarizing his adopted surname “X” from Kafka. Playing every line for laughs, Berkeley posited that the adoption by a civil rights leader like Malcolm of Goldwater’s thesis, given how Goldwater had consistently voted against civil rights, seemed to take cynicism too far.
Humphrey’s personal attack on him while playing at being the figure of civility and reason angered Malcolm (Stephen Tuck, The Night Malcolm X Spoke at the Oxford Union, p. 160 ). In response, Malcolm argued that Berkeley was the “type” of white man whose ancestors had sold Malcolm’s ancestor’s and erased their surnames, that this is why Malcolm had adopted the surname “X” in the first place, and that Berkeley’s “type” was precisely the reason why extremism in defense of liberty is no vice. Malcolm flipped the terms of the debate by suggesting that Berkeley’s masquerade of reasonableness is itself a form of extremism, and he took issue with Berkeley’s characterization of him as a racist , arguing that this misrepresentation was precisely the issue: “[W]hen a man whom they have been taught is below them has the nerve or firmness to question some of their philosophy or some of their conclusions, usually they put that label on us, a label that is only designed to project an image which the public will find distasteful.” (Link) In flipping the terms of the debate, he also forecast his larger argument, which is that the terms within which the western world understands virtue are often far more extreme than they are rational or just.
When we think of virtue, we often think in terms of moderation. Our sense of this comes largely from Aristotle’s Nichomachean Ethics, Book II, where he describes virtue as a mean existing between excess and deficiency, a mean determined by reason. So, for example, Aristotle might find Courage between cowardice and rashness; Patience between depression and crabbiness; and Truthfulness between understatement and boastfulness. What is important here is that virtue is a reasonable mean between extremes. In the case of vices, however, there is often no reasonable mean—these vices, Aristotle argues, are themselves bad.
Malcolm X’s defense of the Goldwater proposition insists that reason and moderation cannot operate in an upside-down world of colonial stereotypes, ambitious nation-states, and entrenched racism. These vices, he argues, are themselves bad. Instead, Malcolm is interested in moving us away from Aristotelian ideas of virtue as a mean, and towards an awareness of virtue as justice. He characterizes extremism as something relative to something or someone else rather than a fixed value, whereas justice itself is more self-evident: “Anytime anyone is enslaved or in any way deprived of his liberty, that person, as a human being, as far as I’m concerned he is justified to resort to whatever methods necessary to bring about his liberty again.”
Using the example of the Congo, whose independence movement was crushed with the aid of the U.S. military, he notes that the concept of extremism is perspectival and tinted by politics, and thus is part of a representational scheme deployed by those in power in order to justify their actions: “They take American-trained–they take pilots that they say are American-trained–and this automatically lends respectability to them, [Laughter] and then they will call them anti-Castro Cubans. And that’s supposed to add to their respectability [Laughter] and eliminate the fact that they’re dropping bombs on villages where they have no defense whatsoever against such planes, blowing to bits Black women–Congolese women, Congolese children, Congolese babies. This is extremism.” Malcolm appeals here to justice as a sense of fairness, of obligations to others, and he argues directly and by implication that real extremism lies in perpetrating injustice. If dropping bombs on villages of women and children is blatantly unjust—and it is—then defending against it cannot be seen as extremism, but as an attempt to seek justice. To characterize these kind of attacks as just, and attempts to defend against them as extremism, is to support a world where notions of virtue and vice have been turned upside down, and rendered useless.
In his bafflement that anyone could take up the cause of extremism, Humphrey Berkeley attacked Malcolm X at the Oxford Union as immoral, as against appeasement and peaceful coexistence, and therefore as someone advocating injustice. In response, Malcolm argued that he wasn’t interested in violence so much as he was interested in equality, in fair and just treatment: “I don’t encourage any acts of murder, nor do I glorify in anybody’s death, but I do think that when the white public uses its press to magnify the fact that there are the lives of white hostages at stake–they don’t say ‘hostages,’ every paper says ‘white hostages’–they give me the impression that they attach more importance to a white hostage and a white death than they do the death of a human being despite the color of his skin.” At the end of this speech, his Oxford audience shouted and stamped their feet in approval. What Malcolm X argued in his last public speech is not that extremism is better than moderation, or that moderation cannot be virtuous, but that virtue is most present when everyone is treated as equally important, no matter the color of their skin, and that the real, abiding, and most important measure of virtue is the justice owed to all.
Jaime Hovey is Associate Program Director for Virtue, Happiness, & the Meaning of Life.