From Mizzou to Paris, fear won last week
Three things became crystal clear over the last week. First, you can usually tell which political side is losing an argument by how much extraneous justification shows up in Op-Eds online. The side that has to spend more time explaining why what they’re defending is good before they can attack their opposition is likely losing the public’s confidence.
This was exemplified by the events at University of Missouri, and the subsequent protests that erupted at a number of colleges.
At the University of Missouri, a large protest from a student activist group calling themselves “Concerned Student 1950” – a reference to when the school became desegregated – gained national headlines once they had convinced Tim Wolfe, the University’s President, to satisfy their demands by resigning. They had used a combination of activism tactics including a hunger strike, an occupation of the campus quad, and a sympathy strike from the football team to achieve this goal.
It turns out Wolfe had only committed one crime: not being god. He was not able to have the ability to will other people – most who weren’t students under his charge or on his campus, at least one of whom was drunk – to not be angry and say mean words and racial slurs at minority students. Nor did he resign in exactly the way they wanted, as Wolfe’s plea to, "...use this resignation to heal, not to hate, as we move forward”, fell on deaf ears because he hadn’t met their demand to, “acknowledge his white male privilege, [and] recognize that systems of oppression exist.”
Despite “winning,” the students refused to stop occupying the university’s public quad. This led to a confrontation between Concerned Student 1950 activists and the media, involving Mizzou students and faculty using aggressive tactics (that include assault) to shove two student journalists out of the section of the quad they had annexed as a “media safe space." After video of the incident went viral, the commentariat flung their Op-Eds – as well as another viral video of a Yale student screaming at a professor – from both the left and right side of the spectrum.
It’s the right that had the easy victory here. Every piece by folks on the left that has supported the student activists has tried to justify the fascistic tendency of these students to shut down opinions they don’t agree with. They also had to equivocate about why the 1st amendment isn’t important; a rather tough job for journalists whose entire job depends on this amendment.
The right simply has had to point out facts the left won’t. A claim that Wolfe had hit Jonathan Butler, the hunger striking activist, with his car evaporated when looking at the tape: Butler is clearly jumping in front of a barely moving vehicle. Another claim by Mizzou AS president Payton Head that the KKK had been sighted on campus was later retracted as, in Head’s own words, “misinformation.” Many also pointed out that it is more than a little ludicrous for the same student body that elected Head, who is both black and gay, to now be deemed a bastion of intolerance and bigotry.
Still, these students fought on in the media spotlight while protests across the country began erupting over similar issues.
But then the world stopped paying attention to the screeching of proto-fascist students who want to force their George Wallace-like “Segregation Now, Safe-Space Forever” politics upon often obsequious faculty. Not because anyone realized that perhaps letting primarily upper class students speak as if they’re oppressed because they can’t handle reality is a bad idea, but because Paris became the latest victim to the recurring tragedy of Islamic extremist terrorism.
There were the usual op-eds from the media of course, and much could be predicted well in advance. The right calls for strict border controls and swift and bloody revenge; the left for open borders and staying our hand.
But there’s an additional and unexpected factor at play on social media that’s nudging a large degree of sentiment. While few noticed it at first, another viral video began making the rounds at about the same time things were heating up at Mizzou. It’s called “With Open Gates: The forced collective suicide of European nations.” It’s a slickly edited together anti-Syrian Refugee/Muslim Immigrant propaganda piece made by the “/pol/”, a sub-forum of the website 8chan – otherwise known as one of the homes of internet right-wing nationalism.
The 20 minute video cuts together a number of clips of Syrian and North African migrants entering Europe in massive numbers with those of crimes caused by the situation. The obvious intent is to prey on fears that Europe is being invaded by an Islamic horde that they must resist. Despite the video being very blatant propaganda pushed by people who think Hitler was fine, thanks, the very real attack on Paris happening so shortly afterwards – along with reports from Greece that at least one of the attackers was hiding among migrants – allowed this cinematic call-to-arms for a European vs. Muslim race-war to quickly sky-rocket to over six-million views online over a number of sites.
That’s probably not good unless you’re itching for endless war for the next generation or two.
Which leads us to the second observation of last week: nuance doesn’t just die on the internet, people murder it for advantage.
Activists on the far left are pushing, ultimately, to give up one of our most important rights for the sake of feelings and a version of equality that strikes most older observers as very Maoist. The commentary you’ll find online will label you as the worst racist that ever lived if you don’t agree that everyone’s a victim of something.
Activists on the far right are pushing to return to authoritarianism in order to save humanity from "barbarism and chaos," trending toward fascist methods. The commentary on the right side of the social media landscape will label you a cowardly traitor if you want to find a solution that isn’t a prelude to world war three.
Both are using racial tensions as a cudgel. Both are seeking to strike the flames of hatred. Both are stemming from and feeding fear, often from each other.
That’s the verdict on last week: fear won. But not because of terrorists.
It was already there and waiting before Friday’s horrible tragedy. We were pushing it online for all the world to see, no matter what side we were on. All you had to do was look at social media and follow a hashtag to an op-ed or a video.
It’s this final observation that’s the most disturbing of all - that when we use our fears to drive us toward our goal, it makes these same fears easy to access by those who know how to do so. Not just by terrorists, but by whoever our opponents are this week, or the next week, or the one after that.
But all is not lost. These deep fears we have of each other can be combated.
Find someone you disagree with – ideally adamantly so – and have a conversation with them. In person. Whether you’re from the right or the left or the center or from outside the box, one of the biggest reasons we’re losing our ability to empathize is that we’re no longer talking to each other face to face when we discuss politics. We avoid this as often as possible.
Here’s the most important part of it all – listen to them. Actually try to do this. They won’t change your mind and you can’t change theirs: that’s not the point.
The point is to remember something far more important. The people you’re blaming for all the problems in the world, whether they’re the loony liberal or the cruel conservative: they’re still people. Looking at the flood of fear that’s come out of the online sphere in the last week – that’s the most important thing we’re all forgetting.