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It’s easy to forget how unnatural it is to tolerate views we disagree with

22 January 2017

3:30 PM

22 January 2017

3:30 PM

Among the words and phrases I’d be quite happy to never hear of again in 2017 is ‘Alt-Right’, up there with ‘remoaner’ and ‘liberal elite’. It’s partly the extraordinary amount of media attention given to an absolutely tiny fringe of a fringe of a fringe; partly that it’s one of those phrases that can mean whatever the user wants it to mean, from paleoconservatism with memes, to neo-Nazism; but also that there are plenty of American conservative intellectuals making logically coherent and often very original critiques of multiculturalism, race and democracy which an open-minded progressive might read – instead the media are interested in Richard Spencer because he holds rallies where his supporters make Nazi salutes.

But all political communities need their out-groups and Spencer comes straight from central casting, so he gets attention.

And Spencer’s at it again, although now in a rather more passive role, this time being punched in the face while discussing Pepe, the loveable anti-Semitic frog used by empathetically-challenged young men on social media.

This act of violence has been largely applauded, without caveat, even by people who are quite centre-left. I like to pride myself on having a very low opinion of people, but even I’m sometimes surprised by how idiotic they are, how unable to follow their own logic, or to see three steps ahead. As someone else put it better than I could.


I think the argument is that because Spencer is some sort of neo-Nazi, and Nazism was destroyed by force, then it is legitimate to use violence against him. The slight flaw with this reasoning is that the actual Nazis came to power by using violence against opponents in street battles, and once in government they used even more extreme violence against their enemies. As far as anyone knows Spencer does not use violence to further his goals; he does not have a group of armed thugs following him around attacking his enemies, although perhaps it would be a good idea. He has no links to any paramilitary organisations.

In contrast some high-ranking Labour MPs actively supported the IRA at a time when they were doing much more than just using nasty words; presumably it would be fine then to just punch one of them in the street?

What people find objectionable about Spencer are his views, not his actions, and so are applauding someone being physically attacked because of his politics. Meanwhile fans of Milo Yiannopoulos literally need a safe space from protestors, after shots were fired the other night.

Most of us have grown up in such comfortable, peaceful political cultures that we easily forget how unnatural it is to tolerate worldviews and opinions we strongly disagree with; in the English-speaking world it took hundreds of years to achieve this lucky situation, but in much of the planet it is still a mirage. It’s probably more fragile than we think because many people’s actual attachment to democratic liberal principles are pretty wafer-thin when it comes to people and views they dislike.

Judging by actual recorded footage, rather than morality tales on social media with implausibly emotive narratives, the overwhelming majority of violence around the US election has been conducted by opponents of Donald Trump. Many are angry because they have grown up with everything being a consumer experience in which their whims are catered for, when as Australian philosopher Russell Blackford‏ put it, ‘Liberalism is about putting up with stuff that you don’t much like on the basis that others will do likewise.’ Many are not so much angry as simply bored, and wish to live in more interesting times, a wish they may get. The people who terrify me, and who have caused the most misery throughout history, whether for religious or secular causes, are the true believers, convinced that God or history or justice is on their side, and that their enemies are heretics, infidels or Nazis. You’d have to be very dull-witted indeed not to see that legitimising their violent passions will have serious consequences down the line.

Update: The local paper now reports that the shooter in Seattle may have been a fan of Milo’s, shooting an opponent, rather than the other way around.

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