to: philosophical and analytical writings


The shootings in Charleston, South Carolina

by William McGaughey


There is near universal agreement that Dylann Roof’s murder of nine persons in a Charleston church’s Bible study group was an icon of unjustified violence and that anti-black racial animus inspired the killings. Beyond that are differences of opinion on what the reaction should be.

One opinion, which I share, is that in a nation of 300 million plus individuals it is inevitable that someone somewhere will decide to commit the most appalling acts of violence or exhibit, indeed, any type of extreme behavior. It is unrealistic that anything can be done to prevent this beyond normal policing activities. We should continue to expect to be shocked by future events. There are many crazy people in this world.

Many would find this reaction unsatisfying. Must we be so fatalistic as to do nothing in the face of horrible events? Perhaps not. A second opinion, then, is represented by calls for renewed gun control. That is the position taken by President Obama. Even if we cannot eliminate craziness, we can at least reduce the amount of damage done by crazed individuals. Steps can and should be taken to restrict access to guns so it will be less likely that violence-prone individuals can kill many people at a time. I share this opinion.

A third opinion, which I do not share, is that Mr. Roof’s racial animosity had its roots in literature or other messages produced by anti-black hate groups; and therefore the solution is to crack down on expressions that might inspire anti-black violence.

This is the position taken by the Southern Poverty Law Center and some journalists. According to this view, the right of free speech must be balanced against the potential harm from hateful messages. The mass murders in Charleston show that free speech needs to be restricted to a greater degree.

Apart from the Constitutional issues, I would say that free speech and free thought are a bedrock condition of the type of society in which I wish to live. There is a difference between violence and hateful speech. The speech a person can ignore, but not the violence. Someone’s speech, however it inspires animus, does not compel another person to be violent.

We should punish people for what they do, not for what they think. Moreover, in a pluralistic society, one person’s hate speech is another person’s attempt to claim a more powerful identity.

Hate is not in itself illegal nor should it be. Most damaging to the hater himself, it becomes damaging to others through action. No one in this world is guaranteed a hate-free environment. We must all learn to live with negative influences. Those who pursue an agenda to eradicate hate are doing so mostly for political purposes. They are selective in their targets for suppressing thought and speech.

In my opinion, gun control is a more legitimate policy objective. Let’s be honest. Those who oppose gun control are not acting out of fear that their opportunities for hunting or target practice will be curtailed. No one is proposing that. What really drives the gun-rights people is the idea that the government is a tyrannical institution and the only way they can protect their freedom is to remain capable of a mass uprising against the government, equipped with guns, much like the armed patriots who opposed the British in the late 18th century. Theirs is the romantic idea of a peasantry storming the bastions of government with pitchforks and throwing the rascals out.

Let me say that I share part of this vision. Yes, the government is often abusive and corrupt. Yes, something needs to be done to protect individual liberty against the encroachments of government. And, yes, the democratic game appears to be rigged.

Having said that, however, I also believe that government cannot be checked by individuals bearing arms. There is a huge security apparatus in this country that would crush anyone taking that approach. Can we be so naive that the U.S. government would stand by in the face of armed rebellion and not try to stop it? Government has a huge advantage when it comes to force of arms.

The alternative is to do the patient and uncertain work of political organizing, which means persuading others to accept one’s point of view. Too many people lack patience. They want to take strong and decisive action. Violence is considered a form of strong action. Does that mean, however, that persons who reject violence are weak?

No, it does not. It means that these nonviolent people are smart enough not to engage in a battle that they cannot win. They are sophisticated enough to know that social and political change do not come easily. They also have a certain proficiency with words. Salvation for them will come through words rather than violence. No, they are not weak.

So, my friends on the social and cultural right, I would advise you to organize politically. However difficult this may be, do the best you can. Do not try to force others to accept your opinions. Try persuasion, especially through personal example. By all means, use guns for trap-shooting but do not think of attempting to overthrow the government with them. Democracy provides another means to that end.

Now consider the case of Dylann Roof and others like him. The Southern Poverty Law Center has tried to paint the picture of an impressionable young man who was driven to violence by messages from hate groups. The influence of racial hate groups is growing. We must try to nip these groups in the bud lest their hateful messages cause more violence.

I reject this pest-control model of race relations. The evidence seems to be that Roof and the other young white men in Colorado, Arizona, Norway, and other places in the news came up with the idea of shooting people on their own. They may have been exposed to messages from so-called “hate groups”, but received no marching orders. These were young white men backed into a corner identity-wise who felt personally compelled to act. Why?

I do believe that they sensed an implacably hostile environment with respect to persons like themselves. They sensed hostility toward whites. Yes, there is such a thing as anti-white hatred, even if it is often disguised as "tolerance". And, yes, racial discussions in the media, academia, and elsewhere are often one-sided and unfair. They unfailingly portray the white race as villainous and the black race as victims. There are severe consequences for anyone showing sympathy for white people as a race. Polite conversation will not change this. And so, violence seems an obvious response, perhaps the only one that would make sense to a person like Dylann Roof.

But I would make the same argument with “white racists” that I would make with the romantic gun owner. Yes, the system is rigged against you but do not give up hope that reason and good will will eventually prevail. History takes surprising turns. Use your wits and charm to persuade other people to your point of view. Then violence will be unnecessary.

Violence sometimes occurs if you back people into a corner which, in this case, means eradicating racist attitudes among whites. Government and political groups lack the power to “eradicate” thought. This approach is getting us nowhere. So I say, let thought and free expression flow however they may. If disaffected young whites such as Dylann Roof see a glimmer of hope that other people many agree with them and a more balanced and friendly approach toward race relations may prevail, this will actually tend to prevent violent acts from taking place.


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