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The problem with proving racists wrong

By Katarina Weessies

Section: Opinions, Top Stories

March 17, 2017

Before I begin this article, I want to point out that while I am the editor of the Opinions section, I will not turn down an opinion because I disagree with it. I understand that perfectly reasonable, intelligent people will disagree with my views, and that they have every right to publish in this section. I will not refuse to publish an opinion that I dislike, and I will not look down upon or disrespect the author. Especially in terms of controversial issues like freedom of speech, many people who are smarter and better informed than me might disagree with me. I will, however, turn down anything that I think is hate speech.

In the wake of the recent election, one of the dominant conversations in political circles is whether or not it is beneficial to allow hate speech in media, on the Internet or in public forums. This debate can be framed in terms of censorship of hate speech or violent retaliation against hate speech. As an editor of the Opinions section, one of the more common arguments I see is that hate speech should be allowed in the media and in public places because the best way to fight hate speech is to publicly disprove it. This sounds great in theory, but in practice, it’s an unrealistic method of fighting bigotry that legitimizes and disseminates hateful views.

There are two specific events that dominate this discourse about hate speech: the punching of Richard Spencer and the loss of Milo Yiannopoulos’ book deal. In the first case, the argument is over whether or not it is okay to punch a neo-Nazi who is arguing his views on a public street. The second is over whether refusing Yiannopoulos a book deal fights his ideas or empowers his supporters. The second discourse, involving Yiannopoulos, is fairly simple. Yiannopoulos’ book deal was denied by private publishers rather than public forums. Private publishers deny book pitches and manuscripts all the time, often for much less serious reasons than racist or generally hateful views.

Allowing hate speech into the work of a well-known or respected publisher implies that the speech is worthy of respect. The platform on which a work of speech is presented forms the perceived respectability and validity of the work. Yiannopoulos, before his controversial pedophilia comments, was supposed to be published by Simon & Schuster, one of the more academically respected commercial publishers. If Yiannopoulos were published by Simon & Schuster, regardless of whether or not anti-racists responded under the same publisher, it would legitimize Yiannopoulos’ views as academically respectable.

In terms of the punching of Spencer, the freedom of speech issue is more subtle. However, I see the punch as a form of self-defense (or defense of others, depending on the status of the puncher). This is because I see the actions of Spencer as a directly and immediately advocating violence.

Spencer argues a eugenic view of race, in which white ethnicities are “scientifically” superior to others, and that these “superior” races should be globally dominant and exclude people of color from exclusively “white” regions of the world. On a few occasions, he has questioned whether or not black people have a reason to exist and implied that genocide is a worthwhile solution to his version of the “race problem.” In the United States, harassment, threats and speech that advocate immediate violence are not protected under freedom of speech. In several other countries, such as Germany, certain types of hate speech are specifically banned. Based on both the German and American standards of freedom of speech, Spencer’s actions are technically illegal, even if most people do not see it that way.

Many might argue that, although Spencer’s words may be illegal, the state, rather than the people, should decide on his punishment. However, U.S. law does have a means for individuals to legally act violently toward violent people. It is legal for Americans to attack someone if they think that it will stop an instance of violence. Especially in terms of non-deadly force, such as a punch, it is perfectly legal to use violence to stop an instance of violence. I would argue that since Spencer’s public speech is extremely likely to result in violence, passersby have a right to attack violently.

Many people disagree with me on this issue, which is understandable. Violence is terrifying, and issues of freedom of speech and self-defense are complex and nuanced. However, I think that it is worthwhile for the future of Americans to prevent Spencer from promoting his views by certain violent means.

Another facet of the freedom of speech debate is the idea of emotional labor. The term “emotional labor” refers to the way in which people are expected to put effort into maintaining their emotions and the emotions of others in order to achieve a certain goal. The concept of “emotional labor” is intuitive to understand, but the term originated from feminist sociologists to describe the types of labor expected of working women. Emotional labor applies to interpersonal careers such as nurses or teachers, but it also applies to the traditional role of women as the provider of emotional support within the family.

Discussions of hate speech involve an unequal amount of emotional labor that makes it unrealistic to expect people to disprove hate-speakers at every available opportunity. A good portion of people who argue against hate speech are people of color. Consider the example of a racist arguing with a person of color over the correctness of racist views. The racist is arguing against the humanity of the person of color, and the person of color is forced to defend their own humanity. This conversation is far more exhausting, labor intensive and traumatic for the person of color than for the racist. This means that racists will have more time and energy to speak than people of color will.

Furthermore, discrimination impacts the ability of people of color to speak out against racism, assuming that the racism is being argued by white people. This is because unconscious biases lead people to take the views of people of color less seriously. Thus, the white racist would have an advantage in any argument with a person of color. This makes it even more difficult for people of color to advocate against racist views.

The concept that anti-racists should “prove racists wrong” with words rather than censorship or violence sounds great. It would be wonderful to live in a world where anti-racists could rise up and expand our ranks solely through civil speech and accurate evidence. But that is not the world in which we live. Racists have an advantage over anti-racist advocates, and legitimizing their views by giving them a platform to speak only empowers them.

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