Note: I wrote this three days ago, but couldn’t post it. It’s slightly out of date. I have added two updates in the end.
I’m sure that you all have heard this controversy a few times already. Whether people were angry at Trevor Noah for inviting Tomi Lahren or at Bill Maher for inviting Milo Yiannopoulos, they believe that liberals should deprive the alt-right from their programs. On the other hand, there are other people who say a systemic boycott amounts to censorship, and therefore liberals should not deprive the marketplace of ideas of the ideas they consider reprehensible. Personally, I disagree with both of these camps. It’s hard for me to adequately sum up my position — it might come across as overly dismissive, while I don’t mean it to. You just have to strap in and read this entire piece.
Before delving into making my own argument, let me just make something clear: I won’t be arguing about the actual worth of the alt-right. They are a modern manifestation of racist fascism and far right ideology, and their ideas are as dangerous to humanity as deadly diseases and natural disasters. I will assume that you agree with this position before writing my article, because my article is about what the enemy of the alt-right is supposed to do to effectively face them.
Before making my own argument, let me summarize what each side of this debate is saying and why I disagree with both of them (ironically, I think they both have the same defect). On one hand, people say that we should be exposed to all ideas and not limit his free speech.
That argument is wrong, because a marketplace of ideas implies that some ideas might go bankrupt. The seller is free to sell, and the buyer is free to buy. So when people say “you shouldn’t make this harmful product more accessible”, they are not limiting someone else’s speech, but practicing their own. I say this as someone who disagrees with limiting freedom of speech through both governmental and popular means of repression.
If people tried to destroy Milo’s and Tomi Lahren’s livelihoods, going beyond the policing of their own places, then I would object. But Milo’s and Lahren’s livelihoods won’t be destroyed by not appearing on liberal shows, and if anyone wants to seek out their ideas, they won’t be stopped if the likes of Noah refuse to accept them as guests.
There’s no reasonable argument in the favor of pretending that liberals owe their space to hateful bigots.
Furthermore, you can really make a reasonable argument that giving a space to hateful ideas is not a moral good. If we can demonstrate that the ideas of people like Milo are harmful as ideas — and they are — wouldn’t giving a space to them help spread harm? It will. So is there any reason more pressing to ignore the harm nevertheless? (There is, but I will come to that later).
Now, on to the other side of the debate. If you give him a platform, he will enjoy a wider following and he will be “normalized”. For example, Heather Dockery at Mashable makes this argument:
As we’ve now learned, the opposite happened. Trump wasn’t exposed when CNN played his rallies without critique — his reputation was sometimes even burnished. Sure, internet progressives tirelessly mocked Kellyanne Conway for making up a massacre. Still, 51% of Trump supporters now believe that the massacre justifies Trump’s extensive Muslim ban.
Audiences who would have never been exposed to these characters now saw them in full light — and some liked what they saw.
By providing these people with a mainstream platform, hosts and journalists do little to expose Milo and Conway for their fringe ideologies. They normalize them and help make their extremist nationalist beliefs more palatable. It’s much more acceptable to defend “black crime” or “killer dykes” when there’s a handsome man on television defending it.
So what’s wrong with this argument?
The simple fact is, you can’t prevent the normalization of Trump and the alt-right. Donald Trump is the president of the world’s greatest superpower. Now every word he utters and every move he makes will impact the whole world and change the direction of human history. He can sink entire economies of small nations with an off-hand remark. Donald Trump is already normalized.
I can only shake my head in despair when liberals say things like “I won’t say his name”, as if he is Voldemort or as if times for such things have not passed long ago. The president of the United States of an America does not require your normalization. You should be more careful not to be abnormalized by him. You should worry about your own normalization.
Likewise, it’s laughable to think CNN and other news organizations can afford not to give a platform to Conway or other spokespeople of the administration. Right now the whole world, all governments, all international organizations, are waiting to see what the administration is saying. Trump will be the real person of the year for every single year that he’s in office no matter which runner up Time plasters on its cover.
If you wanted to prevent Trump from being normalized, that ship sailed a while ago, went on a long journey on the ocean, hit the iceberg and sank.
Which brings me to my earlier comment — why I think both of these arguments have the main fundamental defect. Both of them rely on the illusion on the part of the liberals that they are in power. This is what I always felt was the cultural blindspot of my American friends interacting with them on the internet — I always felt that they act as if they have already won the culture war.
But they continue to do so even after Trump and Republicans won almost all the power. Yes, Trump didn’t win the popular vote, but he did win enough votes to show that you are not the absolute majority and that these issues are not settled.
So, with all due respect to my friends on the “free speech” side of the issue, what the fuck are you talking about? Who says you have the power to silence Trump or Milo or Tomi Lahren that now you so virtuously forgo that power? If I had to make a bet about who would silence whom, I’d take a bet about them silencing you.
And to my friends on the “let’s not normalize” side, I would also have to say what the fuck you are talking about, the enemy has already taken that city and has pissed in every toilet.
You lost, liberals. Act like it. Act like the opposition. You know what shows this? In that link above, Dockray makes this incredibly weird statement: “If you’ve spent any time following Milo drama in the past few years, Maher’s approach feels like magical realism. How could he think he’s “exposing” someone who’s already been exposed and roasted time and time again?
But he obviously hasn’t been exposed and roasted enough times! Why does Dockary pretend that the case about Milo is open and shut when it’s not? While she pretends everyone hates him while they don’t? That is indeed the liberal bubble. I’m willing to bet that the vast majority of Trump’s voters, or liberals who sat the election out, don’t have any idea who Milo is or what alt-right is. Everything shows that lots of voters considered this election a “normal” one. But it wasn’t. The group that came to power are far more to the right of the average Republican and far more racist than the average white person. That is why pretending that people like Milo are already “exposed” enough is a dangerous game. It’s not enough for liberals to know how awful Milo and his ilk are. They should convince others.
I’m not saying that liberals have to invite Milo and Lahren to their shows and try to rip them into shreds. That can be one tool among many to expose them. I think Noah did a very good job of exposing Lahren, and Maher did an awful job, giving himself and Milo congratulatory handjobs for how free-spirited they are and making transphobic comments.
But whether you choose to bring the awful bigots to your shows and confronting their ideas that way, or whether you choose other tools, you have to act as if they are in power. You have to realize that they have the upper hand now. You must never ignore them. You must stop acting as if it is now in your power to decide whether they are legitimized and normalized or not. They are.
You must talk about them. You must protest them everywhere they go. You must challenge them with tough questions in every venue, including their own. You must debate them when you can. You must constantly cover them and their ideas and mercilessly pick out every awful new thing they say and amplify them for the whole world to hear them. You have to do these things, because you have to somehow convert enough moderate conservatives and apathetic liberals to turn against them.
There is no game plan in either “let’s just deprive them of their platforms” or “we must allow them to have their voices heard too”. Both of these attitudes belong to the pre-Trump world, and ignore the new reality of having a fascist in the White House. Both of these attitudes are in defiance of reality because the alt-right will not be deprived of its platforms now, nor will it have any problem having its voice heard. Now the liberals must adapt to the new reality of this voice being one of the dominant voices and act from there.
And yes, I’m aware that exposing and covering the alt-right will cause some people to convert to them. But again, that implies that if liberals don’t deal with the alt-right they won’t be able to reach to these potential fascists. But they will. And I’m willing to bet that in the absence of vigorous liberal opposition, they will reach that goal much more easily.
And yes, I’m aware that many liberals are already very active in fighting against Trump and the alt-right. However, I want to point out to them that if you engage in arguments like that, that reveals a bug in your viewpoint, and I think we all will be harmed by it if you don’t adjust your mentality fast.
If this were a perfect world, I’d be happy to ignore the ideas of alt-right and refuse to accept them among polite company and consign them to the dustbin of history. I’d never bother to debate with someone who thinks genocide, rape, or slavery is a moral good. However, if the world’s culture shifts further into bigotry and pro-genocide, pro-rape, and pro-slavery people begin to win elections and increase their numbers, and then some states reinstated slavery as an institution, then I wouldn’t have any choice but to take them seriously. Then I would have to cover slavers extensively and to debate them and confront them when I can.
And then if my fellow abolitionist friends kept saying “We have already decided that slavery is wrong, that issue was finalized at the time of Lincoln, so we will refuse to accept this as the new normal”, I would be really worried, because it would seem to me that they haven’t come to terms with the new reality completely and are therefore are unequipped to deal with it.
That is why I took the time to write this post. I don’t mean to be dismissive of your concerns, still, I think this debate needs to be re-framed. We need to adapt to the new reality.
Update 1: In recent days, after I wrote this, Milo was very much damaged by revelation of his defense of pedophilia. I think that reinforces my point here: clearly Milo finally crossed the Rubicon from “normal” to “abnormal” and was (hopefully) brought down. But this still underscores the fact that the bigotry he spewed so far is not “abnormal” enough, so the need for further fight is apparent.
Update 2: Many people who are for or against boycotting alt-right disagree with ignoring the alt-right. My main point here was to argue the against the attitude of “normalization” and assuming that it’s in the hands of liberals, not meaning to imply that everyone who thinks alt-right is “fringe” also thinks they are to be ignored.