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On the limits of tolerance

Memorial for Heather Heyer in downtown Charlottesville. Photo: Bob Mical/flickr

The recent events in Charlottesville and the build-up to the confrontational levels of discourse we are seeing leave much to be said. One of the dangerous outcomes of these events is that the more we focus on them, the more they obfuscate and shift analysis away from the reasons they have emerged. This hinders our ability to tackle the root of the problem and not just the "divisive" outcome that we have been speaking of since early 2016.

Beyond the analytical threat this re-emergent rhetoric poses, there is also a very real and immediate threat.

The racist ideology at the core of these movements -- the alt-right, nationalists, or whatever name they chose to co-opt to disguise their white supremacist core -- is driven by the belief that the white race, with its European roots, is better equipped to handle power than their non-white counterparts.

Their call to action hinges on the idea that "whites" are being squeezed out of power and control by the "left," "political correctness," and immigration -- ultimately they perceive that their actions constitute a measured defensive response to a "white genocide."

To substantiate this threat, these racist organizations lean on conspiracy theories -- orchestrated and "behind-the-scene" efforts by others (Jews, Muslims, "Communists," and social "Liberals") to undermine their power and authority.

Freedom of speech

Once at the fringes of the political movements existing in "safe spaces," these organizations are now gaining more popularity as they have found sympathizers to their mentality of victimization by weaponizing "freedom of speech."

They have found that, by linking their movement to fleeting conservative discontent on issues varying from LGBTQ rights to terrorism, they can draw in the ranks of other disenfranchised members and hide their true goals around calls for "rational debate" and their right to raise "awareness" of the threats they face.

This indivisibility of causes, similar to the left's calls of "no racism, refugees welcome" (as if the two were one and the same), has allowed racist groups to put themselves on an altar as willing martyrs for everyone's rights to freedom of expression -- rights which are currently unhindered and protected by the Constitution, rights, which the conclusion of their movement will see revoked for any member of society they deem unfit (read: non-white).

It's this rationale that allows this toxic ideology to hide in plain sight with members being able to make statements as ridiculous as this: "As a white nationalist, I care for all people. We all deserve a future for our children and for our culture. White nationalists aren't all hateful; we just want to preserve what we have."

Power and violence

By pointing to the source of their grievance as the maintenance of power, these movements reveal the racist belief at the core of their ideology. That is, that only the "white man" has the capacity to hold and dispense with power. Ironically this is a notion done away with mostly by white European men (Locke, Paine, Mill) who championed the causes that have given us what is now known as universal human rights -- rights, which protect individuals from discrimination based on race, religion, and sexual orientation; rights, which most constitutions around the world, including the United States, are based on. So whatever "rational debate" these movements are calling for has been said and done in the early and mid-1800s.

More frightening though is that the preservation of "what we have" predicates violence. It is only through the suppression or removal of "threats" to that authority, i.e. minority and vulnerable groups, that these groups' goals can be achieved.

This is where the critical limit of freedom of speech is found, for to suggest that the maintenance of the values you stand for can only come at the cost of the values of others is in of itself an act of violence. To claim that one race, and its values, is supreme cannot be separated from the reality of how this supremacy is meant to be preserved.

This too is a perfect display of how disjointed supremacist movements are from their own calls to rational debate. For if their ideology had any legitimacy in rationalism, it would not be so inextricably dependent on violence.

We don't need to go far to see how indistinguishable the idea of supremacy and violence are.

The mobilization of white nationalist groups at Charlottesville revolved around the planned removal of General Robert E. Lee's statue, a civil war commander who fought for the right to keep slaves. The removal of the statue is being touted as a betrayal to the history of the country.

However, it's important to remember that statues are not meant to provide historical lessons; they are public celebrations of identity. To maintain the statue of Lee thus can be nothing else but a continuous idolization of the power structures Lee was fighting for -- the same power structure these groups would like to see returned.

To claim that their removal is a betrayal to history also undermines the fact that the U.S. has not shied away from removing hateful statues internationally, without any amnesia reported. The fact that they have yet to do so domestically, tells us nothing more than that their removal is long overdue. Furthermore, if these statues were truly erected for their historical and not ideological representations, why were most of them put up at times of heightened racial tensions?

Beyond the analytical interpretation around "symbols of oppression" are the more directly observable manifestations of this violent ideology, namely the overt armed presence at rallies.

This presence is always presented as defensive, but why would such a defensive precaution be needed if all the ideology seeks is the opportunity for rational debate? Why bring a gun to a battle of wit? It cannot be clearer that these actions have the sole purpose of intimidation, a display of strength with hopes of maintaining the subservience and silence of others.

Paradox of tolerance

Those on the receiving end of this free speech rhetoric have been paralyzed by what is known as the paradox of tolerance. This has resulted in a comical online debate of "is it OK to punch a Nazi?"

Stuck between idealistic pacifism, the uncertainty cast on this issue by moral philosophy, and a lax legal framework around the issue, there has been no consensus on how best to tackle the rise of white supremacist and other racist groups. Action has been limited to counter-protests where the phrase "violence begets violence" has become a widespread code.

But as the above analysis shows, the only means with which these groups can achieve their political goals is through violence, and there is a very specific term for that: war.

This then provides a more than ample moral justification for taking responsive violent action against such groups. "Violence begets violence" becomes an empty placeholder, a moral statement imposed through an inadequate analysis of the moral landscape at hand.

However, it is important to keep in mind that when one speaks of political violence and terms of war one must be organized for it with the sole intention of violently defeating the other side.

Seeing how in this context we are not talking of a foreign enemy, but rather individuals who exist among us, an all-out extermination of an opinion through violence isn't much of a viable option. We are also not talking about an environment exclusive to two groups, but two groups that exist in a wider legal context that applies equally to both, a barrier warring nations are exempt from.

Therefore, although it may be appealing to engage in violence (one could say even cathartic), it is not, in this situation a winning strategy, even if morally justifiable. This matter remains a civil one.

On its own then, responding to on-the-ground action remains inadequate to tackle the complexity of this issue, and violence must be used in a capacity of self-defence if used at all.

More is needed to put this political battle to rest once and for all.

Beyond violence

It's beyond reason why the existence of groups and organizations with supremacy-based agendas remain legal. In Canada, hate laws already protect individuals from discriminatory behaviour in economic and media-related settings. There is no reason why these laws shouldn't be extended to political discourse. That is, there is no reason why we have yet to declare any group organized on the basis of supremacy as a hate group. It would seem that politicians already agree that these groups and sentiments hold no place in our societies, so why the hesitancy to legislate to that effect?

Legislative action on these grounds does nothing to impede the right to free speech. On the contrary it creates a clear delineation between personal and public space. If one wishes to hold the view that their race is superior, then so be it. If one or several individuals decide to form a group to advocate that notion, then so be it. However, if a political or social organization is put forth on that premise, the line from freedom of thought is crossed and we have entered the purview of political action, and any action on that premise, as we have previously explored, necessitates violence premeditated on racial hate. 

Beyond campaigning for legislative action, a more astute analytical and intellectual confrontation is needed.

Much of the reaction on the ground has been fuelled by moral outrage which has created a lack of effectiveness in confronting and undermining the arguments and narratives put forth by supremacists. This is a result of our automatic assumption that the legitimacy of liberal values are known and well established. This is most clear in the context of media, where figureheads have failed at confronting their supremacist guests by dismissing them as comical or responding to them in shock. Both have only fuelled supremacist feelings of legitimacy.

It is time, once more, to make it clear that not all ideas are held equal, and therefore are not all deserving of the platforms they seek, and to refresh people's memories as to why -- by besting these ideas through public debate.

This can be done by co-opting narratives of nationalism and giving it a form that undermines the limited race-based perspective. It can be done by pointing out historical inconsistencies in narrative. More importantly, it can be done by pressing for elaborations on the arguments put forward by hate groups which can have no other effect than exposing their own inconsistencies and betrayals of the values they espouse.

It is necessary for the following three actions to be presented together. The first, counter-action, is important to provide the tactical pressure needed to disorientate, frustrate and overwhelm supremacist organizations and their efforts to mobilize. The second, legislation against hate groups, provides a long-term political goal, a push to our social and civil evolution through our current legislative bodies. It can also act as a litmus test for our representatives, current and future. Finally, intellectual and analytical confrontation will drive a wedge straight between the two causes of freedom of speech and supremacy which are now being presented as indivisible, stripping racist movements of much of their sympathetic supporters.

The propositions put forth here could be taken as radical; however they are strictly based on the preservation of the liberal "way of life." Furthermore, it is important to keep in mind the context in which all of this is being discussed, the context of political organizations that believe members of our society need to be suppressed, controlled, and even eliminated, for the purpose of political power.

Jade Saab is a Lebanese/Canadian political writer and theorist based in Toronto. His writings cover topics of Liberalism, governance, and Marxism with occasional forays into current affairs.

Photo: Bob Mical/flickr

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