A few days ago on August 12th, a “Unite the Right” demonstration was held as an anniversary event to the infamous Charlottesville protest held last year. The event took place in Washington DC, after Jason Kessler, the organizer, failed to get permission to host it in Charlottesville this time. Given the large far right presence at the demonstration last year, including neo-Nazis and the KKK, and the death of a woman named Heather Heyer at the hands of one of the attendees, it was unlikely that the authorities would be keen on permitting a similar event to occur within their town a second time.
The Unite the Right rally this year however played out very differently. The event had been announced several days before, and both the organizers and the public had been expecting hundreds of people to attend. In the end, a mere handful of around 20 showed up. On the other hand, counter protestors, including members of Black Lives Matter and Antifa, arrived on the scene in huge numbers.
The Unite the Right demonstrators were escorted through the streets by a large police presence while counter protestors from all sides shouted chants and insults at them. The demonstration did not last long. Both the Unite the Right demonstrators and the counter protestors attributed the small turnout to the success of the left’s intimidation. Many did not want to attend for fear of being physically attacked by protestors for expressing their ideology.
The mainstream media, as usual, labeled the demonstrators as alt-right fascist white supremacist Nazis. However, tells a different story, as Black and Latino demonstrators walk alongside Kessler and the other white attendees with no semblance of the latter’s objection to their presence. Kessler and other demonstrators get several opportunities on camera to explain bits of their views, and there is no mention of anything overtly racist.
Kessler himself claims to be a classical liberal who disavows Nazis, the KKK, white supremacists, and racism as a whole. He also denies the label “alt-right” and the appeal of creating an ethnostate, which is a central concept to the alt-right’s ideology. That being said, he claims white people need a civil rights advocate, that they are becoming a minority in the US, and that someone needs to speak up for their dispossession.
It is also worth noting that one of the Unite the Right demonstrators appears to perform the Nazi salute during a portion of the march. All this to be said however, the demonstrators were peaceful, following the provided on the Unite the Right’s webpage such as “Do not engage in any fighting. ALWAYS be a good representative for our cause” and “Law enforcement are there to help both sides safely express their rights (hopefully). Don’t react to Antifa or the media.“
But whether or not Kessler and the other demonstrators are the neo-Nazis the mainstream media claims they are, we should not be celebrating the small turnout – if the reason so few demonstrators attended was indeed a fear of experiencing violence or persecution for exercising their free speech, as many on both ends of this protest were claiming.
This may seem counter-intuitive, for at a first glance it may seem like the racists are losing their ground and the threat of white supremacy is curbed by the counter protestors. However, just the opposite may very well be happening. We can immobilize people through intimidation and silencing tactics, but we cannot stop an ideology this way. The only way we can defeat an ideology at its core is through dialogue, where the ideology can be publicly articulated.
For this reason, we need to respect everyone’s right to free speech, even the most repugnant of Nazis. The alternative produces disastrous consequences and makes such movements even more dangerous.
First of all, if we start silencing certain opinions, someone needs to be the arbiter of what is acceptable to say and what is not. Nobody is qualified for this task. We see just how much of a difficulty this is with the concept of hate speech; it relies far too much on the subjective perceptions and feelings of those who hear it, and thus becomes impossible to delineate from a controversial, crass, or even misunderstood utterance.
Furthermore, it arbitrarily gives some people’s outrage priority over the outrage of others, for almost everything is offensive to someone, and it would be impossible to live in a society where everyone’s feelings are protected. And what happens when facts illicit feelings of offence in people, such as the high rate of fatherlessness in black communities, the disproportionate rate of religious terrorism done in the name of Islam, or the reality of biological differences between men and women? Must biologists, sociologists, and other experts be forced to remain silent at the expense of their field’s progress?
Be it by the state or the angry mob, once some ideas are grounds for physical persecution, the purge of ideas is doomed to spiral out of control. And one day, the people who disagree with you find themselves in the position to define hate speech and persecute those who engage in it. Then what happens to you?
Next, if an ideology is silenced, over time it becomes impossible to identify. We are already in the midst of this problem at the moment, which was briefly alluded to before. The mainstream media is calling the Unite the Right demonstrators “fascist”, “alt-right”, “white supremacists”, “Nazis” and other such labels, but these are not all interchangeable ideologies. They all have distinct characteristics and sometimes even find themselves in opposition on certain issues.
It still remains highly questionable whether Jason Kessler even fits within any of these categories. Thus given that these outlets do not take the time to actually listen to someone from the alt-right, or Nazism, or any other such movement explain their ideology, they fail to properly label their enemy.
This is a major problem, for it shrouds racist ideologies in mystery and renders them unknown. But we want to know them – we must know them. We must be exposed to the studies Nazis and alt-right members cite and the tactics they use. We must hear the arguments they make so we can identify them when we see them, and counter those arguments with better ones. If we silence them, we fail to educate ourselves in what they believe precisely and specifically, and thus we rob ourselves of the chance to improve our ability of dismantling their convictions.
Furthermore, silencing these ideologies does not make them go away. It forces them into an underground echo chamber where they fester and become increasingly radical and violent, embittered by the intimidation they face and even more inclined to claim victim status. It also attracts new followers to them, for people grow curious as to what they’re saying which is so bad that it merits silence. In this fascination, they are drawn in.
This becomes an even bigger problem when we combine this issue with the muddiness of the previous one, where we fail to identify and delineate such groups. For the curious then discover that the public‘s assessment of these movements isn’t even accurate; that the ones doing the silencing are uneducated and have no idea what they’re talking about. It allows the silenced groups to take the high ground and pose as the smarter of the bunch.
No, we want these ideas, however reprehensible they may be, out in public where everyone can hear them. That way we can challenge them directly, and with some skill we can change the minds of at least a chunk of their adherents. Just as we need to expose ourselves to these ideas, we need to make sure they are exposed to our counter arguments and refutations. We give them the easy way out if we scare them from talking at all.
In addition, silencing these groups for fear of the numbers they will recruit and the power they will gain is to devalue the agency of our fellow humans. The most frequent consequence of letting someone with crazy ideas express them publicly is that they’ll be recognized for the delusional person they are.
Most people are smart enough to know a madman when they see one, thus it’s a bigotry of low expectations to act as though full grown human beings need to be coddled and have their ears covered because they might engage in ethnic cleansing if they hear someone say words.
Finally, listening to someone express their ideas in some cases might even prove that we judged them wrongly in the first place; that they do not believe the awful things we thought they did.
Alternatively, we may get them to open up and discover why they believe a repugnant idea; how their life circumstances fostered a predisposition to that belief. In turn, this may give us an opportunity to heal the experience which caused them to go down the wrong path in the first place. If either of these turn out to be the case, our silencing of them just made things worse and perpetuated unnecessary victimization.
No matter who we find ourselves living with in this world, when we disagree, we have two options: we can talk, or we can fight. History has shown what happens to everyone involved when we fight. It is not an option we should pursue until all the others have been tirelessly exhausted. The moment we stop talking, be this between racial, religious, political, or other groups, is the moment we start digging graves.