Spring 2015 /Daring Minds II/

The Power of Quiet

Stray Thoughts

If someday you happen to be in downtown Atlanta with a few hours to spare, I highly recommend taking a turn through the new Center for Civil and Human Rights. In fact, if you don’t happen to be in Atlanta, I recommend it anyway. It’s worth the trip, especially if you have kids.

Last fall, while researching one of the feature stories in this issue (“Rolls Down Like Water”), I toured the Center’s exhibits three times, once with director Doug Shipman and twice, more slowly and introspectively, on my own. The Center is a museum in the modern sense—not so much a collection of artifacts as an orchestrated intellectual and sensory experience, rigorously rooted in history. In this case, the experience (much of it conceived by our own George C. Wolfe ’76) is, by turns, enlightening, gut-wrenching, uplifting and heartbreaking.

The last part of my visit took me downstairs to the only part of the museum that really is a collection of artifacts—the small room that houses a rotating exhibit of papers and personal items of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. There, alongside King’s aftershave, aspirin tin and razor, were a couple of thoughtful, handwritten meditations on the philosophy of nonviolence, including one worn thin at the edges from being folded and carried in his wallet.

When we think of the civil rights movement today, the first thing that comes to mind, for many of us, is King’s voice—that powerful, mellifluous baritone. And yet, as the Center’s thoughtfully framed exhibits reminded me, the movement he gave such eloquent voice to was largely a quiet one—based more on restraint than action, more on painstaking planning than quick response, more on passive resistance than confrontation, and more on soft voices than loud ones. Beneath it all was a breathtaking degree of quiet bravery and intellectual daring. Led by perhaps the greatest orator of our time, it was, on the whole, an introvert’s revolution.

That thought came to me as I read Susan Cain’s wonderful book, Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking. In her introduction, Cain compares King’s voluble leadership with the quiet strength of another of the movement’s icons, Rosa Parks, a woman described by those who knew her as “timid and shy,” but with “the courage of a lion.” As Cain points out, if it had been King who refused to give up his seat on that Montgomery bus, he would have been quickly dismissed as a grandstander. Paradoxically, it was the quiet, ordinary outrage of Parks’ “No” that rang around the world.

Today, Cain argues, we live in a “Culture of Personality” that idealizes extroverts and sees signs of introversion as character flaws in need of adjustment. Parents fret about children who want to sit alone and read instead of playing sports. Colleges and universities penalize applicants who aren’t sufficiently gregarious and involved. Organizations assume that being a “team player” is an essential part of being a good employee. People who need time by themselves feel guilty for their lack of enthusiasm for all things social.

And yet, as the Rosa Parks of the world show, you can’t measure leadership by volume or the quality of a solution by the confidence with which it’s expounded. Without introverts, Cain makes clear, there would be no theories of gravitation or relativity, no Harry Potter, no Google, no Apple computers—and, for that matter, King wouldn’t have had Gandhi’s philosophy of nonviolent resistance to carry in his wallet and apply to an America in need of transformation. Daring minds come in all intellectual shapes and all temperamental sizes. As a lifelong introvert myself, I find that thought a reassuring one.