As I write this, Richard Spencer and his cronies have arrived in Gainesville, FL for an event at the University of Florida. He was not invited by anyone but himself. The student body overwhelmingly doesn’t want him here. The city overwhelmingly doesn’t want him here. But he’s here nonetheless to share his message of hate, to manipulate young people to serve his needs, and to play all of us like a fiddle.
This event isn’t just about presenting his ideas. He’ll use this as an opportunity to stage altercations, lie, and manipulate in order to legitimate his movement. This new breed of neo-Nazi/white nationalist1 has a wide range of technological tools at their disposal that make disseminating lies and hatred easier than ever. Every reaction we give them is more fuel for his fire. They don’t need us to discriminate against Spencer or his kind; they’ll make it up if they have to. None of this means we shouldn’t respond. What it means is we’re sort of trapped between a rock and a hard place in all of this. If we react, it will be used against us. If we don’t, it’ll seem like silent consent. Either way, it seems like we are powerless against this stuff.
The problem, however, isn’t us.
When I say that Spencer and his kind have played us, I mean that they learned how to manipulate our most valued institutions (values, places, etc.) to make them work against us. The conversation over “free speech” has had the remarkably effect of giving us little rhetorical recourse against the kinds of tactics neo-Nazis use. When truth is irrelevant, it doesn’t matter how good your argument is. All that matters is who is better at disseminating a version of the truth to the public. Right now, the neo-Nazis of the world are pretty good at it, and they’re supported both by like-minded people and those who reject their rhetoric but defend their perceived “rights.” While we’re trapped in an endless “free speech is the only way to fight bigotry” loop, the Spencers of the world have been exploiting the weaknesses in our institutions for their own ends.
In all of this, our institutions have failed to live up to their promise. While the University of Florida has verbally made their position on Spencer clear since this whole fiasco started a few weeks ago, their actions suggest they’re not really committed to the words they preach. We’re supposed to be an institution that values diversity and rejects hateful rhetoric, but when it came to standing up for students of color or other likely targets, the University bent over. What they showed us was not an institution dedicated to the protection of its values, but rather a hollowed out husk that would bow before the reductive “free speech” argument at the expense of student safety or the very values it claims to uphold. They claim they can’t do anything, but this is a lie, too. As the $500,000 increased security cost makes clear, Spencer’s presence has made campus less safe. That’s really all you need, but we also know that Spencer’s very existence is always already a threat to the safety of students on campus, especially students and faculty of color. Neo-Nazis are not your friends. They preach an ideology linked to genocide and racial discrimination. The University had an opportunity to stand up for its vulnerable students, but it chose instead to defend the speech of a neo-Nazi.
Over and over again, our institutions have failed to do what they should to stamp out the most vulgar forms of bigotry. I’m talking the obvious stuff: people sending pictures of gas chambers to Jewish social media users; people preaching that whites are the superior race; harassment against people of color; and so on and so forth. In the last few years, Twitter has added more features that nobody asked for than they have taken steps to get rid of people whose only goal on the platform is to attack and intimidate minorities. Their latest policy once more falls short of the obvious solution to the problem: if you know where the Nazis are, get rid of them all. But Twitter won’t. Like our Universities, it refuses to stand against this creeping power. The result of that is a massive amount of distrust among Twitter users. Twitter says they will take more aggressive steps, but a lot of us just don’t buy it because we have no reason to.
All of this is intentional. By eroding our institutions designed to stand against hatred, they improve their chances of gaining real, lasting power. We know where this ends. If Nazis of any stripe gain real political power — not proxy power — they will turn to violence en masse. We’ve seen it before. You’d think we would have learned a lesson. They get there by continuing to use what we’ve build against us. Our refusal as a culture to clamp out radical white nationalism, neo-Nazis, the KKK, and other hate groups has put us in the position we’re in now. So long as our first line defense (our universities, our government, etc.) is unable or unwilling to stand against these people, we legitimate a movement that does not deserve legitimacy.
We need to keep fighting the good fight, but we also need to start fixing the institutions we’ve directly or indirectly allowed to be undermined. We need social media to function for democracy, not the other way around. We need universities to stand up for American values, not give platforms to those who do not.
Or we can watch these people gain political power and turn our institutions fully against us. I, for one, won’t stand for that. As a group of student protesters chanted many months ago: