The Self-Restricting Slope
Richard Spencer – the alt-right coiner who prefers to negate the label of white supremacistin favour of the more palatable branding of Identitarian – was punched in the head by a protester clad in black on Inauguration Day whilst being interviewed on a street in Washington. The internet became awash with pious leftists and centrists celebrating a violent act on a neo-Nazi.
Many sought to extend those violent on the right an olive branch I do not care for. The hipster white supremacist was neither at war, in a combat situation, nor had he physically attacked anyone. He was standing peacefully in the street spouting his nonsense. I’d rather not become like them, or give horrid individuals like them justification for attacking someone who held a view that they considered poisonous. It’s a slippery slope and is self-defeating.
Richard Spencer (left and upper right) and Donald Trump (bottom right)
Let’s hope “the left” always maintain power so that “the Nazis” are the only ones it’s okay to hit. That kind of reasoning is, undeniably, impervious to exploitation by whoever happens to be in charge. It’s not like a guy called Adolf ever used that logic to his advantage when he murdered millions of people he thought undermined society.
If it’s okay to hit someone we think holds a vile view, how can we condemn it in reverse? There’s a point to universal human rights. First Nazis, then Nazi-ish, then right-wing, then centre-left, then left-ish. Perhaps you disagree and think the slope isn’t slippery at all, or even a slope. Perhaps it has distinct common-sense borders?
In 1991, Christopher Hitchens interviewed John Metzger and, via phone, his father, Tom Metzger: former Klansman and founder of the White Aryan Resistance, a neo-Nazi white supremacist organisation in the United States. The former Grand Wizard’s son wore a well-cut suit, a perfectly-ironed shirt, and a patterned tie in the CNBC Talk Live studio, dressed as fashionably as modern day alt-right hipsters. The combination of charm, fairness, and unwavering questioning from The Hitch meant that Metzger Junior found himself simultaneously feeling comfortable and uneasy. There is great power in civility, of allowing someone to speak openly, and then asking a straight question that forces them to reason aloud and speak candidly. Enacting freely spoken discourse disarms them of the weapon of censorship. “Oh, I have to explain myself?”.
Where would the line be on allowable violence? Just neo-Nazis? Do we include those enabling them by allowing them the privilege of holding thoughts and opinions? I suppose we should add to that list their family, their friends, their acquaintances, and anyone they’ve held the door open for in a corridor, or merely passed in the street. Perhaps you have a neighbour who puts brown glass bottles in the recycling when it’s not allowed? No doubt that sort of wilful, carefree disposal of brown things could suggest a secret, hidden racism.
The Pecking of Vigilante Vultures
Imagine you were accused of a crime and were offered two doors. Behind door number one was a judicial trial, and behind door number two lay a trial by Twitter; which would you take? Would anyone truly prefer a sentencing by ochlocracy? To be judged by the fact-checking prowess of the angry mob? Neither the Trump supporter who defends the cavalcade of Trumpisms, nor the comedy writer who tweets a joke people frame in a way they can be offended. We can’t seem to agree it’s a decent enough system to decide upon who has the X Factor or who is the monarch of the jungle, and yet we welcome the dubious decision-making of mobocracy and its cousin, argumentum ad populum, into actual reality, arms outstretched.
Also on inauguration day, Saturday Night Live writer, Katie Rich, tweeted a joke about Trump’s youngest son Barron, or rather I should say, featuring, lest we be presumptive in inferring the intent of the joke writer. “Barron will be this country’s first homeschool shooter,” read the tweet. There was no shortage of pro-Trump supporters, with no sense of irony, calling for her to be fired (pun unintended) from a “biased”, “unfunny”, anti-Trump show that they don’t watch and probably want banned. You feel a strange combination of hilarity and despair when you watch people taking the pseudo moral high-ground in stating that certain topics are off-limits. SNL did not attempt to defend the joke as “writer room talk” in what would have been a troll level-up for sure. Sadly, petitions were started and celebrities were vacuously tweeting condemnation whilst generating some positive PR. Cue the inevitable indefinite suspension from SNL and a forced apology from Rich; these series of unfortunate events are now becoming an overused cliché.
Fast forward to today, and the item that floods our news channels is genuinely worthy of critique, namely Donald Trump’s unsophisticated and unethical executive order, or “Muslim-ban”. It seeks to kill the cancer by executing the host, and its ignorance is evident.
To unpack and counter the erroneous nature of Trump’s blanket-ban effectively, we must first be free to discuss it. However, at the moment, the right has wrestled control of the microphone, while the left have stage-fright, consumed by what Maajid Nawaz coined the Voldemort effect. Islamism and jihadism shouldn’t be off the discussion table, because immigration is not the only way ideas spread and take hold; if you silence those two topics from discourse, why wouldn’t immigration find itself higher up on the agenda?
Free speech is open inquiry through liberty, and it this Enlightenment value that helps us in determining the bad ideas from good ones; together with reason and the scientific method, these fundamental concepts have helped to positively shape society. The ability to ask questions unshackled guarantees the plurality of ideas; this is the very definition of a tolerant society. Allow those things and humans invent smartphones and the internet; abandon them and, instead, you’re left with a society that fixates on identity politics and embraces fake news, right and left.
Both sides of this divide seem engaged with obscurantism, seeking to hammer in screws, and all that we achieve is to impede ourselves. Abandoning our universal values is only ever self-defeating. I would prefer it if instead of having a total and complete shutdown of Trump entering the United Kingdom, until our country’s representatives can figure out what is going on, we invited him over and talked. Not naively, and not without critique, but talked. You can turn off the protests on TV, you can close the curtains so that you can’t see the campaigners outside, but you can’t entirely be in your bubble when someone is sitting in a room, face-to-face with you.