The time is 1:45pm on Saturday, August 12th 2017. The place is Charlottesville, Virginia, home to one of thousands of monuments to the Confederate States of America. Before the hour has passed, a white supremacist will drive into a crowd of counter-protesters, injuring several and killing one. In the days that follow, the rally’s organizer Jason Kessler will be chased away from a news conference by counter protesters, President Donald Trump will issue a statement condemning “many sides,” and Steve Bannon, a special advisor to the President, will exit the office, having been attacked from multiple fronts for his alleged supremacist views. A wave of protests will erupt across the nation, leading to the tearing down of dozens of Confederate statues, though the original monument of Robert E Lee in Charlottesville remains erect at the time of writing.
Over a year has passed since the incident at Charlottesville occurred. On the one year anniversary, the organiser of the first ‘Unite the Right’ rally was at the head of a second rally, this time in the nation’s capital. It was clear at this second rally that law enforcement and counter protesters had taken lessons from 2017: reports claimed that counter protesters numbered in the thousands as well as a high turnout of police officers. These efforts were seemingly successful since the rally, to which only a few dozen alt-righters belonged, ended without incident.
Though the plight of the alt-right, as it were, has seemingly come to an end, issues remain on how to curb racism in general. Despite the first amendment’s hard stance on freedom of speech, Americans are becoming ever more divided on the issue of banning hate speech. In a study conducted on university students in the US in late 2017, it was found that 44% believed the constitution did not protect hate speech. On online forums, especially those which deviate to the left, it is easy to find users pointing out that many economically developed countries, including the United Kingdom, have laws prohibiting hate speech.
While prohibiting or criminalising hate speech and vocalisations of racism may seem logical at first glance, the slippery slope argument becomes increasingly relevant as surveillance and monitoring of citizens is becoming more and more of a problem. At what point does hate speech end and normal speech begin? And who decides which speech is hate speech? These are difficult questions with no definitive answer.
Despite the immense hatred within the alt-right movement, the solution is not to stop them from expressing their opinions; rather, the solution lies in protecting their speech while simultaneously attempting to show them that they should embrace a different point of view rather than attempt to distance themselves from it.
This was successful in the case of Ken Parker, who, once a member of the Klu Klux Klan and a self-described white supremacist, was able to escape the clutches of hatred through talking with an African American reverend by the name of William McKinnon III. He became a member of a church in Florida and has since disavowed his former ways, accepting that the “hateful lifestyle” he had been living was wrong. This is certainly a better idea that simply prohibiting the free expression of ideas, which has a history of leading to repression and violence rather than a change in opinion.
Further, violence against the alt-right, or ‘Nazi-punching’, as it has become known, further distances the alt-right and lowers non-extremists to the morality of extremists. This violence, while decidedly not as bad as murder, was what prompted President Trump to make his controversial statement regarding the first Unite the Right Rally in Charlottesville. Hundreds of videos online show counter protesters or groups of masked members of Antifa violently harassing non-violent white supremacists, people donning the infamous MAGA-hat, and sometimes simply conservatives who show no signs of extremism. In February 2017, Antifa members and other far-left groups appeared at the University of California, Berkeley and began to violently attack police officers and damage property using fireworks and rocks, in protest of a speech by Milo Yiannopolous, a former editor at Breitbart News and a famously controversial and provocative conservative commentator in America. Whilst Trump’s statements were extremely inappropriate, it is clear that violence does exist on both sides, and that both sides would make their arguments far more convincing and rational if they refrained from using it.
Of course, the situation is different in the case of private companies. While the US government cannot legally prohibit free speech, social media platforms can, and they are becoming much more proactive in their attempts to do so. In the first week of August, Alex Jones was banned from, seemingly in tandem, Facebook, YouTube, and Spotify. Jack Dorsey, the CEO of Twitter, sent a tweet on the 8th of August, claiming that “he [Alex Jones] hasn’t violated our rules.” Dorsey soon seemingly caved, however, when Jones’ account was suspended for a week on the 14th. This string of bans led to widespread backlash by online commentators, one of whom, significantly, was President Trump himself, who tweeted that “conservative voices” were being silenced on social media, and that that could not be “allowed to happen.” Of course, these social media giants are well within their rights to ban any users for speech which violates their terms and conditions, and Mr. Trump is powerless to stop them. However, the fact that they have become so ubiquitous and relied on for free expression raises concerns about whether their actions set an unpleasant precedent for further repression of ideas on platforms, although private, that we all use.. According to Mike Manswick, writing for TechDirt, a proposed solution is to decentralise social media platforms and create open protocols for users to communicate on and curate themselves. While the implementation of this would be difficult, perhaps decreasing the role of middlemen such as Facebook and Twitter would lead to change for the better.
Trump himself, for some, represents the re-emergence of racism in America. With rumors of a tape wherein Trump says the N-word, as well as his appointments of alt-right figures such as Steve Bannon, and the infamous wall, many fear that his presence in the Oval Office is a turn for the worse for minorities in the US. And yet the alt-right movement has been plunged into chaos as his second year nears its end. The movement has been described as “imploding” as lawsuits and internal discord have begun to tear it apart. Coupled with the ramifications of the 2017 rally, it has become clear that the alt-right is on its last legs.
The ease with which this movement was able to sow discord and violence across the country, however, shows that vigilance is always necessary to maintain essential civil liberties as well as to effectively curb the spread of hatred and extreme prejudice. It is a guarantee that this will not be the last encounter the US will have with such extreme movements. We must heed lessons learned surrounding the spread of ideas and ensure that we do not take physical action before understanding the full consequences of said action.