dexeron: (Mr. Salt)
[personal profile] dexeron
cross-posted to [ profile] talk_politics. Left as public because it was posted elsewhere.

The so-called "alt-right" is an American political movement described as containing elements of nativism, white-nationalism (sometimes including separatism or supremacy,) a belief that Christianity is a core and essential element of "Western Civilization," as well as sometimes antisemitism and neo-reactionary opposition to Democratic forms of government. While this kind of movement is certainly not unique to the U.S., its popularity is, and that demands some examination.

As stated above, while the adherents of "alt-right" philosophy would deny that it has any one specific definition, it's become clear that it is, if not fundamentally aligned with, at least friendly with white nationalism and christian dominionism, and is at least somewhat hostile to democracy. This presents a problem: the vast majority of American citizens reject these things (or at least their most overt manifestations.) Most Americans were raised to believe in the ideals of the Enlightenment, the ideals held by the Founding Fathers: ideals of democracy, equality of race and gender, and freedom of religion. Admittedly, the U.S. has not always adhered to these ideals perfectly (sometimes not at all,) but they have always been held up a goal, an ideal to strive towards, and our understanding of them has only broadened over the centuries. In the early twentieth century, it likely would not have been hard to find folks who'd agree, at least in part, with the philosophy espoused later by the Nazis. Today, it would be much harder to find people willing to agree with that.

Enter the alt-right. The alt-right is facing a problem: most folks reject what they are offering, when it's presented openly and honestly. Most Americans do not want nativism, white nationalism (or white separatism,) neoreactionism, or dominionism.

The alt-right has a solution to this problem.

This has been going around over the last day or so: the 16 "points" of alt-right philosophy. It was posted over on Vox Day's site. The link I am providing is an archive link, so as to deny him any page hits.

A link to some really toxic stuff.

If you read the points, and then read through the comments where they try to work through meanings and justifications, you can see that there is a specific goal in mind: getting out in front of any narratives about their group spread by the opposition. In other words: defining what alt-right means in a friendlier way before others have a chance to point out what it really means.

Reading through all of it, a specific phrase springs to mind.

Cognitive Dissonance.

See, a major challenge that these people face is in reconciling their own petty bigotries and biases with the Enlightenment values of the larger community around them, values that are impossible to ignore or to have influenced by (at least in part.) All Americans were raised being taught in school about these values, and we were taught to honor and venerate them. Our beliefs are ultimately the product of a variety of influences, but even those who reject Enlightenment values entirely have still been influenced, even if only in part, by them.

The alt-right is no different.

For instance, they "know" that racism is wrong, but they still have very strong opinions on race, opinions that any sensible person would recognize as, well, racist. This creates a cognitive dissonance, because when our beliefs are in conflict with our values, we recognize, deep down, that there is something wrong with what we are thinking. At that point we have a choice: change our beliefs, or perform mental gymnastics so as to avoid the problem entirely.

The latter option is actually the easiest one, for most people.

No one wants to admit to being the bad guy. We are all the hero of our own story. The worst genocidal monsters of history still saw themselves and their actions as virtuous, even at the moments of their deaths; it was everyone else who was misguided or corrupt. It is one of the hardest things for a human to actually be able to look at their own opinions and beliefs, especially those core to their identity, and say: "this is wrong" and change their mind. It's hard because we have a hard time separating opinion from identity. "Only bad people are racist" we think. "I am a good person, therefore, I can't be racist." We cannot admit that any of our thoughts or actions may be, potentially, racist, because that would make us a bad person, and none of us wants to think of ourselves as a bad person.

Of course, the world is not so simple, not so black and white. People aren't racist; beliefs and actions are. We can hold all kinds of views, shaped by our environment and upbringing, some of them incredibly toxic and harmful, and still be an otherwise "good" person. This reality is part of what makes fighting racism so difficult. It's easy to point out the nastier forms of it, like outright violence and marching with the Klan. Most people can agree that these things are wrong. But it's harder to address things like attitudes and "softer" forms of bigotry, like being anti-miscegenation, or buying into narratives about "welfare queens." Recognizing that these beliefs are racist would mean, for most people, having to admit to being a "bad person," and that is very difficult for us to do.

In reality, recognizing one's own harmful beliefs isn't about admitting to being bad, but recognizing an opportunity to be better - but most people haven't been brought up to see it that way. It's hard, and basic psychology backs this up.

I would argue that the best person is the one who can look at his or her own attitudes and beliefs, examine them, and discard the ones that are harmful without letting worries about whether or not they are a "good" or "bad" person get in the way. Such a person would understand that being a good person is not about doubling down on pre-existing ideas and denying any wrongdoing, but in actively choosing to do good every day - a decision that involves regular self-examination.

This tangent brings us back around to the alt-right folks. They've got a lot of pretty nasty beliefs, but they think (as we all do) that they are the good guys. How do they square that circle?

Look at the strange contradictions at play:

- They believe in science above all - but Christianity is the foundation of of Western Civilization and must be adhered to.
- They reject racism - but advocate a form of segregation based on different "strengths" and believe that whites are in danger of genocide.
- They believe that natives should have the rights to their lands over any invader - except for American natives because that was "too long ago."
- They believe that all religions are equal and people should have the right to believe or not believe - except for Islam because it's scary.

Notice how in all of these cases they give lip service to enlightenment ideals - and then find a convenient justification to actually reject those ideals in the one specific way that conforms to the white nationalist belief-set that they already hold. They get to reject enlightenment philosophy entirely, while still claiming adherence to it.

Basically, they understand that most folks believe, at least ostensibly, in the ideals of enlightenment philosophy: science, freedom, fairness, tolerance - and deep down the alt-right folks have been influenced by these concepts to at least some degree. Most people who have grown up in the U.S. have been influenced by these ideals to at least some extent. Yet the alt-right folks don't want to give up their pre-existing bigotries and white nationalist beliefs that stand in stark conflict with those enlightenment ideals. Their underlying value set says "these white nationalist beliefs are wrong, perhaps even evil." Instead of changing their minds on their beliefs, however, they merely find a way to change the definitions of their underlying ideals to force them to fit. So: they believe in all of these ideals, but come up with tortured justifications for why there should be exceptions in all of the cases that conveniently line up with white nationalism.

They loudly argue that they are not racist - meaning that they either understand that racism is wrong (or maybe merely that it is unpopular) but their way of addressing their racist beliefs is to merely redefine what racism actually is. They merely shove the accusation onto everyone who is not alt-right, and claim the moral high ground.

Basically, their answer to the problem of being called "Nazis" is not to self-reflect and say "why are we being called that? What are we doing that evokes that comparison?" Their answer is to just say "Well, if we're going to be called Nazis regardless, let's not worry about what we're doing!" and then to turn around and redefine the term so that it only describes everyone they disagree with.

That is not intellectual honesty. Worse, it's monstrous and dangerous. Yet it's really nothing new. The Nazis, the Baathists, ISIS, these groups did not just wake up one day, twirl their mustaches, and say "let's go be evil!" They all believe that they are morally right, that they are the good guys, the heroes of their stories. In some cases, their actions directly conflict with what they know is right and wrong - and if you listen to their justifications, you can always hear the same kind of mental gymnastics at play, contortionism to avoid having to face cognitive dissonance head on. It's the unfortunate manifestation of basic human nature, and it how evil is allowed to grow.

So what's the solution?

Sunlight. We push the truth until it is so obvious that it makes the cognitive dissonance to powerful to ignore. This won't sway all of the true believers, but folks on the fence, folks who haven't really thought about the issues, folks from which the alt-right hopes to recruit, will see them for what they really are, and reject them. Constant vigilance, and a powerful spotlight, are the worst enemies of folks on the alt-right; that's why they have to re-frame their toxic beliefs as these sixteen "points." It's all a smokescreen (albeit an unconscious one) to allow harmful ideals to sneak past people's radars and latch on to their biases without triggering dissonance.

These folks really are still the minority. They're a loud minority, and an influential one, but while they try to appeal to biases and bigotries that are still, sadly, pretty widespread and ingrained in our culture, they take it to such an extreme that most folks do still reject them, even when they try to couch it all in high-sounding "points" such as these. Most folks are smart enough to see through all of this.

But as I said, the point of all this is to wrap all of that up in a pretty bow for easier consumption by the unwary. If the rest of us are complacent to this sort of thing, it is allowed to grow. Remember: fungus grows in the dark. Light is the best disinfectant. We should continue to be vigilant and shine the light on exactly what these people believe, say, and do, so that the reasonable majority continues to understand exactly what kind of threat these people pose, and continues to reject their outdated, monstrous ideas.


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Daniel Lustig

April 2017

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