When Angels Argue Online About Violence
Better Angels Dispatch, By Erica Etelson
When Better Angels posted, a few months ago on its Facebook page, an article about the punching of a conservative activist at UC-Berkeley, I understood that Better Angels’ intent was simply to decry political violence. But as a battle-worn member of Team Blue, I felt duty-bound to point out that the vast majority of political violence appears to be perpetrated by white nationalists. I pulled a “what-about” rhetorical maneuver–“what about all those alt-right attacks and hate crimes?”—precisely the kind of partisan deflection that I have railed against when I’ve seen conservative commentators do it. I’m well aware that it’s intellectually dishonest and polarizing to counter with an example that portrays my side in a better light and the other side in a worse one. But I did it anyway.
Some Blues went even deeper into polarization, accusing Better Angels of demonstrating right-wing bias for even posting the article. Some Reds seized on the story as evidence that the media downplays left-wing thuggery and exaggerates right-wing violence. Meanwhile, the more angelic better angels kept their wings, and tried valiantly to remind us fallen angels that the simple takeaway is that violence is an unacceptable response to disagreeable speech.
What happened? Why did discussion of a principle we all agreed with (non-violence) wind up polarizing us?
I’ll start by conceding my bad. I entered the discussion from a place of distrust. I didn’t trust that Reds are sufficiently intolerant of hate group attacks and political violence. Given the high value Reds place on law and order, why would I make that assumption?
Here’s why: I assumed that Reds are more racist than Blues. I knew that the vast majority of Reds don’t like to see innocent people get attacked by neo-Nazis, but assumed that they’re really not deeply troubled by it to the degree Blues are.
Now, why would I assume that? Well, here’s where it gets complicated. On the one hand, my assumption is an unwarranted overgeneralization rooted in my tribe’s tendency to see itself as morally superior. I see my tribe marching in protest against a hate crime or police shooting of an unarmed person of color and conclude that Blues care, and Red’s don’t.
But, for all I know, Reds are marching too or are mourning or praying or speaking out against hate in other ways, ways that are invisible to me because we live in balkanized universes. Reds also may be less inclined to assume the veracity of breaking stories of hate crimes and police shootings—they might take a cautious “wait and see” approach, especially in the wake of the Jussie Smollett saga.
Some Reds are racist, some less so. Some Blues are racist, some less so. (I say “less so” rather than “not” because there’s evidence that all white Americans and most people of color have some degree of implicit bias, however innocently.) There’s some evidence that registered Republicans have more negative views of blacks than do Democrats, but a significant number of Democrats also hold negative racial stereotypes about various groups. And although polling data shows that Trump supporters are significantly more likely than the general public to say that neo-Nazi or white supremacist views are acceptable, the vast majority of Trump supporters disapprove of such overt white supremacy. Given that racism is endemic, I don’t think it’s helpful to pigeonhole it as a Red problem and give Blues a pass.
On the other hand, I see racist slurs and muddled “bad people on both sides” equivocations that fail to hold purveyors of hate accountable, coming from the highest levels of GOP leadership. I also see inhumane treatment of non-white immigrants at the border. And I see incident after incident of hate attacks in the United States and around the world—most recently the massacre at the New Zealand mosque—in which the killer venerated Trump and echoed Trump’s disparagement of immigrant “invaders.” When Klan members and neo-Nazis celebrate Trump’s election and “Sieg Heil” him, when their call to arms in Charlottesville is “Unite the Right,” it’s hard for me not to see the Right as infected with a uniquely virulent strain of white supremacy.
Okay. I realize all my Talmudic “on the other hand” observations may be getting tiresome, but here’s one more: Trump may, in my view, be very racist, and so too might be certain GOP lawmakers and media personalities. However, that doesn’t mean that any given Red is equally so. I think Joe Biden is sexist and racist—but I know plenty of people, who are not sexist or racist, who like Uncle Joe and will probably vote for him. I used to believe that voting for a bigot signified an unforgiveable indifference to the well-being of oppressed groups. Having sat through enough red-blue workshops, I’m less certain of that now, though the paradox of voting for someone who shows antipathy toward people one genuinely cares about is still hard to wrap my mind around.
If I presume Reds to be racist or in any way morally inferior, all that will come of it is more polarization. And polarization entrenches tribal loyalty, which means that, if I want anti-racist Reds to take more accountability for racism within their tribe—and in society more broadly—then I should be building bridges with them, rather than labeling and antagonizing them. When I shifted the Facebook discussion toward “right-wing” violence, all I did was trigger a defensive reaction that will not likely lead to any Red wanting to take more accountability for hate-based violence.
Eventually, after acknowledging my “what-about” misstep, I spun off into a productive back-and-forth with a Red. Our exchange led me to question the methodology and utility of classifying incidents of political violence as left-wing or right-wing. Just as Reds don’t want to be associated with Dylann Roof massacring black churchgoers in the name of white supremacy, most Blues don’t want to own a black nationalist who shoots police to avenge police murders of unarmed black men. Is Roof right-wing? Are black nationalists left-wing? Not really. Trying to jam them into left and right-wing buckets makes for a poor fit. By classifying hate crimes as right-wing, if anything, I’m encouraging Reds and hate group members to see themselves as members of the same tribe and defend each other accordingly.
What a backfire, then, when what I really hope for is that Reds disavow bigotry and criticize Reds who espouse it.
Would I like to see Reds hold President Trump and other race-baiting figureheads accountable? Yes. I believe they’re in a better position to do so than I am, because they have the power to vote them out of office and, perhaps even more importantly, they’re on the same team and, thus, have more influence with their fellow Reds.
But their failure to do so doesn’t make them responsible for every racist hate crime, any more than I’m responsible for provocateurs smashing windows at a Black Lives Matter protest, any more than my Muslim friend is responsible for a Muslim mass shooter, any more than my Christian friend is responsible for an abortion clinic bombing, or any more than my undocumented immigrant friend is responsible for a crime committed by an undocumented immigrant.
Next time Better Angels posts an article about political violence, I’ll resist the urge to engage in a polarizing which-side-does-it-more tug-of-war. Better Angels can serve as a forum for productive and very necessary conversations about racism and hate crimes—but not if Blues initiate them only for the purpose of downplaying other forms of hatred, and only if Blues and Reds come to the conversation assuming the best of each other.
Erica Etelson is a member of Better Angels and author of the forthcoming book, Beyond Contempt: How Liberals Can Communicate Across the Great Divide (New Society Publishers.)