More on the Nazi problem

Since the latest “our friends turned out to be secret Nazis” episode, I’ve been thinking about Nazi-adjacent ideas. I’m guessing that for some people, the link between ideas that are merely conservative and ideas that are white supremacist or misogynistic isn’t obviously clear. And maybe ideas I’ve been lumping together don’t fit as closely or as well as I’d assumed. 

I want to think through this concept because it might help me understand why I get so bent out of shape about ideas so many people think of as obvious or maybe wrong but morally unobjectionable. 

Some ideas are good and some of them are bad and some of them are really, really bad. I guess at the end of the day, the most pertinent question isn’t, “Who can we assume has really, really bad views based on their publicly stated bad views?” I think the question is, “What do we do with Nazis?”

In a normal, non-white supremacist world, Bennett would be canceled right now. Surely no one can use racial epithets in an explicitly racist email group while also writing for explicitly white supremacist websites and still like be allowed in polite society, right? But, I suspect he will be totally fine. Because the money he was allegedly getting from Peter “we build tech for ICE” Thiel doesn’t require that he not be a white supremacist. In one of his quasi apologies, Bennett said he’d converted to Catholicism after coming to California to work for the Thiel-funded magazine Palladium. Thiel is also Catholic. Thiel’s also connected to Quillette, until-recent employer of Andy Ngo, who seems to have sat in on plans by far-right activists to commit violence in Portland. 

But what do you do with Bennett? What would I do with Bennett? Would I have him ostracized? There are plenty of downsides to call out culture. Would I call him in? I dated a reactionary for what felt like a lifetime and the only way we changed each other was we both now have PTSD. 

The sex was fire though. 

I don’t like the idea of ostracization. I’m obsessed with loneliness and I don’t like solutions that I think exacerbate it. 

However, I have some empathy for people for whom the stakes are higher. I think it would be reasonable to feel fully in favor of ostracizing people who openly advocate for harm to come to you. It would be reasonable to feel like advocating for call-in culture for white supremacists is coddling white supremacy. 

I’m wondering whether calling someone in or out should depend in part on how close you are to them to begin with. Especially ideologically. Where call-out culture won’t sever an existing or likely potential relationship I think it’s fine. I think it’s probably very important, actually. It’s important to protest Palantir, Thiel’s company that builds technology to help ICE agents raid work sites to round up brown people. It’s essential that we call out people who definitely seem to be actual Nazis. 

But it’s important to keep in mind that it’s unlikely that calling them out will change their minds. My protest sign probably won’t change Thiel’s mind about whether immigrants are people. What changes people’s minds when it comes to who should be rounded up and how they should be treated is empathy. I can yell facts at you about how good immigrants are for the economy or how they’re less likely to commit crimes than native-born people and you’ll just find your own facts. What changes people’s minds is when the question turns from “what do we do with bad people?” to “how should we treat people we care about and identify with?” These are ultimately moral questions, and the moment we cast certain people as “bad people” we lose any moral authority we might have had with the people whose minds we want to change. 

That’s why it’s essential, I think, that we try to help the people close to us correct their lack of empathy for certain kinds of people. We’re going to be most effective with people we don’t think are bad and who we feel we understand fairly well. To say, “Hey, you and I agree on wanting a less interventionist foreign policy. But maybe we should talk about nativism.” Or maybe, “Super excited about digital currencies as well. But can we discuss how to deal with racism in the bitcoin community?”

I think for a lot of middle-class, well-educated white people white supremacy isn’t something they’ve thought a lot about. Most of us can admit that racism exists, sure. But we prefer to believe it’s not a problem among our friends. Or, it’s a problem, but the media sensationalizes it. We make excuses when our friends invite “race realists” to the happy hour or someone’s buddy starts talking about “human biodiversity” like it’s a funny, quirky hobby and not many people’s excuse for their virulent racism. 

I think because we’ve never had to fear being deported to a country where people want us dead, never had to live through the daily indignities of being black in America, many of us don’t necessarily spend a lot of time thinking through what white supremacy means. But now that the camps are growing, and the means of punishment for existing are getting more cruel, and the rhetoric to support them more straightforward, more people are thinking about white supremacy.

I hope we’re thinking about how scientific racism and media misrepresentations of antifa contribute to white supremacy. It would be interesting if we actually thought through what it means for white supremacy to publish our stories alongside Why I Don’t Live in Fear of White Supremacists. Which makes some excellent points but also seems to downplay the role everyday racism plays in violent racism. I think they’re connected and I think they’re bad. And I hope we can begin to talk to our friends and family in an empathetic, loving way about the very real people some of these ideas end up hurting. 

If you don’t know and love any POC, it can be easy to think racial slurs are no big deal. If you don’t know and love any immigrants, it can be easy to think that working for Palantir is okay. When I didn’t know any gay people, it was easy for me to say that gay sex was sinful. It took my sister coming out to force me to reconsider. I think one thing we can do to fight white supremacy is to try to humanize non-whites in the eyes of our friends and family. It’s a fucked-up thing to have to do. It’s a fucked-up thing to have to think about. But we’re living in a fucked-up time. 

I want to call in others because I was called in. Extremely ironically, it was libertarians who set me on the path toward anti-racism. It was libertarians, not the conservatives I’d always listened to, who gave me empathy for drug users and immigrants. I started seeing people who’d committed drug crimes as real people, deserving of dignity and respect. I started to identify with them through Reason magazine’s coverage of the war on drugs. I changed my mind on the drug war before I ever smoked weed because reading Reason gave me empathy for its victims. Libertarianism gave me a respect for the individual, every individual, that I was not able to develop while I was a conservative. Libertarianism made me less tribal, more tolerant, more cosmopolitan, and more open. Libertarians called me in. So it’s been utterly heartbreaking to learn that many within this movement don’t actually have much empathy for people who don’t look like them. 

I’m the queen of starting fights. I’m the biggest caller outer ever. It feels good. It feels righteous. It feels like doing something. But for me, it’s been extraordinarily difficult to empathize with people who think like I used to. I hate that they remind me of who I used to be and who I was on track to become. Writing this, I realized I get so bent out of shape about ideas so many people think of as obvious or maybe wrong but morally unobjectionable because I used to believe them and I’m angry at myself for it. 

I know people are redeemable. I know people can change. Empathy can be contagious. But we have to forgive ourselves and then we have to forgive those who are close to us in order for it to spread. It’s about a Christian phrase mostly used to talk about how to respond to gay people: “Hate the sin but love the sinner.” It’s about people who can understand each other, understanding. And people who can forgive themselves, forgiving others. And calling them in.

One Comment

  1. A few things. First is this is example 31832 of why antiracism (and feminism for that matter) should always be treated as a core pillar of an ideology instead of as an optional add-on. This is the difference between antiracism and non-racism, which is never good enough.

    “Canceling” can be problematic, but consider what it actually means. Bennett will still have anonymity in his everyday life. No one is going to refuse to sell him food or even recognize him in meatspace. But, with any luck, he will be unable to find any platform to express his opinions online. If he comes around, it’s a different story. There are always outlets for redemption stories.

    You’re right that it’s easier to “call in” people that you actually have some personal relationship with. But that’s on folks who know the people in question. I don’t think it’s a good use of energy to try to call in every stranger who spouts vile hatred.

    As always, proportionality is key. An internet rando without a platform saying something racist out of ignorance doesn’t need to be “canceled” (whatever that would even mean) but can be challenged without rancor. But that’s very different from someone who has a platform, should know better (and Bennett had better access than most to smart, informed antiracists), and clearly disingenuously tried to infiltrate groups.

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