The August 11, 2017 march by Nazi, neo-confederate and other so-called ‘alt-right’ groups was obviously contentious for many of us.
Of course, these groups have rights to free speech and to assemble – and as long as they do no physical harm and remain peaceful, all we can do is observe, comment and prepare. As a social and behavioral scientist, I am not surprised by the rise in hate-based crime and violence observed in recent documented trends, nor am I shocked by the unification of the range of ‘alt-right’ organizations. These hate-based events were, in fact, predictable (as I noted in a post-election op-ed).
As a humanist and ardent believer in social equality, however, I am disgusted.
The visceral, gut-wrenching kind of disgust at the thought of white supremacist Nazi-style chants of “we will not be replaced” and “blood and soil” (see here for a history lesson on the meaning of “blood and soil”). When one takes a step back to view these events, we can see that the Charlottesville march likely displays four clear facts.
1.The power of social and political influence is alive and well.
Decades of social science research demonstrates the power of social influence – that is, when the large scale, pervading belief implicitly or explicitly supports a view, the masses follow. Post 9/11 attitudes and treatment of American Muslim persons illustrate the point perfectly. Anti-Muslim sentiment rose after 9/11 and, in the wake of the attack, the pervading political stance was anti-Arabic and anti-Muslim by speech and policy. This lead to a well-documented rise in hate-based violence toward Muslim Americans. The rise of the alt-right currently culminating in an organized march and expressed hate speech may be, in part, a function of the social and political influence of the Bannon wing of the current administration.
‘Alt-right’ friendly policy stances persist surrounding immigration, LGBT issues, women’s health, and an array of other diversity or vulnerable population issues. When policy decisions go in a direction, large groups of people are often emboldened. This, as illustrated by Charlottesville events, is a pattern that I expect to continue – the events in Charlottesville are likely just the beginning of social and political organizing and rise in power of the American ‘alt-right.’
2. Hate can now be understood as a public health epidemic in this era.
A basic definition of public health suggests a field devoted to assessing, understanding, and ultimately preventing diseases from a community and societal view. When we hear the phrase public health we probably think of agencies such as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention or World Health Organization; our minds likely flash to medical disease concerns of recent years such as Zika, HIV, and cancer. Yes, these are public health agents and topics. Public health also assesses and combats social diseases, often in the form of social determinants of health (think negative attitudes and stereotypes that make people more likely to be sick or avoid care). We know, for instance, that community-level indicators of stigma and hate can influence youth suicide, among other mental health concerns. And, while I am no Obama apologist, we also know that positive, anti-hate policies and gestures like the 2009 Hate Crimes Prevention Act send supportive symbolic messages of unity and enhance public health.
Leave no doubt: at least part of the intent of the march in Charlottesville is to instill fear and promote white supremacy (views that public health, criminology and other fields would stringently define as hate).
The fear, intimidation and other negatives directed toward targets of the hate suffer in terms of health. The social disease of hate actually harms us all, even those that willfully promote it. Hate brings down community and societal health indicators like employment rates, academic performance, physical health, and many other issues. And we all pay the economic and safety prices whether or not we are aware of it – increased healthcare costs, elevated need in numbers of law enforcement, and frequent interpersonal conflicts (for example, between police and ethnic minority community members) can all in some form be traced to the influence of hate.
Our public health suffers with each mass expression of hate like the instance of the Charlottesville march.
3. We do not learn from history.
Many have lamented a so-called “dumbification of America.” I am among them, having articulated a social science perspective on evasion of facts and science in favor of anger, irrational thinking and mental laziness (things that, not surprisingly, are thought to be the foundations of prejudice and hate). Yet, ironically, all we need to do is hop on Google and type in “Pol Pot”, “Hitler”, or any other authoritarian dictator to see what dangers may lie ahead for us. If we attend to history, we should be able to see and prevent the inevitable outcome of a rise of fascist or authoritarian control. Germans themselves for decades avoided reminders of their Nazi past out of shame, followed by taking steps to ensure such a travesty would never occur again. Still, the collection of neo-Nazis, Klan members, confederates and bevy of other ‘alt-right’ group members recently descending on Charlottesville is a stark reminder that the masses never appear to learn from history. It seems that, in some way, on some level, we are doomed to repeat the social ills of our and others’ pasts. I dare say that, from the standpoints of US history and social science of prejudice and violence, we may be at a critical crossroads. We need to learn from history, or we may fall prey to mass hate and conflict.
4. There may be hope?
Maybe. On the side of hope is the seemingly endless outpouring of anti-hate sentiment. Such hopefulness is mitigated, however, by the political bigger picture. Virginia Governor Terry McAuliffe’s statement concerning these events was both personally heartening and troubling. It was heartening to see a political leader outright supportive of a balance between free speech and an overt, clear expression against hate. Troubling, however, is the fact that he had to make such a statement. And more troubling is that the political bar has recently been set so low in terms of leaders’ outward statements against violence that McAuliffe is more the exception than the rule. In his statement, the Governor had to try to utilize his social and political influence to persuade everyone to stay home for the sake of public safety.
This is where we are. The Governor of the state I reside in needs to make public statements imploring residents, both pro- and anti-‘alt right’, to just stay home. I’m not certain that is reason for optimism.