The Aftereffects of Charlottesville

The Aftereffects of Charlottesville

On August 12th, 2017, 19 people were wounded in Charlottesville, Virginia when a white supremacist and his 2010 Dodge Challenger drove into a peaceful counter-protest against the Unite the Right rally. Of those harmed, 32-year old Heather Heyer was the only one fatally injured. She was admitted to the University of Virginia Medical Center for treatment and was pronounced dead hours later from injuries sustained at the incident.

President Donald Trump made the following statement later in the day: “We condemn in the strongest possible terms this egregious display of hatred, bigotry, and violence on many sides, on many sides.”

Apparently, clarifying that the violence perpetrated at the rally came from “many sides” was so important that he had to say it twice.

I would hope that clarification is not required as to why Trump’s denunciation was disrespectful at best and in support of white supremacy at worst. “But what does it matter?” you may ask. It happened almost a year and a half ago, and in all honesty, it isn’t really out of line when put next to many of Trump’s other crudely worded public statements. However, the aftereffects of his rhetoric embolden radicals and racists to continue their problematic behavior.

The right’s first argument in regards to free speech is that the marketplace of ideas—a concept that posits that the best ideas will rise from free public discourse—is the reason why we need to accept that people like Nazis and white supremacists should have the right to speak their mind. Its use in modern dialogue, however, has simply evolved to:  “when they speak out, we can argue with them and prove them wrong,” or alternatively “violence cannot remedy hate; ideas can.” This is the same logic that conservatives used to demand that political personality Milo Yiannopoulos be allowed on UC Berkeley’s college campus, and to defend white supremacist Richard Spencer when he was punched in the face by a masked protester, and to justify protests like the Unite the Right rally that led to Heather Heyer’s death. And you know what? I agreed with them. Wholeheartedly. In fact, I still sort of do. However, Trump’s weak attempt to condemn the white supremacists in Charlottesville—or white supremacists in general—is incredibly problematic. The concept that the best ideas are intended to float to the top only really works when there is enough public dissent to keep the worst ones from spreading. We can recognize these ideas’ falsehoods and foolishness, but unless we engage in scalding dissent against them, they will only continue to grow and thrive; inaction is, at this point, action. But as somebody who acts as the head of his party, Trump’s refusal to act is self-defeating and detrimental to the Republicans. This lack of expression of the disgust of any rational and empathetic person pokes holes in the right’s logic that just allowing these people to peacefully exist will magically solve the problem. And it’s showing. We can defend these people’s rights without having to defend their ideas.

It amuses me that the political whiplash I experienced in the last presidential election—leaning further towards the right after a rise in leftist extremism and what I felt was an overreach of politically correct culture—is starting to fling back in the other direction; it’s undoubtedly attributed to, in large part, the right’s increasing denial that racism has real effects on our society and that we need to use our speech to combat it. It’s ironic, then, that their most important talking point regarding speech is one that they’re failing to employ.