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The Appeal to MLK is a specific type of tone argument where an activist is criticized for their perceived failure to conform to the fictionalized perfectness of some saintly nonviolent activist figure -- In a USA context this is commonly Dr Martin Luther King Jr. Other figures include Mahatma Gandhi, Cesar Chavez, Te Whiti o Rongomai and so forth.


  • Appropriation: the person employing this rhetorical device is straight-up usurping the mantle of a famous liberator of marginalized people in order to tone-police, silence, and further marginalize those same people.
  • Whitewashing: the nonviolent persona that the critic summons to carry out their tone policing bears little in common with the historical figure in question.

Gandhi, though vastly preferring nonviolence, made quite clear that given the choice between continued injustice or violence, violence was the preferable option[1][2]. And Dr Martin Luther King, though nowadays commonly portrayed as a nonthreatening, omnibenevolent figure akin to a civil rights Santa Claus, was widely reviled in his day as a dangerous radical[3]. He was—in the words of more than one author—an Angry Black Man[4][5]. Too, it is the height of irony when someone attempts to use Dr King's Letter from a Birmingham Jail to tone police activists. In it, King excoriates the "white moderates" of the day for their concern trolling—claiming to express support for the goal of equality while criticizing every tactic used to gain it.


  • Jeff Atwood (@codinghorror): "you get back what you give. This radiates anger and discontent. Try some Letter From a Birmingham Jail; that's how it's done." screencap
  • Michael Jurewitz @jury "speaking from a pragmatic perspective, presentation matters. See: Ghandi, MLK, Caesar Chavez, etc."
    Screenshot from 2015-04-15 16-29-24

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