Law and Culture: Leading Change With Legislation

Today is Presidents’ Day, and I want to get into civics and democracy. I am still haunted by the events of last week, though. Luckily, the topics overlap in a way that deserves discussion.

Last week, as well as the month before and so many times before that, I heard a lot of people telling me that laws cannot stop “evil” people from doing bad things. This isn’t a new argument; it is actually a favorite of conservatives any time you try to use the law to change culture to be more inclusive or to protect people from one another.

It was an argument used a lot 55 years ago to argue against civil rights legislation. “You can’t use the law to change how people think and feel,” they would say. “It is a cultural problem,” they said, if they admitted a problem at all.

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr, heard that argument a lot. Here is how he answered it:

“Hearts must be changed. Religion and education must play a great role in changing the heart. But we must go on to say that while it may be true that morality cannot be legislated, behavior can be regulated. It may be true that the law cannot change the heart but it can restrain the heartless.”

He was right, of course. More importantly, though, was the side effect of restraining the heartless. As racism was made intolerable under the law, it was driven from public display. Lynchings decreased and harassment became more subtle. Racism was not cured, but it’s effects have been lessened. Opportunity is not equal, but the differences have shrunk noticeably.

We have done it more recently, too.

The same thing has happened with smoking, drunk driving, and sexual harassment. They have certainly not been eliminated, but they have become disdainful, partly because we have made it clear that they are wrong by passing laws and partly because those laws come with consequences for those activities.

Please, do not let anyone fool you into thinking that only a perfect solution is worth trying. Do not let anyone convince you that making laws is futile in the face of luke-warm public opinion. Public opinion in America has always had a bias towards progress. As George Washington said, “As Mankind becomes more liberal, they will be more apt to allow that all those who conduct themselves as worthy members of the community are equally entitled to the protections of civil government.” We’ve lived up to that, though advancement has been unsteady and, at times, hesitant.

We must push forward with whatever tools we have. The law will not be enough to fix our division and mistrust. We will have to educate, communicate, fellowship, and rebuild our communities. In the meantime, though, I leave you with the rest of the quote from Dr. King:

“It may be true that the law cannot make a man love me but it can keep him from lynching me and I think that is pretty important, also.”

(Here is the link to the MLK speech, but it is in the form of a PDF file)

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