Should We Engage with Racists?

My introduction into the world of American cultural politics, transpired when viewing a Youtube video surrounding the controversial conservative figure, Milo Yiannopolus. Fires, fights, cries, and damaged property surrounding the podium where Milo was scheduled to speak at. The infamous 2017 Berkeley riots, was merely my first encounter with a prominent motif, that has been especially prevalent in today’s political environment; namely censorship. Similar events ensued outside the Oxford Union, against Steve Bannon, in Utah against Ben Shapiro, each time evoking a feeling of deja vu. A large portion of today’s political discourse is, unintuitively, not actually a discussion dedicated to policies or political ideas themselves, but rather a discussion about the discussion. This has undoubtedly surfaced due to those on my side of the isle, the left, who have been the main enforcers of so-called “cancel culture” and deplatforming. “It’s not enough to denounce these ideas”, they say defensively, “they should not be given a platform at all”.

Should we talk to bigots?

Those spewing this mantra, expectedly differ in their extremity. Some seek to discourage and protest any platforming of hateful ideas, and others believe we have an obligation to completely alienate ourselves from those expressing such ideas.

Discussions and debates about generally bigoted ideas, can seem futile and exhausting. Leaving one with the inevitable question: “Well, why would you want to discuss the painfully obvious? What good does it do?”. Those who legitimately change their minds after a debate, are few and far between. This is seemingly affirmed by a 2010 paper entitled “When Corrections Fail: The Persistence of Political Misperceptions”(1). Their study entailed respondents reading “a statement from a political figure that reinforces a widespread misperception”. This misconception was subsequently corrected in the news articles they were reading. Not only were some completely unresponsive in their views to the correction, failing to reduce misperceptions, but the study witnessed “several instances of a ‘backfire effect’ in which corrections actually increase(d) misperceptions among the group”, meaning that it caused some subjects to “double down” on their misguided beliefs. The misconceptions and subsequent corrections in the study were those of a non radical or extreme nature. Quite mild, and somewhat minor. As the extremity of the political view increases, it would be unsurprising, to expect that the stubbornness of the subjects would also increase, seemingly affirming the hypothesis of the more extreme deplatformists, and calling into question progressives who continuously debate and discuss hateful ideas.

However, a different mode of exchanging ideas, as well as more persistence and repetition, seems to be the effective and ideal approach to changing minds. Jason Reifler, one conductor of the aforementioned paper, highlights a limit of his study, and offers us a glimmer of hope: “It’s possible there is something to be said for persistence,” Reifler said. “At some point the cost of always being wrong….is likely to outweigh the cost of having to change your mind”. The form in which debunking and correction is achieved is also a vital component to sparking reevaluation. A simple face to face discussion, according to one paper entitled “Durably reducing transphobia: A field experiment on door-to-door canvassing”(2), may be this missing component. The paper features a real world experiment, of door to door canvassing, entailing a 10 minute conversation between a pro-trans canvasser, and a potential transphobe. Prejudices amongst the subjects decreased quite significantly, sustained even after 3 months.

There’s good reason to believe, in my judgement, that this effect, on average, is more likely to be endured by those possessing more conservative views, than those possessing more liberal views. This is due to the more socially progressive route our society has taken in the last few decades, where momentous decreases in the fostering of homophobic, racist, and sexist attitudes, have transpired.

How not to deplatform?

Watching the Milo situation unfold, with the hysterical crowd going out of their way to stop this man from voicing his opinion, one cannot help but side, even mildly, with Milo, wincing at the emotional crowd. Although irrational, it was certainly the feelings I had at the vulnerable age of 16, and remember thinking: “whatever they believe, I believe the opposite’’. Whether justified or not, a similar sentiment is felt by the majority of people, particularly in America. An impassioned crowd determined to silence a popular conservative figure, let alone any political figure, is bound to not fare well against the nearly 50% of the population who adopt relatively similar views. Just over 70% of Americans believe that political correctness has been more conducive of silencing “important discussions our society needs to have”(3). In a culture where the archetype of the politically

correct and emotionally driven liberal attempts to silence the rational and free thinking conservative, has persisted, calls for silencing, especially when taken to the streets, are a bad optics move, solidifying these notions, and are likely to attract more attention to their ideas than would have originally materialized. Steve Bannon possesses the 3rd most viewed “Full Address” at the Oxford Union, currently possessing 3.1 million(4). Why does this video of a merely mildly famous conservative figure (and quite honestly, a boring orator) hold this large viewership? The news headlines from that date give an indication why: “Steve Bannon Oxford Union appearance leads to protests” — “Steve Bannon smuggled into Oxford Union to avoid protesters outside”. Steve’s address at the Oxford Union would never have garnered such a viewer base, if it had not been for the hysterics of a silencing crowd with the aim of preventing his opinions from being verbalised, a key point of interest and entertainment for viewers who point their fingers in contempt.

If deplatforming ought to be done, it seems as though the ideal manner in which to do so is to prevent the invitation of a platform from being supplied, likely to garner far less attention. If the invitation has already been distributed, attention has already been drawn, leaving many attempts of silencing or deplatforming as an unattractive choice.

I’m not an “anti-deplatformist”, nor do I advocate for calling up your local Nazi for a cup of tea. I’m merely trying to show that there are more constructive ways to go about engaging with or suppressing those we perceive to be bigots. There’s more nuance to be given to the best methods of engagement, and the best people to do the engaging, however, what should be stressed is that these methods do exist, and are far less damaging to the progressive movement, than blind censorship.

Bibliography

  1. Nyhan, Brendan & Reifler, Jason. (2010). When Corrections Fail: The Persistence of Political Misperceptions. Political Behavior.
  2. Broockman, D., & Kalla, J. (2016). Durably reducing transphobia: A field experiment on door-to-door canvassing
  3. Emily Ekins (2017), “The State of Free Speech and Tolerance in America”
  4. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8AtOw-xyMo8