The Hardest Work

If we want to defeat white supremacy we need moral empathy for white supremacists.

Moral empathy is not sympathy. You only need to understand (but really understand) what motivates them. You do not need to share their values, though you should be prepared to find some you do.

The answer to what they value is not a glib “whiteness”. Whiteness is the tribe flag, but it isn’t usually the sole animating value. If you don’t find deeper values, you have work to do.

Karl Popper: Unlimited tolerance must lead to the disappearance of tolerance. If we extend unlimited tolerance even to those who are intolerant, if we are not prepared to defend a tolerant society against the onslaught of the intolerant, then the tolerant will be destroyed, and tolerance with them...

It’s interesting that the white supremacist counter-narrative is how tolerance (of immigration and a demographic shift) is destroying “their” society.

A tolerant society can also be destroyed when the value of tolerance is diluted and lost to apathy. This is not so far from the white supremacist argument and fear. Maybe this offers us an opening to moral empathy.

The next sentence in Popper’s essay is equally important:

In this formulation, I do not imply, for instance, that we should always suppress the utterance of intolerant philosophies; as long as we can counter them by rational argument and keep them in check by public opinion, suppression would certainly be unwise.

I accept that many on the left feel we’ve failed to keep it in check, and some believe it now justifies violence. However, insofar as our failure was primarily at the ballot, a violent revolution poses a real legitimacy problem. There’s no shortcut to winning with rational argument again.

Jorge Ramos is one of my heroes. He wants to understand, to really understand, and he takes great risks to do so. The full documentary Hate Rising is worth a watch just to see how his approach varies based on his subject. He engages with the academic racist very differently than he does this Klansman.

Daryl Davis is another hero who collects the robes of Klansmen after they leave the group because of his friendship.

The most important thing I learned is that when you are actively learning about someone else you are passively teaching them about yourself. So if you have an adversary with an opposing point of view, give that person a platform. Allow them to air that point of view, regardless of how extreme it may be. And believe me, I’ve heard things so extreme at these rallies they’ll cut you to the bone.
Give them a platform.
You challenge them. But you don’t challenge them rudely or violently. You do it politely and intelligently. And when you do things that way chances are they will reciprocate and give you a platform. So he and I would sit down and listen to one another over a period of time. And the cement that held his ideas together began to get cracks in it. And then it began to crumble. And then it fell apart.

Rabbi Michael Weisser is another hero with a similar story as Daryl’s.

Twitter deconverted Megan Phelps-Roper from the Westboro Baptist Church.

Even the Black Panthers once convinced a white patriot group to abandon the Confederate flag.

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. understood that redemption was not just a possibility, but the very core of our work.

Nonviolence recognizes that evildoers are also victims and are not evil people. The nonviolent resister seeks to defeat evil not people.

The first step of non-violent social change is moral empathy:

To understand and articulate an issue, problem or injustice facing a person, community, or institution you must do research. You must investigate and gather all vital information from all sides of the argument or issue so as to increase your understanding of the problem. You must become an expert on your opponent’s position.

The last step is redemption/reconciliation:

Nonviolence seeks friendship and understanding with the opponent. Nonviolence does not seek to defeat the opponent. Nonviolence is directed against evil systems, forces, oppressive policies, unjust acts, but not against persons. Through reasoned compromise, both sides resolve the injustice with a plan of action.

As an atheist I really like the idea advanced by Dr. King and others of sin as separation. It is a very useful secular concept in this context. Redemption occurs by the act of shedding a separatist identity. This only happens if our opponents have also come to have moral empathy for us.

I support Life After Hate. They start from a position of moral empathy as reconciled supremacists. Their funding was cut just as need for their services peaked:

The Department of Homeland Security is restarting a stalled $10-million grant program for “Countering Violent Extremism” this morning. Life After Hate, a group dedicated to deradicalizing neo-Nazis and stopping white extremism, was slated to get $400,000 in the final days of the Obama administration ( before the program was halted for review, but the Trump administration dropped them from the new grant list that’s getting announced today.
The group has seen a twenty-fold increase in requests for help since Election Day “from people looking to disengage or bystanders/family members looking for help from someone they know,” the organization’s founder Christian Picciolini told us.

Moral empathy is a relatively new term, and because so much is written generally about the morality of empathy (and vice versa) search engines return many spurious hits. One of the relevant articles I recommend is Vegetarianism, Abortion, and Moral Empathy. Another is Moral Empathy Gaps and the American Culture War (PDF).