Free Speech and White Terrorism

I have a question. When did so many people become so comfortable with Naziism and the KKK? I have another question. Why has the U.S. not officially branded Nazi groups and the KKK as terrorist groups?

A common refrain has been on constant loop since the events in Charlottesville, VA and it has all simply boiled down to the First Amendment and free speech. On college campuses nationwide, many college presidents have responded to the Charlottesville violence with statements condemning the violence but upholding college campuses as a place where free speech is the defining principle and where we engage with ideas that make us uncomfortable. On its face, statements such as these are rational, sane, and encouraging. However, we are not living in rational or sane times and I am not encouraged. These statements do little more than work to avoid potential legal challenges. For marginalized students (women, students of color, international students, and LGBTQi students) these messages signal to them that their very real fear and worry about their physical and emotional safety is less important than someone else’s right to spew hatred. For students who align themselves with white supremacy, these weak kneed responses signal that their hate speech has some value or merit worth debating in the intellectual domain.

On the one hand, I totally agree with freedom of speech and that even hate speech is protected. Intellectually, I get that. What I do not understand and have a hard time reconciling is why anyone believes these ideas are merely innocuous and regular conservative or Republican ideas (although this close alignment between white supremacy, conservativism, and Republicanism has and continues to emerge – that is a matter for another time.) What I do not understand is how anyone can support these ideas as worthy of any kind of engagement. When one group wants another group eradicated by any means – and often by the most violent of means – or to not exist and sees them as less than human, these are not ideas worth engaging in on any level. What is more, these are not political ideas. There can be no debate or discussion.

There are several centuries of white or even Christian terrorism across the world and many millions of people murdered because of this terrorism, yet it is rarely called terrorism and these groups in the U.S. are not even registered terrorist organizations. Because of this history and because of the white supremacist history in the U.S., I would think attempting to engage this world view in any serious way within the public domain would be widely avoided. However, as the media has worked to document what is happening in this country, they have inadvertently given voice to these groups. And as controversy has swirled, they have become louder, bolder, and stronger. This has been a pretty effective recruitment tool for these groups.

It is documented that the “alt-right” (a rebranding of white supremacist organizing) has very purposely been targeting college campuses to rile up “liberals” and recruit college students. This, too, has been very effective and has further blurred the lines between conservativism, Republicanism, and white supremacy. And they have a pretty welcoming college campus environment where free speech and the engagement with controversial ideas is the coin of the realm. So hate speech and white supremacy gets sold as ideas worth debate because they are the new conservativism and to not engage these ideas in an environment widely viewed as liberal is denying space for competing ideas.

All of this is beyond problematic and is creating false equivalencies as somehow valid. It is perhaps more valid to compare these white supremacist groups to other terrorist groups around the globe and treat and target them similarly. By that line of thinking, I wonder what the response would be if terrorist leaders – say ISIS or al-Qaeda or Hamas or the IRA or any other group that the U.S. has named as terrorist – came to speak on college campuses and use the controversy to recruit college students. Would college presidents still hide behind their free speech and engaging in controversial ideas statements? Would the public revolt or concede the free speech argument? I’ll be the vast majority of people would speak out loudly against playing on free speech in this way. I suspect a majority of people would see this argument as ridiculous and none of these folks would be allowed to have a talk, rally, or protest on college campuses, let alone in any public space. So why are white supremacist terrorist groups given carte blanche to recruit and spew their vile hatred?

This is not normal. Nor is it okay. We all need to protest white terrorism loudly and reduce the spaces where this speech is acceptable, starting with college campuses. Again, when one group bases their ideas or world view on the demise of another group, on some “racial” superiority, that is not an idea that deserves equal time, balanced reporting, or public debate. The humanness of people should not be politicized – this is not a partisan issue. The people who believe these things cannot be reasoned with, aren’t swayed by the volumes of scientific research or the historical evidence, and nothing will educate them or change their minds. But they will and are most definitely changing the minds of young adults on college campuses looking for something to believe in and buying into the toxic ideas of reverse-racism, that white is a race, that white people are being oppressed, and so many other false narratives.

I’m perplexed and questioning why any of this can even remotely be justified and why colleges are not coming out against white supremacist organizing on their campuses more vociferously. This is a moment in time where the knowledge makers need to be leading the charge, bringing the knowledge to bear on these moments, and working to effect change – resisting and speaking truth to power. Instead, too many higher ed leaders are hiding behind weak excuses and not taking a stand.

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