On Aug. 12, a peaceful protester named Heather Heyer lost her life and many others were injured by the senseless rage of a 20-year-old white male at a white supremacist march in Charlottesville, Virginia. Following the abhorrent scene, on Aug. 13, GoDaddy, the web hosting company of an American neo-nazi website called “The Daily Stormer” announced that it had 24 hours to move the domain to another provider due to having violated its terms of service. Shortly after the website attempted to relocate to Google Domains, Google announced that it would not accommodate the website either.
Increasingly since Donald Trump’s election, companies that once sought neutrality have begun displaying their disapproval of systematic discrimination, violence, and hatred. During Trump’s campaign, HuffPost added an editor’s note to all coverage of him calling him a racist, misogynist liar, among other things. Last month, CEOs stepped down from Trump’s manufacturing council for his failure to condemn the violence of neo-Nazis in Charlottesville. Spotify is in the process of removing racist “hate bands.”
I too, in each of their shoes, would probably have made the same decision. Unfounded hate speech is particularly dangerous on the internet, where it goes unchecked and can more easily incite violence. But shutting down a platform for hatred doesn’t make that hatred disappear. The sad fact remains that with or without the internet, there are people who believe these awful sentiments and will continue for the foreseeable future to spread them through any means possible. Google and GoDaddy’s decisions are commendable, but it’s a mistake to think that revoking website domains will solve the problem entirely. Most importantly, when we encounter people with opposing—and even hurtful—views to our own in our everyday lives, we cannot shut these people out and pretend as if they should not exist. We need to attempt—however trying it may be—to engage with them and find common ground somewhere, even if only on the most minute level.
Furthermore, if a company as powerful as Google shuts its door on alt-right groups, it will only feed their fear that as whites they are becoming irrelevant. It validates their belief that they are being ostracized, neglected, and cornered into a hole in which they cannot exercise their right to “free speech.”
As an aptly titled Vox article tells us, “Research says there are ways to reduce racial bias. Calling people racist isn’t one of them.” Although we must denounce these acts and call them what they are, what is additionally needed is some level of empathy and communication between individuals.
By empathy, I don’t mean sympathy—only enough empathy to understand that even racist people are still people, whose attitudes stem from the ways in which they learn to view the world. However misguided their perceptions are, they will not change without positive interaction with those with whom they disagree. Companies with the power to do so must continue to denounce racism, but severing ties with bigoted groups and individuals is not enough to uproot the ingrained, societal attitudes that give rise to their rhetoric.
The Vox article cites a joint Stanford and UC Berkeley study on attitudes towards transgender rights legislation, in which a male participant who openly opposes the proposed bathroom law converses with a gay woman. He tells her he doesn’t like “fags.” She, unflinching, responds that she’s gay. After coming to a consensus on how they both care deeply for their respective partners, he comes to the conclusion that perhaps her love is not so different from his own.
Of course, this engagement is extremely difficult to achieve. When tensions reach the point of those in Charlottesville, one cannot simply go up to an opposing protester and ask to have civil conversation. Furthermore, the unfair reality is that this burden often falls on those who are the victims of hate speech themselves. However, starting by engaging with friends or family when they say something derogatory is a first step, even though the temptation in my own experience has often been to shut down and change the subject. It’s a practice that must shape our interactions at McGill, too. Like any university campus, McGill is not composed of perfectly equal and agreeable members. But to be effective, conversation cannot start from hostility or confrontation. It must begin with empathy and a genuine attempt to listen.
In December 2016, a white man phoned in to a televised C-Span segment with Heather McGhee, acknowledging his fear of black people and asking how he could change his prejudice. In October 2016, The Washington Post published a story about Derek Black, son of Don Black, the founder of the white nationalist website Stormfront. After enrolling at a liberal college and actively hiding his life as white nationalist poster boy from his friends, he is ousted one day anonymously online, receiving death threats and hate mail from fellow students. Finally, it took his weekly attendance of Shabbat dinners—upon invitation from a college acquaintance who understood that ostracizing Derek was not going to solve anything—to make Derek slowly realize that he no longer saw himself in the movement he had been surrounded by from birth.
These stories give hope that it’s possible for people to change their perceptions of what sharing common ground looks like. But, the critical element is a willingness to engage by both the discriminatory and the discriminated against.