On Martin Luther King day of 2018, a group of friends and I were waiting at a bus stop in downtown East Lansing, Michigan. To pass the time, we started chatting about local events, and one topic could not be avoided. Richard Spencer, a self-proclaimed neo-Nazi and white supremacist, announced that he was planning to give a speech at Michigan State University, where we attend. We were aware of some protests in the works, and were all hoping Spencer would cancel the speech to avoid disgracing our campus with his vicious ideologies.
Two of my friends had conflicting opinions on whether he should be allowed to speak. One claimed that, despite the harmful nature of his words, he should be allowed to say them. Another vocalized that Nazis and white supremacists should not be given a chance to air their views and gather more support or the general respect of the public. I had mixed feelings at the time, but after two years of watching growing divisions in the country I live in, my feelings are clear and strong. No one is owed a debate, least of all those who harbor supremacist views.
A debate, by definition, entails a discussion of the merits of two opposing but equal views. To resolve debates, one side must concede to the other, or a middle ground wherein both sides can agree must be found. To enter a debate with a white supremacist is giving their damaging talking points equal footing against people seeking equality. The reality is that these are not equally matched platforms. A group of people who would see entire racial or ethnic groups killed or enslaved can never be on equal moral grounds with people seeking racial equality. If these things are treated as ideologically matched, then finding a middle ground entails sacrificing progress.
The problem persists when racists of notable following engage in debates. These events are often recorded and shared, and should that discussion take place, it creates an avenue to subtly indoctrinate the other person in the discussion and, by extension, whoever may see the video circulate the internet. The viewers who are staunchly red or blue are not likely to change their opinions no matter how clever of a comeback either debate participant throws, but the wide, untapped market of teenagers who are just getting into politics and trying to decide how they feel are a powerful force.
Even if neither party or any onlookers change their mind, these types of debates are an effective way to get people on either side entrenched in their own opinions. These echo chambers are great for white supremacists and anyone who just likes to hear their own voice, but they only serve to increase divisiveness and incite radical action like the plot to kidnap Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer.
Speakers like Spencer are skilled at making their vile opinions sound palatable. By wearing relatively nice suits, remaining polite, and using hedged phrases like “peaceful ethnic cleansing,” his true intentions are purposefully masked. In light of those tactics, it is critical to remember radicalization does not begin radically. It is more often a gradual process of appearing friendly, intelligent, and charismatic to appeal to well-meaning individuals.
I talked to my friend who felt it was fair, not necessarily good, but fair, to let Spencer speak in 2018, and he has also had a change of heart. In his words, “These ‘debates’ are not about changing their own views. They are about grasping at a platform to earn a level of authenticity by standing next to those with reasonable views.” In 2018, we were two years into Trump’s presidency, and knew things were bad. But now after watching divisions grow and politics becoming even more polarized, we can no longer give supremacists a chance to play devil’s advocate, because this was never a game. So often the argument of the Constitution and the right to free speech are used as justification for hate speech, but such arguments do not take the document as a whole into account. The third unalienable right listed in the American Constitution is the pursuit of happiness, which dictates everyone has a right to do things that make them happy so long as they do not infringe on the rights of others. Speeches and discussions proposing the superiority of one race or group over another infringe on the oppressed group’s rights to life and liberty. Bigots and supremacists who make any claims to free speech are in fact misusing the phrase and are not to be trusted.
With the president refusing to denounce white supremacy at the first Presidential Debate of 2020, the urgency of deciding whether these groups deserve a platform to share their views has not waned since that January evening I spent waiting for a Lansing bus. Rather, with the election over and Trump’s tactics not changing, it has never been more critical that, since President Trump refuses to, we as individuals learn to spot supremacist dog whistles and their “debate” tactics, and refuse to give those that preach disunity a place to speak.
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