A lot of the arguments about free speech on campus — at least the ones to which I’ve been privy — frame the controversy as whether or not it’s legitimate to “debate” white nationalists, given that debate appears to put outdated and (reasonably labeled) dangerous ideas on the same plane as basic intersectionality and values of liberal democracy. I think our inability to make satisfactory progress on this front comes from this assumption that the controversy is a binary decision of whether or not there should be debate.
There are some arguments for — like we’ve seen in other parts of the West — outright censure of hate speech, but I think this is, in the short term, impractical. Court decisions in the past 15 years have trended toward a broad interpretation of the first amendment (Citizens United, Buckley v. Valeo) and support for widely defined free speech is actually up among American college students.
A different approach to the same problem requires looking at the strategies of Western white nationalists — how have they managed to revive overt racism as a political orientation, and how have they spread it beyond a handful of fascist websites? I think the answer comes in three parts: irony, liberal strategy and determination.
Engaging with uncomfortable ideas through the filter of irony is something we’re all familiar with — jokes about academic stress, depression and the millennial condition abound online. White nationalists use the same strategy, focusing specifically on vulnerable populations — overwhelmingly men, especially white men, who are active in close-knit online communities.
Most of us have some immunization against outright fascism, from a basic understanding of history and American government. Slowly wearing down these defenses, wrapped within the plausible deniability of irony, opens the door for later overt radicalization. Until the moment they commit to some extreme ideology, there’s never a moment where people being lobbied have to confront, in plain terms, exactly what their new beliefs mean.
The strategy of non-engagement on the part of the left seems to enhance this radicalization via irony. Everyone likes to have their beliefs confirmed, and a political strategy of explaining in blunt terms why people are wrong seems to me undoubtedly ineffective.
Liberal strategy, at risk of trivializing it, just isn’t cool. It’s understandable to be angry about injustice, and it’s useful to shore up support among people who are still on board with democracy and basic American values, but it doesn’t win support from people who are already feeling attacked. There’s a reason the majority of right-wing content — with the notable exception of Alex Jones — seems to be about coolly making fun of leftists who are “out of control.” The descent of people who’ve stepped toward white nationalism can quite easily accelerate when our attempts at mitigation largely take the form of reprimand.
People on the left have defensible reasons to refrain from speaking — it’s not the job of marginalized people to prove their humanity, it wastes energy on a debate settled two generations ago, it recognizes abhorrent beliefs — but from a purely practical perspective, I don’t know if that strategy is going to win. White nationalists are more than happy to spend their time “educating” vulnerable populations, and unilateral disarmament by people generally interested in liberal values only expedites this process.
When we have a confrontation between one faction that makes a lot of superficially compelling arguments — “Why is Israel allowed to be an ethnostate?”; “How is it hate to have pride in oneself?”; “Why is the left afraid to answer our questions?” — and one faction that refuses to engage on principle, the latter group loses. It’s not fair, and it can be exhausting, but white nationalist movements with significant momentum have never congratulated their leftist opponents for standing by their principles. Refusing debate can be strategic; refusing to promote a counternarrative is, in the face of rising momentum, unquestionably foolish.
It’s important to remember our audience isn’t full of the types of people who march in support of the Confederacy, torch in hand — white nationalists aren’t trying to convert members of Antifa or the DSA. The unengaged moderate — frustratingly, perpetually — decides whose values are realized in legislation, and whose are relegated to history.
Hank Minor can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.