Sunday, March 5, 2017

On Confronting Hate Speech

On February 12, some bigot threw tear gas at a gay party which was held at a nightclub in Zagreb. Everyone went into a panic, stampeding over each other to get out immediately. When you read the account, you are reminded of George Orwell's line in 1984, that there are no heroes in violence. In the U.S. media reports of mass shootings often look for a hero, someone whose physical courage represents WHAT WE REALLY STAND FOR. They tend to leave out the wonderful mediocrities who make up most of the victims.

Two weeks later, on February 26, a small gathering of neo-Nazis marched on Zagreb's city center. They held Croatian and American flags, the latter in honor of you-know-who. The American Embassy condemned the demonstration. 

I was nowhere near either incident, but I easily could have been. I'm happy I wasn't. I've met a few neo-Nazis in my life, once during a demonstration in 2006, and another at a gay pride parade in Tallinn that same year; during the latter some twerp spat right in my ear. Neo-Nazis tend to be uninteresting people. Like all fundamentalists they live and die by the narrow logic of their ideology. Unlike all fundamentalists, they suffer from a poverty not only of intellect but of emotion. Neo-Nazis don't really teach you anything. As for violence: I'm willing to learn from violence in the movies. I believe violence has meaning in art. I don't want to know how much it has in reality.

It turns out the jerk who called in the bomb threats to the JCCs was a former writer for The Intercept. I acknowledge that there are serious problems with anti-Semitism on the left, but I don't know what work at The Intercept could be clearly defined as hate speech.

Last night, students at Middlebury College in Vermont shut down Charles Murray, the pseudo-intellectual who sought to resurrect eugenics back in the 1990s. I'm not going to defend The Bell Curve. Andrew Sullivan still preens about his decision to publish an excerpt from the book in The New Republic, a sign that no one can be more obnoxious or stupid than a smart person with a firm grasp on language. I think Murray's 2007 essay about Jews' supposed genetic predisposition to genius had at least one obvious flaw, that any careful undergraduate would notice, namely his initial attempt to separate the Ashkenazi and Sephardic lines, only later on to conflate them. But Murray has other ideas too, some about cultural and class differences among whites that look pretty darn relevant at the moment. I've wavered sometimes on Murray, but, even now, as I've seen a presidential campaign won with hate speech, I don't know what we're stopping or protecting anyone from when we prevent the fucker from speaking on a college campus. If you're not going to meet Murray at Middlebury, you'll meet far worse than him elsewhere. You meet worse versions of him everyday throughout the 24/7 news cycle, here in Zagreb, and in many living rooms spread throughout the U.S. Thanks to the demonstration at Middlebury,Murray is more popular today that he was yesterday.

Cruel words themselves have a terrible affect on your psyche. Hate speech can and does encourage physical violence. Unfortunately, there is no one clear obvious strategy for confronting hate speech. And just as there are few heroes in violence -- I'll qualify Orwell, a bit -- there are very few heroes in the war against hate speech.

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