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Dismissing the “alt-right” is a mistake

Ivo Vegter is a columnist and the author of Extreme Environment, a book on environmental exaggeration and how it harms emerging economies. He writes on this and many other matters, from the perspective of individual liberty and free markets.

A “linguistic analysis” of Reddit claims to find that an array of coalescing groups comprise the so-called “alt-right”. But merely labelling these groups so we can dismiss them doesn’t help. In fact, it might do more harm than good.

“You probably have a good idea of who the so-called ‘alt-right’ are, a group of white supremacists and nationalists, bound up by a fiery loathing of ‘political correctness,’ ‘cultural Marxism,’ and those pesky ‘social-justice warriors.’”

So begins an article by Tim Squirrel, who writes for Quartz on behalf of something known as the Alt-Right Open Intelligence Initiative. It uses linguistic analysis of over 3 billion Reddit posts and comments, in order to identify some of the groupings that might loosely be defined as “alt-right”. The main groups are described as “4chan shitposters”, “anti-progressive gamers”, “men’s rights activists”, “anti-globalists” and “white supremacists”, all of which find a common intersection on /r/The_Donald, a popular forum for supporters of Trump.

Squirrel characterises the online forums where these various groups gather, that was big enough to spring Brexit and Donald Trump upon the world as “disaffected white men from all walks of life to share a communal hatred.”

This is exactly the sort of patronising generalisation that galvanised the alt-right in the first place, and made them big enough to spring Donald Trump, Brexit and far-right parties with double-digit vote counts upon the world.

Yes, there are violent extremists on the right. Nobody denies that. The original alt-right was indeed bigoted. But tarring an entire movement with the same brush is simplistic, myopic, and intellectually cowardly.

The so-called “alt-right” today includes very many ordinary people who are dissatisfied with the economy and have become disillusioned with politics as usual. Such fears are not unique to the right, nor are they the province of any particular racial or national grouping. Economic hardship routinely engenders xenophobia. In South Africa, it pits black South Africans against black Malawians, Nigerians, Somalians or Zimbabweans. In Europe, it pits white Brits against white Poles, just as much as it does white Dutch against brown Turks, or white French against black Algerians. Actual racists exist, but mostly on the fringes. The larger driving force for the rise of right-wing nationalism is xenophobia, not racism. Rejecting outsiders, whatever their skin colour, is an age-old social reaction to feelings of economic insecurity.

If you attack a group, attributing to them the most awful motives, and painting them according to their worst elements, how are they likely to respond? Would one not expect them to defensively close ranks, to see no reason to take their opposition seriously, and in fact, to get more radicalised?

Doing this with the alt-right is no different from a right-winger painting everyone to the left of Maggie Thatcher as a violent communist. Yes, there are radicals on the left. The alt-left is real, and it is a problem. It is not just a term made up by right-wingers (or Donald Trump) to discredit their opponents, as CNN’s “experts” claim. People have identified themselves as alt-left for decades. Yes, Antifa exists, it is communist, and it is explicitly violent. But that doesn’t mean everyone who leans left, or voted for Hillary Clinton, or voted for the UK to remain in the EU, is a violent extremist.

I am an “anti-globalist” in the sense that I distrust supra-national inter-governmental organisations. That is a simple consequence of distrusting governments in the first place. I have a loathing of “political correctness”, or any attempt to impose doctrinaire ideology on public speech or academic thought, whether it happens on the left or the right. I oppose Marxism of any kind, whether it be political, economic or cultural. I dislike “social-justice warriors,” who, like accident lawyers, seek out any excuse to claim victimisation for themselves or others, in order to elicit special benefits from government or society.

Political correctness has its roots in the old left, when socialists used it to describe dogmatic communists who brooked no dissent from the party line, no matter the moral consequences. More recently, the term has come to mean something broader. In his book The Closing of the American Mind, Allan Bloom used the term to disparage a doctrinaire approach that entrenched left-wing political views across much of academia, especially in the humanities.

Whatever the merits of the cause, the effect was to delegitimise ideas that did not fall into a stereotypical left-leaning ideology. There’s nothing wrong with opposing the idea that there is a “correct” political doctrine that ought to be imposed on people by their betters, whether this occurs in political parties, academia, or anywhere else.

Is the term over-used to denigrate political opponents? Of course it is. But that doesn’t make anyone who dislikes political correctness a right-wing lunatic.

Cultural Marxism has a similar history. It originally referred to a school of philosophy that sought to promote social change to undermine capitalist societies and advance Marxist ideals. That this still happens, especially within academia, some government bureaucracies, and the media is hard to dispute. Again, there’s nothing wrong with opposing it.

It has also expanded into a sort of conspiracy theory on the right, where it has been associated with some pretty paranoid and even ludicrous claims. But that doesn’t make anyone who opposes cultural Marxism a right-wing lunatic.

The term “social justice warrior” was originally a positive term denoting someone who advocated progressive views such as racial and gender equality. However, it has come to be used in a derogatory sense and typically refers to those who promote a radical, third-wave feminism which is hostile to being white, male, straight, and not disabled. On a hair-trigger, this brand of feminist denounces anyone that disagrees even slightly with their ends or means as sexist, racist and homophobic. Their first words in a debate are accusations of privilege and bigotry. As someone who considers every person to be equal, regardless of their race, gender, disabilities or sexual orientation, it is hard not to find such glib, hateful people disagreeable.

Yes, actual misogynists also use the term. But that does not make anyone who dislikes social justice warriors a right-wing lunatic.

Does sharing some of these dislikes with the alt-right that is the subject of Squirrel’s article make me a “white supremacist”? Or a “nationalist”? Or a member of the “alt-right”?

I believe that everyone ought to be equal before the law, and denounce formal discrimination by the state. I do not believe in the superiority of any race over any other, and I believe those who discriminate privately ultimately harm themselves. I detest nationalism, since where someone was born or currently lives does not determine their worth or the content of their character. Nationalism is the basis for state indoctrination of the sort that leads to abominable wars and atrocities. Both nationalism and racism are inherently collectivist ideas, and as a believer in individual liberty, I oppose all forms of collectivism. I can never sympathise with a group of people who refer to their leader as “God Emperor”. Even in jest, that sort of glorification of political power sticks in my craw.

I also share some views with the left. I dislike racists, sexists and homophobes. I do not believe the state has any business in my bedroom, has any business limiting what I read, or has any business promoting religion in public places such as schools. I have been called a “libtard” for expressing these views, but none of this makes me a left-winger, retarded or otherwise.

This is how libertarians can get misrepresented as both “alt-right” and “libtard”. Both the right and the left are authoritarian statists, who seek to deploy government power to protect them from competition for jobs and markets. Libertarians oppose statism whether its ideology is left or right. That means both the right and the left has frequent cause to disagree with them, and since insults are quicker and easier than rational argument, both often attribute to them the worst qualities of the other. Even if they don’t, libertarians are no different from any other political grouping: they also have their radicals, conspiracy theorists and blowhards, all of whom often serve to rhetorically discredit them without even superficially engaging their ideas.

Dismissing the ideas of extremists is perfectly legitimate. But expanding the definition of extremist to refer to all political opponents is harmful to the body politic.

James Damore, who was fired by Google after circulating a memo on the company’s diversity policies, is a case in point. At the risk of over-simplifying his 3,000 words, among the views he expressed was that diversity programmes are discriminatory, and are unlikely to achieve their intended aims in any case, because not all disparities in gender representation are the product of sexism. He argues some are the result of different choices women make, or of biological differences between men and women. Google called the memo “offensive”, because it advances “harmful gender stereotypes”.

Of course, Google is a private company and can discriminate in hiring and firing however it likes. It clearly does not tolerate employees who express conservative views, thereby proving one of the points Damore made in his memo. But it doesn’t have to put up with people who publicly challenge its policies. It doesn’t have to accept dissension in the ranks. Its silencing of Damore is not censorship, because Google does not wield the power of the state, and Damore is free to air his views elsewhere.

(That said, organisational bias in search engine companies is not harmless. This recent paper presents evidence that there is systemic left-wards political bias in search results, particularly those of Google, and this affects voting behaviour.)

But back to the diversity memo. The vicious denunciation Damore suffered in the media, and his prompt dismissal, sends a clear message: criticise the (left-leaning) status quo at your peril.

Lost in the cacophony caricaturing Damore as some sort of knuckle-dragging misogynist is the fact that while he opposed discriminatory hiring to promote diversity, he did propose other ways to make the company’s technology jobs more appealing to women. What he said about innate differences between men and women, which he claims translate into different work and life choices, is supported by real science, according to a specialist in sexual neuroscience who also happens to be a woman. (Apparently, genitalia matter to the validity of one’s opinion.)

Now you might disagree, believing for example that gender differences in brains exist on a spectrum (as I do), or that the differences are slim to none, and that’s perfectly fine. These are legitimate subjects for scientific disagreement and public discussion. Even more legitimate as subjects for public discussion are which gender policies should and should not be advocated in companies or in law. Suppressing such discussion benefits nobody.

Perhaps Damore is a racist or a sexist, and he just doesn’t know it. But how will ostracising him for merely expressing his views, telling him he has no right to his opinions, or denouncing him as an extremist lowlife, possibly make anything better? It gives him no motive to reflect on his views. On the contrary: insulting him and ruining his life will only breed resentment and harden his stance.

Given the disdain in which even their moderate views are held, it is not surprising that there are some among the alt-right who have turned to radicalism, or taken to be deliberately offensive. Even if you think their opinions are wrong or immoral, it is dangerous to simply dismiss them with labels and epithets.

I fear the rise of the right just as much as I fear the rise of the left. Both sides are authoritarian, inimical to freedom, harmful to the economy, and dangerously appealing to the disaffected. Both left-wing and right-wing ideologies have led to severe human misery; we can try to count the exact number of millions on each side, but there is no “false equivalency” here. And each side’s denunciations radicalise the other side.

If those on the intellectual left are concerned about hatred and bigotry, they would do well to be less hateful and bigoted in their own interactions with their political opponents. Just denouncing everyone they disagree with as alt-right white supremacists can only backfire, actually fuelling the radicalisation of the right.

Hatred begets hatred. Only by trying to understand the fears and aspirations of others, accepting them even if we disagree, and not imposing our own opinions by force, can we ensure social and economic progress in a free, peaceful and harmonious society. DM


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