How should we oppose extremism?

4th February 2019

The term “Extremism” has always been somewhat vacuous. Its use is so widespread, and its deployment by some so dubious, that it often seems it has no serious substance at all. But while there are far too many instances in which ignorant or politically motivated individuals degrade the term’s integrity, there also have always been and always will be ideologies that remind us of why there is a need for such a category.

The main difficulty is in deciding how to distinguish between views we vehemently disagree with and views that are truly extremist. And of course, finding the best avenue to express our disagreement with those views.

This is the question at play in the case of the recently unearthed FBI investigation into California-based activist group BAMN, or By Any Means Necessary. The Guardian obtained official documents that outline an FBI “domestic terrorism” investigation into the group which was opened after they helped to organize a counterprotest against a 2016 neo-Nazi rally in Sacramento. At the rally, the neo-nazi demonstrators armed with knives were confronted by a mass of counter-protestors armed with sticks. A conflict quickly ensued between the two groups, leaving seven people hospitalized.

The reactions of many to the news that the FBI opened an investigation into the anti racists – not the hateful neo-nazis and white supremacist groups involved in the scuffle – were predictably bemused. But these reactions reflect a surface-level analysis of the real problem in this instance and its implications.

The intentions of the counter-protestors were abundantly clear from the start. BAMN spent weeks planning what they called a “shut down Nazi rally,” through social media and posting flyers around the city that had messages like “no free speech for Nazis.” When the mass of protestors had gathered in opposition to the neo-Nazis, they chanted “When Nazis come to town what do we do? Shut them down!” When taking these facts on board, it is fair to say that it was the counter-protestors – not the neo-nazis – who were the ones that initiated the confrontation.

This type of behavior aimed at shutting down speech through force has been increasingly common. Incidents in Portland, Berkeley, Washington DC, and others have shown that there are no shortage of people willing to get physical in order to disrupt peaceful demonstrations by those they disagree with. There are more than a few examples of these tactics being used against rallies based on mainstream conservative ideas that no fair-minded person could designate as “extremist”: but that is neither here nor there. Regardless of the topic of a peaceful demonstration, we as a country cannot condone those who would use force to stop it under any circumstances.

Indeed, there are views so abhorrent that many of us would be motivated to take drastic measures in order to ensure that they do not become influential. There are even ideologies, such as Nazism and white supremacy, that have been the central causes of two of the bloodiest wars in all of human history. But the alternatives to allowing those we despise to speak freely, no matter how reprehensible their views may be, will inevitably create worse problems in the long term. Anything short of explicit advocation of violence should be permitted in a truly free society.

The nineteenth century political philosopher John Stuart Mill made the best arguments for a radical adherence to freedom of speech in his paper “On Liberty,” and they remain among the most important ideas underpinning the liberties we enjoy in America.

The first defense he gives is that hearing views we disagree with helps us to master the reasons we have for believing differently, and therefore gives us a greater ability to rebut those beliefs in a coherent way. Our goal should be to convince as many people as possible that, in the case at hand, Nazism and white supremacy are not just immoral, but wrong. The only way we can successfully accomplish this is by developing the skills to confidently argue against those ideologies.

It is also unwise to censor speech we disagree with because it gives a reasonable precedent for those espousing those beliefs to do the same to us if they ever come to power. Neo-Nazis and white supremacists could deploy the same types of arguments in favor of censoring today’s mainstream views of tolerance and coexistence that many of us now advocate.

Furthermore, censoring opinions that we find disgusting only serves to strengthen their supporters’ belief in them, as well as those who may be on the edge of committing to them. If we allow these views to be spoken freely, and actively argue against them ourselves, people can decide on their own whether or not to believe in them. But if we make it illegal to articulate certain opinions, or threaten those who do with vigilante violence, it will reinforce the narrative that a sort of “forbidden truth” is being silenced, and that the only way to hold on to it is to join whatever extremist organization is defending it.

Although it is unwise to silence them, we can still vehemently oppose ideologies that we think run counter to our way of life in other ways. We can organize peaceful counter protests, write argumentative essays, or even go find a person to speak with who thinks differently and try to seek common ground. There are numerous ways in which we can actively push-back against what we see as hateful or extremist ideologies while also preserving the right of all those who subscribe to them to safely speak their minds. If we adhere to strategies of peaceful opposition to extremist views, we can expect that the most logical opinions will win out in the free marketplace of ideas. And if we are truly confident that the foundational American ideals of tolerance and pluralism are the most logical, we have nothing to fear from those who would try to argue otherwise.