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Knowledge, Principle, and Action in Defiance

Knowledge: Martin Luther King Jr. knew segregation and inequality weren’t morally correct. Despite the fact that plenty of Americans still disagreed with what he believed and we now know to be fact, by starting with knowledge and fully understanding why the racial situation in the United States was wrong, in the end, King would win out against his detractors. He brought together historical knowledge and wisdom to prove that there was something amiss.

Similarly, if you asked Sam Adams, Thomas Jefferson, George Washington, or Ben Franklin what was wrong with the British rule of America, they would have been able to explain it to you succinctly and effectively. They knew what they were talking about, and explained themselves well, which helped rally support for what they knew to be right. It all starts with a strong knowledge base, and if we can’t really explain why we are correct, then we’re not correct.

Though plenty may have disagreed with the movement that Dr. King stood for, nobody could say that they didn’t know what he stood for. This is why identifying purpose and being able to communicate are so imperative: we must speak up in order to be reasonably and effectively defiant. What good is it to know that something is wrong if we’re not actively communicating to others that there is a problem? In reality, it wasn’t the knowledge that Dr. King had that was special, but his ability to articulate the knowledge that everyone else already had.

If you take away Dr. King’s ability to speak to others, the movement might have never been successful. If you take away the substance of his message, it similarly would have gone nowhere because nobody would have agreed with him. Moral of the story: have the knowledge, and communicate it. You won’t succeed with one without the other.

Principle: Principle and knowledge are tightly intertwined, as are experience and wisdom. Many people have experience, but what makes the difference is the wisdom gained from that experience. This is where the true learning shows up! We have to use self-reflection to develop our knowledge into principle, and again articulate it for others to understand and rally around when we want to create change.

Acknowledging that you have a problem is the first step in solving it, but you won’t get anywhere if that’s where the story ends. If the way things are currently is wrong, then what would be considered right? This is where we transition into solving problems. Principles create frameworks to help us solve these problems and allow us to be reasonable when we do move to solidify change. These ideas are usually broad and overarching, and can apply to many walks of life and situations: in essence, mental models to deal with the situation at hand.

Apple’s product design principles time and time again have been called radical and ridiculous by critics of the company. Steve Jobs and Jony Ive in the late 1990s and early 2000s paired up to design some of the most different, industry-changing products of all time by having knowledge that all the other products were subpar, and then turning that knowledge into principles to create better ones. In the keynote announcement of the original iPhone in 2007, Steve Jobs stuck to principle: the iPhone would be as simple as possible and thus have few buttons and a highly adaptable touchscreen interface. At one point in the presentation, Jobs even displays a quote by Alan Kay from 30 years prior that says, People who are really serious about software should make their own hardware.”

The quote, the simplicity of the design, and the interplay between hardware and software are all principles. Through intense and thorough learning that Apple had done prior to releasing the iPhone, they didn’t just come out with a bunch of focus group statistics and numbers, they came out with principles. They could answer the question, What does this look like when it’s done right?” and understand it enough to then take action with these principles in mind.

If you cannot answer these questions for yourself and for others, then your defiance or desired change is not yet warranted. Again, defiance as it applies to us is not stirring up trouble for trouble’s sake. It’s about creating principles that allow us and others to make meaningful change. This is not to say that we should cease our questioning of the status quo, or even resign ourselves to acceptance of the reality that you face simply because we don’t fully understand it yet. We should continue to ask the questions that need to be asked, and continue to gather these answers in your search for the right and just truth.

Action: What’s your remedy? This is easily one of the most useful questions to ask yourself in any situation, and should be applied to just about everything. Going back to Dr. King, he knew what he wanted to change, and had people support him in finding the remedies that would bring his brighter vision of the future to life. If you think that something is wrong in any context, proceed to outline exactly what actions need to be taken in order to improve it. This applies to everything, from product development, to personal development, and even to changing a nation.

Knowledge and principle can only go so far. Knowledge and principle make defiance reasonable, but it’s the action that makes it defiant. As we transition into action, we have to consider whether or not our remedy is effective both to create a change but also to not cause trouble for trouble’s sake. Despite the fact that you may be in the right, your actions must be continually reconsidered to make sure that you have the desired effect on others in order to make your change.

This is why the Cesar Chavez’s 25-day fast (in which he drank only water for 25 days and ate no food) was so effective and now famous: his defiant action had very little to do with causing trouble at all. His action was to make a statement that brought people together under the banner of one unifying cause. Dr. King made sure that the protests that he led during the Civil Rights Movement remained peaceful, because he recognized that if the protests turned violent, there would be no change. The rest of the nation would look down upon the violence and, thus, not sympathize with the cause. That’s problematic, but with calculated, peaceful action it was overcome.

Always return to your actions and evaluate them. We may not immediately figure out the most effective way to create change, but at one point, we will, by reflecting on it and ensuring that it truly will have the desired consequences that we want to see.

Knowledge, principle, then action. This is reasonable defiance that serves a positive purpose and helps us achieve the important change that we want to make.