events in Charlottesville and in the days since have brought forth righteous anger from those who oppose the so-called Alt-Right. We’ve all seen our Facebook feeds filled with comments denouncing hatred and bigotry, we’ve read the politician’s tweets in response to the violence… it’s obvious that the vast majority of our fellow citizens do not condone the violent actions that took place in Charlottesville, Virginia. I, like many others, have felt reassured somewhat by the level of shock and outrage – it’s as if we’re awash in a safe, comforting sea of like-minded ‘good guys’, driving away the ‘bad guys’ with nothing more than overwhelming indignation and willpower. Truly, this is a sea of individuals that I’m very glad I belong to. But…
“…it’s been with us since the first time 2 humans chose to act one way, and the third another.”…but, there’s a subtle danger swimming through this sea. It’s nothing new – it’s been with us since the first time 2 humans chose to act one way, and the third another. We Americans, if we’re to believe the story we tell ourselves, should be intimately familiar with this danger. It’s name is The Majority. Specifically, it’s the way that being part of a majority can encourage us to think, feel, and act. I argue today that allowing oneself to be mindlessly swept away by the current of The Majority, no matter how righteous of a cry it sends up, like the cry heard after Charlottesville, can strengthen and bolster those The Majority seeks to silence.
When part of a majority, we act differently. Emboldened by the sense of safety in numbers, we lash out at the minority in ways that overstep how we might normally react to the same individual or situation. We make decisions and take actions that might be just a little more extreme or reactionary than is otherwise warranted. These changes in behavior are especially magnified if the majority feels it operates from a position of moral or religious superiority.
If the majority is large enough, and responds to the minority in a swift and decisive enough manner, and if the minorities’ message is murky or ill-defined, it’s adherents lacking enough conviction and passion, then these changes in behavior caused by being a member of a majority don’t matter. The minority will be silenced, it’s members succumbing to feelings of inevitability and resignation, regardless of the methods the majority used to accomplish it’s goals. If those methods were questionable, if they sat squarely in a legal or moralistic ‘gray zone’ – so what? Who is left to complain? Certainly the members of the majority won’t object – they’ve won the day, why would they? And those that do will be severely marginalized, accused of being unpatriotic or sympathetic to the ‘bad guys’. McCarthyism will descend writ-large on those who dare to wonder if what the majority did was entirely on the up-and-up.
“…individuals will start to wonder, in the very back of their minds, if the way the majority seeks to subvert the minority is right.”Many times though this is where it ends. The news cycle moves on, and people quickly forget. But sometimes, if that minority is just strong enough, if it’s able to inflict just enough damage in just the right spots in the armor of the majorities’ cause, the conflict becomes an entirely new situation altogether. Here is where the actions the majority takes to accomplish their goals start to matter immensely. It’s at this point that more individuals will start to wonder, in the very back of their minds, if the way the majority seeks to subvert the minority is right. ‘Are we actually better than the bad guys?’, they’ll wonder. ‘Are we taking actions we can be truly proud of?’ they’ll ask themselves. ‘Decades from now, will history view our actions as just?’ they’ll ask each other, in cautious tones and lowered voices.
At this point in the conflict, If the majority has been operating in any sort of morally or legalistically ambiguous way, they have only one method left with which to accomplish a sure victory – they must shut down any further actions that could possibly be viewed as unjust, and they must do so mercilessly and immediately. To continue acting in any questionable manner – whether those actions include incitement of violence, censorship, or any other actual, or perceived, unfair treatment of the minority – is to risk loosing the moral high-ground and invite doubt, uncertainty, and suspicion to enter the minds of the majority and the general populace as a whole.
The reality is, if the conflict does actually enter this point, the most likely outcome is months, years, and possibly decades of conflict and unrest. Each side’s actions will become just a little more unjust, with each one of those actions becoming a justification for the other side to act in progressively more unjust ways. It becomes a cycle that we’re all familiar with. A cliche even. “We, as the majority, must be hyper-aware of every single action we take and decision we make, and how those actions and decisions could be perceived.”If we’re lucky, there will be practical and concrete sea-changes within a society that renders the conflict a moot point – something as large and unstoppable as the Industrial Revolution, Modernization, or the emergence of a happy, wealthy, and safe, secure and healthy Middle Class. If we’re unlucky, we get war – civil wars, revolutions, uprisings… call them what you will, but the reality will be death and suffering.
Or we may get something in between. We may get this lingering sense of unease, this malaise that underpins our culture, that we’re all vaguely aware of, but that persists because we’re just not sure what to do with it. Usually this malaise grinds on like a slow-growing cancer, until some action or event tips the cancer into accelerated growth. If that happens, then at some point decisions are made and actions are taken; moral, legalistic, and historical consequences be damned. The chips will fall where they fall.
So how do we prevent this? We, as the majority, must be hyper-aware of every single action we take and decision we make, and how those actions and decisions could be perceived. Even if the situation is one in which the majority is 100%, without a doubt the ‘good-guy’, and the minority truly is the evil ‘bad-guy’, the very moment the majority takes one action that oversteps moral or legalistic grounds, no matter how small or seemingly inconsequential, we lose the moral high-ground and invite doubt, suspicion, and uncertainty to enter the minds of our members, thus strengthening the position of the minority, and irrevocably changing the situation from clear-cut to clouded and blurred.
“Had I still lived there on August 12th, 2017, I have no doubt I would have been at that rally. I could have been the one killed.”In the context of Charlottesville, this means no retaliatory violence against White Supremacist groups. This means no inflammatory insults, taunts, or rhetoric lobbed their way whatsoever. This means no censorship of the ‘Alt-right’, no matter how easy it would be for the tech giants to do so (and some already have). We must in no way be seen as infringing on their rights whatsoever. And make no mistake, they do have rights. They have the right to free speech and to assemble peacefully and to live their lives in a manner they feel is appropriate, as long as that does not conflict with the rule of law in America.
Some of you will have just had a deep-seated, gut reaction of revulsion to the paragraph above. Of course these people have no rights, they’re horrible people, they should all be punished! Of course Google should just block all their websites! We should wage absolute warfare against them at every turn, and win the day no matter what it takes to do so. Of course the means justify the ends! I get it. You’re very angry. You’re way beyond very angry. You are sickened that things like Charlottesville exist in our world. I get it because I lived in Charlottesville, and I loved that town. I loved the vibrant, intellectual culture facilitated by The University of Virginia. I loved the gorgeous countryside, the surrounding wineries, the diversity. I have stood and walked through the exact spot that Heather D. Heyer was mowed down by a car many, many times before. I’ve eaten dinner with my family on the downtown mall mere feet from that very site of violence. Had I still lived their on August 12th, 2017, I have no doubt I would have been at that rally. I could have been the one killed. “To be a cog in the machinery of the majority is fine. To be a mindless cog is not.”
So I share your goal. But to accomplish that goal we cannot, we must not, let our initial reactions and our powerful emotions overrule our reason. To be a cog in the machinery of the majority is fine. To be a mindless cog is not. We must take measured, carefully considered actions, being fully aware that we have a responsibility to ourselves and those who share our goal to not give any kind of ammunition whatsoever to the bad guys. We must allow them their freedoms, the same freedoms we ourselves enjoy, else they immediately obtain a legitimate place from which they can argue for their own viewpoints and launch their own attacks.
As the saying goes, let’s give em’ a little rope…