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“If I had merely sneezed I would have died”

January 25, 2007

I had intended to post this on Martin Luther King day, but entered the wrong bring forward date in the diary which all goes to show the danger of relying overmuch on computers. I could leave it for next year but then it might go missing again! So here it is.

I had been doing some thinking about counterfactuals and more specifically about alternative histories as a way of stimulating wider perspectives for strategic thinking. It is a powerful technique as it places people in an unfamiliar environment, but not so unfamiliar that the lessons cannot be assimilated. Ruth Byrne’s The Rational Imagination, which deals with the way in which people create alternatives to reality opens with a great example of one. She references a speech by Martin Luther King a decade after he as survived a near fatal stabbing in 1958.

The tip of the blade was on the edge of my aorta….. It came out in the New York Times the next morning that if I had merely sneezed I would have died….. And I want to say tonight, I want to say tonight that I too am happy that I didn’t sneeze. Because if I had sneezed I wouldn’t have been around here in 1060 when students all over the South started sitting in at lunch counters…… If I had sneezed, I wouldn’t have been here in 1963 when the black people of Birmingham, Alabama aroused the conscience of this nation and brought into being the Civil Rights bill….. If I had sneezed I wouldn’t have had the chance later that year in August to try to tell the America about a dream that I had had …… I’m so happy that I didn’t sneeze.

The rhetoric technique here in the use of “sneeze” is outstanding as it was in all of King’s speeches. The content is powerful, but the form and the juxtaposition of the personal with the political makes it more so.

I too am glad that he did not sneeze, but I also wish that there was a counterfactual to his assassination the next day.

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