Beyond good and bad

I’ve been working on a paper over the summer, but most intensively over the last few weeks, tracing the history of white nationalism on the web from 1997 on. It’s a fairly well-covered area, though authors aren’t quite sure what to do with it in most cases. There are some interesting exceptions–an experiment measuring the influence particular approaches to presenting racist messages have, for example–but most are dedicated to describing what is out there. I’ve spent a lot of hours reading these sites, and, frankly, it is some of the most psychically draining work I’ve done.

As a liberal, and an atheist (yes, that too; though if you catch me at the right moment, I’ll tell you I see god just about everywhere), I tend to reject the idea of evil. People are messed up, ignorant, and fall into the trap of unintentionally doing harm to their fellow man, but this is a deficiency of good, not the work of a tricky demon leading them astray. And in fact, I can continue stay with this world view for much of what I read. There has been a revolution in racism recently, and for most of the people that post on these sites, I really think that life experiences have caused them to scapegoat other races, and that under better circumstances and with better education, this could be ameliorated.

Particularly among the “kinder, gentler” racist sites, I found ideas I could agree with. For example, I actually agree that affirmative action is past its prime–at least in college admissions–and should be replaced with a system that encourages economic diversity and cultural diversity, rather than making decisions based on ethnicity. Then there were ideas that I could at least understand someone holding. For example, although I reject naturalizing claims, I think there is an argument to be had that diversity, of whatever sort, is not an universally good thing, and homogeneity is not always a bad thing. One of the reasons cited for Danish happiness and Japanese efficiency is the relative homogeneity of the two countries’ populations. So, while I don’t agree with the conclusion they draw, I can at least understand the logic of that argument.

But it’s only a half step from there to complete stupidity, and try as they might to take on a new mainstream role, they seem unwilling to trim this lunatic fringe. The idea, for example, that blacks are universally lazy or violent is so extraordinarily contrary to what we see in the real world, and so deeply damaging to society, that anything short of turning your back on its adherents is deplorable.

Stereotypes are lazy thinking–no more, no less–even when they cause hurt. But I’m a teacher: I am accustomed to encountering people that believe in tremendously stupid things. Belief in stupid things is hardly uncommon these days. We have a candidate for VP that thinks that we should teach creationism in science classes (rather than social studies), and instead of being laughed out of a major party, she finds broad support for these ideas. So, while immensely depressing–when did America decide Handmaiden’s Tale was nonfiction?–this isn’t what I had a problem with.

The real problem is that there is a significant segment in this population that believes that might makes right, and that torturing others is a good time. They seem to lack anything approaching a common idea of fairness, and exhibit no empathy at all. They are, in short, sociopaths.

I am not surprised by the existence of sociopaths, but it is disheartening to see them placed in positions of power, able to influence others, and able to encourage the destruction of lives. The willingness to engage in activities that deeply hurt others, and that do not lead to self-gain, I find extremely hard to fit into my worldview. If they were killing and maiming in the pursuit of money, or power, or fame, I might understand a bit better. It would still, of course, be horrible, but it would be comprehensible. As it stands, racial violence seems to exist outside what I can describe, as part of something that really is worse than bad.

Reading these sites made my skin crawl, it made me feel sick. This is a bit embarrassing for someone who should be able to adopt analytical distance. And worse, when I walked away from the computer, it stayed with me, like polluted air I had been breathing. In sum, this isn’t an area I think I’ll be doing much work in.

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One Comment

  1. Posted 9/3/2008 at 6:35 am | Permalink

    In defense of evil, I have to say that evil has more than a religious foundation. It is social, moral, ethical, etc. More these than religious, I think. We don’t call them sociopaths for no reason. When it comes to racism and identity, I see a strong role played by nationalism as well as the points you mention. It gets conflated in the United Theocracy of America, of course. What seems to be the issue is that when you extend parochial localized community, with the traditional fear of the outsider, into the modern state with all its depersonalized corporaticity at work, the ‘other’ becomes racialized rather than merely a reticence towards ‘the strangers from away’. I’m no expert, and I’ve not looked as deeply as you, but coming from a very diverse family context, I’ve mused on the topic for years.

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