Whitehall, “the street that shaped a nation.” From The Cenotaph to Trafalgar Square, for 500 years, the heart and brain of the British state. Just over 600 metres long, this one road in Central London is home to the Cabinet Office, the Ministry of Defence, and a plethora of other government buildings. It is a symbol of Britain’s political establishment, a name synonymous with its civil service, and among it’s most popular places to express dissent. In January 1649, Charles I was carried through here before a hangman called Richard Brandon chopped off his head. Ever since, people of all stripes have come here to protest their respective grievances. This coming Saturday will be no different.
On the 6th of May, a coalition of far-right internet celebrities will come here to demand “freedom of speech.” This so-called “Day for Freedom”, organised by former leader of the English Defence League, Tommy Robinson, will feature speakers such as, among others, alt-right provocateur Milo Yiannopoulos, co-founder of VICE Media Gavin McInnes, and that guy who trained his dog to do a Nazi salute.
So how does one even respond to something like this, and, more broadly, how does a tolerant, liberal society confront those that peddle hate and prejudice? Quite understandably, some people are planning a counter-demo. Others, like comedian Jonathan Pie, think that racists should be carefully listened to and then debated. It is the latter idea which I would like to focus on because it represents a commonly held (and, I think, wrong) perception about how racist individuals and movements should be confronted and, presumably, defeated.
The reasoning behind debating racists is fairly straightforward. It is the “battle of ideas”, a noble callback to the days of The Enlightenment. The main rule in the battle of ideas is that the best ideas win and, since racists are obviously wrong, we need only carefully deconstruct their hate-filled rhetoric and reason will reign once more over the green and pleasant land of England.
Sounds nice, doesn’t it? All we have to do is trap the legions of alt-right stormtroopers in the Oxford Union debating chamber and bang! The entire foundation of their ideology will crumble when confronted with the overwhelming might of forensic analysis and superior reasoning.
Of course, this is as stupid as it is naive, and before someone inevitably brings out that thing which Voltaire never said (or some out of context Orwell quote), I should make the following clear: this is not an argument against the freedoms of morons to spout drivel. My point is only that framing the contemporary struggle against hate movements as an Enlightenment-esque battle of ideas is seriously idiotic. After all, the latter was a centuries-long struggle for science, reason and humanity against the old established powers of monarchy and religious dogma. The former concerns explaining why racism is bad in the year two-thousand and eighteen.
Here’s a question: why didn’t Holocaust historian Deborah Lipstadt debate Holocaust denier David Irving? Was it:
A. She didn’t believe in her ability to explain to Irving and his followers that there were gas chambers at Auschwitz-Birkenau?
B. She realised that even granting a debate, and thereby acknowledging that the Holocaust as a historical fact can be debated, would automatically hand the other side a victory?
Racism cannot be debated out of existence for the same reason we don’t typically waste our time debating flat-earthers, or those who think that Elvis is alive. It is for the same reason that we don’t treat people suffering from Aerophobia by constantly telling them that air travel is actually the safest model of transportation. One cannot be argued out of a phobia, and one cannot hold a reasonable debate with someone who’s viewpoint is fundamentally unreasonable.
It is well for Jonathan Pie to say that he wants to debate people with racist views, but I cannot help but wonder what such a debate would actually look like? Let’s say he finds a worthy racist and organises a live video showdown on his Facebook page where he has over one million followers. What then? Presumably, the individual in question will proceed to spout a litany of prejudice and pseudo-scientific nonsense, some of which Pie naturally won’t have a direct answer for. Perhaps he will interject here and there with some barely thoughtful platitudes, or to say something along the lines of, “You Sir, are horrible and I wholeheartedly disagree but isn’t it awesome that we live in a free society where you have the right to indoctrinate people with this crap?”
And what will be achieved as a result of this spectacular clash of minds? Nothing good, probably. Literally no-one with racist views will have their perception shifted. Thousands of others currently flirting with such ideas might instead find them reinforced. Everyone else will see it as a massive waste of time. But let us entertain this idea a little longer. Here is infamous American conspiracy theorist Alex Jones with his take on the latest government reshuffle:
How do we debate that, exactly? I suppose we could start by pointing out that Sajid Javid is neither Pakistani nor a Muslim (in the sense that he was born in Greater Manchester and currently practises no religion… not that it should matter), but will that convince anyone who has already drunk the kool-aid? Unlikely. It certainly will not convince Jones, a professional bullshit artist who claims that the Sandy Hook massacre was a hoax and that Hillary Clinton is an actual demon from hell. What it will do is give him another platform to spread his garbage, and provide him access to thousands of more people currently on the verge of being indoctrinated into it (it should be noted that the reason Javid is unfit for public office, according to Jones and Infowars, has nothing to do with his actual merits as a minister, but the fact that he has brown skin and that his parents are from Pakistan. As far as dog-whistle racism goes, this isn’t even that well disguised).
When it comes to an actual strategy to combat prejudice, those prepping placards for Saturday’s rally are certainly more productive than those calling for debate. We do live in a free society, after all, but freedom of speech is not what the bigots mentioned above are really calling for. What they want is freedom from consequence. They want to be able to spout racism and xenophobia without wider society judging them for it. To this effect, protesting such types is actually important. Granting debate, on the other hand, almost automatically implies that the other side might have something of value to say. It’s the CNN approach to political discourse: both sides must be represented equally. Have a climate scientist on to discuss climate change? Then also bring on someone who thinks it’s a Chinese hoax because “balance.” Not all opinions and scientific or historical interpretations are equal, something we were reminded of recently when a Texas school asked students to list the “positive” as well as “negative” aspects of slavery.
The thing about contemporary racism that is not mentioned often enough is that few actually come to hold such views through anything resembling a rational thought process. This isn’t the mid-19th century when claims that blacks or Irish are genetically inferior were terrifyingly mainstream. Now, racist movements don’t control academia and their pseudo-science has long since been debunked. Instead, they prey upon vulnerable people and provide them with an easy scapegoat for their own failings.
Christian Picciolini wasn’t just any racist. The son of Italian immigrants, he was radicalised at 14 and soon became the leader of America’s first neo-Nazi skinhead gang. He held protests at his school demanding equal rights for whites. He opened a record store where he sold supremacist music to fellow neo-Nazis from all over the United States. However, he also sold punk rock and hip-hop. As a result, others came in to shop as well. At one point, a black kid came in crying because his mum had been diagnosed with breast cancer, the same condiction Picciolini’s own mother was suffering from. On another day, a gay couple came in with their son, and he recognised that they loved him in the same way he loved his own. All of a sudden, the prejudice he had built up to justify his own turbulent childhood could no longer be rationalised.
Eventually, Picciolini quit the movement and got a job at IBM. Later, he founded a nonprofit aimed at de-radicalising extremists of all kinds. That’s when he met Daryl, a neo-Nazi from New York who got in touch after happening to read his memoir. Daryl, a 31-year-old veteran, hated Muslims. The problem was, he had never actually met one. He met up with Picciolini and the two men went into a local mosque. Two hours of chatting with an Imam later, and Daryl’s hatred too could no longer be internally justified.
One way medical professionals treat phobias is through cognitive behavioural therapy and one part of this process involves something called exposure therapy.
For example, if you have a fear of snakes (ophidiophobia), your therapist may start by asking you to read about snakes. They may later show you a picture of a snake. They may then arrange for you to visit the reptile house of your local zoo to look at some real snakes. The final step would be for you to hold a snake.
– From the NHS Website
Contemporary racism is often a phobia like any other, and it often develops as a response to one’s own problems. This is not meant as an excuse or justification for such attitudes, but it’s undeniable that troubled young white men make for a prime requirement target for established racist movements for that very reason. They find themselves presented with a narrative that is both simple to understand and absolves them of much personal responsibility. The reason you can’t get a job is that the government merely favours ethnic minorities over the indigenous people, for instance. The reason you can’t get laid is because of feminism. Moreover, you aren’t just not to blame, you’re actually superior and only being held back because of a wide-ranging international conspiracy.
I’m not claiming to have all the answers here, only that we can do much better than foolishly trying to debate the racism out of someone. When it comes to changes in personal beliefs and attitudes, this is not something that happens overnight. As opposed to giving hatred a platform to spread itself, we can do much better by planting a few seeds of doubt. By exposing people to that of which they are initially frightened and showing them that minorities aren’t actually out to get them; all whilst maintaining that racism and prejudice are not welcome in modern society.