Horrific attacks this week on multiple mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand left 50 people dead and scores more injured. In the aftermath of the attacks, a manifesto emerged that reads in a manner similar to that written by another mass murderer who, in 2011, killed 77 people in a series of attacks in Norway. The main concern verbalized in both cases was the extinction of the white race and a loss of European culture.
As we piece ourselves together after the New Zealand tragedy, the question on everyone’s mind is how to minimize or, more specifically, eliminate such horrific acts of violence in our communities. This is clear from the responses of politicians on the right and left, including UK Prime Minister Theresa May:
“On behalf of the UK, my deepest condolences to the people of New Zealand after the horrifying terrorist attack in Christchurch. My thoughts are with all of those affected by this sickening act of violence.”
“I’m sickened by the news coming out of New Zealand—the horrific terrorist attack targeting Muslims at prayer that killed at least 49 people. The rising tide of white supremacy and Islamophobia around the globe must be met with our determination to work against hate.”
One effect of such tragic events is to remind us that we are terrifyingly powerless to prevent them. And while most of us desperately want to craft a world where such atrocities are exceedingly rare, we struggle to understand how to get there. Yet, while we can’t control individual actors, we are not helpless in the climate we create. We can do something about the way we communicate with and listen to one another. And a climate in which people are led to view other identity groups as adversaries on a zero-sum battleground for resources is not one that will minimize such atrocities.
Granted, to a certain extent, competition between groups may well be innate. However, it is a perilous move to encourage groups to divide along visible fault lines, appealing to entrenched histories and apparently intrinsic identities.
It would also be foolhardy to pretend that there aren’t large numbers of people who share the concerns outlined in the manifesto, even though they may never be led to violence. Consider the following: the author of the manifesto in the New Zealand case wrote about how he’d traveled internationally, how the people he’d met in other countries were kind and welcoming, and how he’d enjoyed the experience. And yet, and yet…
The most common theme of both the Norway and New Zealand manifestos is a fear of replacement. Such a fear will not be shouted down, but it can be starved. That fear thrives and grows in a society where identity group-based differences are highlighted as both paramount and primary. It can wither when we focus on shared experiences and common goals.
Viewpoint Diversity, Moral Clarity and Hate
In the aftermath of atrocities like these, it may seem like the most reasonable and sympathetic response is to double down on group identity, and to recommit to protect our most vulnerable populations. However, this will not succeed. A more effective strategy is to emphasize superordinate goals, our superordinate identities. Although this was an attack on a particular religious group, it wasn’t just an attack on them. It was an assault on our values, norms and ways of life. The terrorist cannot be allowed to succeed in his purpose by sowing still more resentment, distrust, and contempt against one another.
Responsibility for changing this toxic climate is shared across progressives, conservatives, and everyone in the middle. One of the ways in which some folks are trying to move towards this goal is through advocating for viewpoint diversity. However, such efforts are often viewed as a ‘trojan horse’ for the same white supremacist ideas as those expressed in the manifestos. Advocates are sometimes seen as justifying the sort of ideology espoused by both killers or, at a minimum, enabling them to more effectively spread their hate.
Let’s be clear: there are people out there who are trying to use the language of free expression and viewpoint diversity to advance a political agenda, spread hate, or just enrich themselves on the culture wars. Those of us who champion viewpoint diversity and open inquiry need to speak out forcefully and vociferously against them. We are trying to seek out the *best* ideas — white supremacist ideology is not among them.
Indeed, Heterodox Academy spokespeople have consistently emphasized that viewpoint diversity, free expression, etc. are instrumental goods (rather than absolute goods). That is, they are useful for promoting particular outcomes — improving research and teaching — rather than being advanced purely for their own sake. As a consequence, there are likely appropriate limits to what viewpoints can and should be considered in any given context.
That is, a commitment to understanding and engaging across difference is not incompatible with moral rigor – and it is incumbent upon us to make this clear by denouncing not just horrific actions, but the sort of thinking that underlies them as well.
Yet at the same time that we push back against those who would coopt viewpoint diversity towards noxious ends, we must also resist others who eagerly attempt to lump their political and ideological adversaries into the same ‘bin’ as those who carried out this atrocity, or those who seek to expand the sphere of what counts as ‘hateful’ words or actions to include virtually anything they find unpleasant or disagreeable, or those who describe viewpoint diversity advocates as complicit in hate. These people must be pushed to listen more to others, and to think carefully about the implications of casting a net as wide as it currently is. Indeed, we would do well to remind ourselves that it is often disadvantaged and vulnerable groups who suffer most when protections on free expression or viewpoint diversity are undermined.
Perhaps one of my left-leaning undergraduate students at University of Illinois put it best:
“How do we talk about viewpoint diversity without being accused of being a fascist? My answer is, you walk your talk. If you are actually committed to viewpoint diversity, respectful conversations, and critical thought while still being willing to call out morally abhorrent views, then over time, people will realize that you are what you say you are, and that your convictions are real. It’s all you can do, but it’s also enough, especially if you have intellectual humility.”
My fear is that too few people realize that this is, in fact, our only way out.
Ilana Redstone Akresh is an Associate Professor in the Sociology department at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.
As an organization that prizes pluralism and disagreement — with more than 2,500 members holding diverse views on most issues — Heterodox Academy almost never takes positions as an organization on current events and controversies. Opinions expressed here are those of the author(s). Publication does not imply endorsement by Heterodox Academy or any of its members. We encourage readers to follow us on Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn — and to join in the conversation on those forums — to weigh in on this or other posts.