In my previous blog posts, I have often argued that the internet brings latent conflicts to the fore, whether we are discussing fake news, government surveillance, nation-state cybersecurity or hate speech. Now, I’d like to make the case that it also works the other way, as we witness the opposite happen such as in Charlottesville, where white supremacist groups marched with lit torches. Tensions that have long been simmering online have now moved into the realm of face-to-face interaction, where they have exploded with fresh force. Difficult chapters of America’s history have resurfaced; viewpoints we would like to think have been eradicated are still very much alive. The episodes in Charlottesville were painful to watch, absolutely, but perhaps it is better to have these elements of society exposed. If they remain outside of the public’s awareness, we can continue to collectively deny their existence. If they are brought to the surface, we must confront them and react, hopefully in a way that aligns with our guiding principles.
One possible, and undesirable, outcome of this recent outpouring of animosity would be a push to legislate away hateful speech, online and off. Fascist groups don’t have broad enough public appeal to win major political battles. Leftist groups, on the other hand—and this includes the “antifa” movement that has attracted so much media attention in the past few weeks—are in a position to change the way we regulate hate speech in this country. It’s very possible that there will be anti-fascist legislation proposed, mimicking the hate-speech laws in Europe I discussed in my last post.
The problem with such legislation is that, while it may start out censoring a type of content that is unanimously viewed as deserving of censorship, these powers will inevitably be used against other types of expression. E.g.: politically incorrect language, criticism of government figures like politicians, military, or law enforcement, or even calls for government programs to be cut. The politicization and regulation of speech, even that which is most worthy of condemnation, must always be balanced against the dangers of expanding government’s reach. Tools created with good intentions today become the building blocks for abuse of power, repression, threats to security and persecution tomorrow. And, as I’ve written in the past, power given to the government is nearly impossible to get back.
I would also present another question we should ask ourselves: would it really be a victory to banish hate speech from the open expanses of the internet? If we were to succeed in doing so, the proponents of fringe views would simply move into darker corners where they cannot be policed, which has already happened in the case of two major far-right websites in the aftermath of Charlottesville. Once they are pushed to the dark web, they fall beneath the public’s radar, and only committed followers have access to their content. While our sensibilities are shielded, the profound social divisions and discontent they point to are swept under the rug.
The ideology of white nationalist groups may be utterly repugnant and devoid of positive solutions to move society forward, but their radicalism is often a sign of a larger cultural breakdown. More people harbor those beliefs than anyone realized, or wanted to admit. When hundreds of neo-Nazis took to the streets, their presence became inescapable and quickly forced every major political figure in the country to take a stand, which is a positive result. Individuals used their personal social media accounts to denounce racism and all forms of discrimination, another positive. That is a useful exercise in raising awareness about topics that are rarely discussed. While it has been a painful ordeal, I believe it can be a catalyst, as with Trump’s entire presidency, one that helps Americans reaffirm the national desire to draw strength, rather than hostility, from diversity.
In this world of increasingly extreme extremes, we ought to remember that stability and security come from finding the middle ground and embracing compromise. But in recent decades, American politics has been dominated by drastic swings from left to right, with each side finding its identity in accusation of the other. We have become accustomed to a mentality of blame, swiftly assigning responsibilities for all the ills we encounter to those with whom we disagree. It is dangerously easy to think that the solution lies in simply suppressing the viewpoints we find abhorrent, but—as my personal experience living under a Communist regime proved to me—these fixes are short-term at best. All they ensure is a greater concentration of power in the hands of the government, power that will be used to advance a series of contradictory agendas as power flows from one group to the next.
The Kremlin’s army of bots promotes material from the American far left and Bernie Sanders, not just their loyal partner in the White House. Putin wants to promote the chaos and division that lead to weakness in his rivals on the international stage. His goal is not necessarily to advance one side or the other, but to strengthen the extreme ends of the spectrum. This weakens the rational middle, which has been the characteristic strength of American politics in the past and desperately needs to be revived. When citizens and legislators become more tolerant of differences—not agreeing with them, but acknowledging their right to expression—a space for effective policymaking opens up. And remember that sometimes the most effective policy is no policy at all, and what is needed is common sense, public debate, and consistent enforcement of existing laws, not giving more power to the government.
The goal should not be stopgap measures to silence one group or prop up another, but long-term frameworks that strengthen the traditions of liberty and bolster democratic values in a way that will persist from one administration and generation to the next. We must make sure that the conversations sparked by Charlottesville do not descend into a dead-end of recrimination and instead look to the future—using the awareness these incidents have raised to elevate our political discourse and seek a more productive common ground.