A recent article I wrote about Black Lives Matter blew up way more than I ever would have imagined. It was the first article I ever wrote for this website, and certainly the first time my ideas have ever reached this wide of an audience. I will openly admit that there are certain things I could have done a better job on, but considering the large positive response the article received, I think there are clearly some things I did right. I want this article to be an open forum on which aspects of my strategy were effective and worth reproducing, and which aspects are either missing or actively detrimental towards the goal of the article.
For those of you who have not read the article, let me summarize briefly. I have a friend who has problems with the police force, and understands that criticism of the police comes from the bad reputation they’ve built through their actions. However, when it comes to the Black Lives Matter movement, he has some difficulty with the racism aspect. According to him, black people have also built a bad reputation for themselves and ought to take personal responsibility for fixing endemic problems in their communities. If black lives really matter, it makes more sense to invest energy in fixing crime, drug addiction, and gang violence in the black community. For him, police brutality is not a racism problem, it just affects certain groups of people disproportionately because of the choices they have made. Many people stopped reading at this point to leave angry comments about how I was poisoning the discourse around Black Lives Matter.
My response to the personal responsibility argument is that it doesn’t make statistical sense that one group of people would experience an outcome so disproportionately often unless there was some significant factor differentiating that group from the rest of the population. All other things being equal, a sufficiently large group of people should be representative of the average experience of that group rather than the choices made by individuals within that group. Basically, if white people and black people experience different rates of police brutality, a difference in crime rate doesn’t answer the fundamental question of why these two groups face significantly different outcomes. My explanation for this difference is the history of the black community in the United States: redlining, housing discrimination, the physical destruction of wealthy black communities, and sabotage from the federal government. I finish by saying that black lives matter is not a declaration of the supremacy of black lives; rather, it is an acknowledgement of the unique set of conditions black people have had to contend with.
Let’s start off by talking about what my intent was with the article. In short, I wanted to write an introductory text that would help white people on the right understand the Black Lives Matter movement. When I mention “my friend” in the first paragraph, that is not a framing device. I literally wrote this article for a specific person. Obviously, black people and scholars are more qualified to speak on this topic in detail than I am, which is why I do not gear my article towards providing a deep understanding of the topic. I gear it towards making the transition from a right wing ideology resistant to social justice to support or understanding of Black Lives Matter as easy as possible.
What qualifies me for this? I was a right wing libertarian in high school, and I was really into it. I read all of Atlas Shrugged and The Wealth of Nations, I bought a Ron Paul 2012 hoodie, and I even got a certificate from Learn Liberty for passing their course on the Great Depression. My first exposure to black intellectuals was through conservative thinkers like Thomas Sowell and Walter E. Williams. The reason why I ended up moving away from the right wing is that I got more life experience and exposure to other ways of thinking. If I can make the transition given the right information, so can others.
Unfortunately, people who don’t have friends involved in opposing political movements rarely have an opportunity to learn what those movements actually represent. I’ve noticed from discussions I’ve had with people on the right that misinformation about left-wing or even center positions is rampant. There is a large group of people whose mental process goes something like BLM ->Marxism -> Soviet Russia-> Stalin -> Gulags any time they hear about the movement or anyone associated with it. We live in a time where people are divided to the point it’s nearly impossible to have a conversation with someone who comes from another faction. This is something that needs to be repaired if we are to move forward as a country.
Ultimately, I take inspiration from George Takei’s father, Takekuma Norman Takei, who maintained his faith in American Democracy under the harshest conditions. For three years, he and his family were imprisoned by the United States government for the crime of being Japanese. Despite the hardship, humiliation, and helplessness he experienced at the hands of his government, Takei never stopped believing that democracy is the best system that exists to build a better world for everyone. Building a consensus by appealing to all people through a mutual understanding of our values has historically been the most effective way to combat societal ills like sexism and racism. I feel an obligation to do what I can to support others through my own advocacy. Since I’m able to “speak” both right wing and left wing language, I feel my role is to act as a bridge between people and create a space where people who wouldn’t normally engage with certain ideas feel safe to explore those ideas without jeopardizing their group identity.
This is why I chose not to engage with certain topics while simplifying others. This is also why I chose the format I did. The first paragraph introduces the topic and who the intended audience is. Very specifically, I wanted to outline that the people I am trying to reach out to have anti-authoritarian tendencies supplemented with an affinity for personal responsibility. This is what I believe essentially defines the right-wing libertarian philosophy: people should be free to do whatever they want, but only with the stipulation that they take responsibility for the results of their actions. The goal of the article is not to attack this position. I operate under the assumption that it’s just about impossible to change someone’s core values, and I believe strongly that people can change only their own minds. The role of an advocate in my view is to plant seeds and give people the tools to cultivate new beliefs on their own. This means exposing people to new ideas slowly, and fitting these ideas into the frameworks people have already built for themselves rather than trying to force them to accept an alien framework.
The second paragraph of my article explains my understanding of their position. In general, these first two paragraphs consist of a fairly direct transcription of the explanation my friend gave me for why he didn’t support Black Lives Matter. I wanted to explain his position as accurately and magnanimously as possible so that readers would feel like they are well understood and that they are not under attack for their beliefs. This is a technique called steelmanning, and it’s essential to opening up dialogue and getting people to listen to you. People often connect their personal beliefs to their identity, and when they get the impression that their beliefs are under attack it can feel like an existential threat. I want to make accepting beliefs as easy as possible for my audience. This is my justification for why I did not address some of the pernicious presuppositions that I bring up in this section.
In my opinion, the most effective way to convince someone of your position is to demonstrate that it’s possible for them to agree with you without having to change any of the views they already hold. People can be extremely resilient in their beliefs and often have pre-conceived thought patterns and notions that prevent them from changing. Global warming for example has a lot of sticking points for people resistant to the concept. If the world is getting hotter, why was this winter so cold? The planet goes through natural climate change all the time, why is this so bad? How do we know this is caused by humans? What about cows? What about the little ice age? Isn’t it convenient that the solution for this involves more government intervention and bureaucracy? Why isn’t this predicted by my religious text? And so on. Getting people to understand and accept climate change means addressing all of these issues. Often times what you consider to be a clear, logical, and factually accurate explanation has no effect on the underlying belief, and with a complex enough issue it’s trivial for a true believer to continue finding new reasons to disagree ad astra.
I let certain assumptions like the racial disparity in conviction rate go unchallenged because I anticipate that these assumptions are particularly “sticky” and not absolutely necessary for proving the legitimacy of the Black Lives Matter movement. Understanding this issue alone requires an appreciation for how statistics are gathered and reported, how ostensibly neutral policies can affect specific groups of people disproportionately, racial bias in the justice system, over-policing of certain communities, racial profiling, recidivism, the external effect imprisonment has on the community, the comparative history of black people and other marginalized groups in the United States, and so on. Some people have argued that this confuses the argument and gives more ammunition to white supremacists. I disagree. People who engage with the material in bad faith are always going to find ways to twist arguments in ways that suit their own goals. I don’t want to engage with these people, and I certainly don’t want to debate or argue with them. I want to reach ordinary people and demonstrate to them that the Black Lives Matter movement is not a hateful movement dedicated to the destruction of American values, but rather a legitimate reaction to threats faced by the black community that comes with a desire to make our nation more stable and free for everyone.
Ultimately, I wanted to engender feelings of empathy. I believe that before you can appeal to someone on an intellectual level, you need to connect to them on an emotional level and lower their guard so they can begin to listen. This is why I chose a primarily narrative structure. I wanted to establish a heroic narrative for black people in the United States; one that would appeal to the core values of right-libertarians. I describe how black people did everything right according to their ideology. Maya Angelou worked hard and showed incredible self-discipline under harsh conditions; O.W. Gurley bought land and established a self-sufficient community full of thriving businesses; the Black Panthers fed and educated their own communities without relying on government handouts. Despite this, an oppressive government has consistently schemed to destroy everything they have worked for. The American people need to work together to dismantle this system if we ever want to establish true equality and freedom for all people.
This is roughly the same line of thought currently being pushed by Libertarian Party presidential candidate Jo Jorgensen. Do I agree with Jo Jorgensen’s policies towards de-regulation and spending cuts to government programs? No; in fact I believe that capitalism is intrinsically tied to many of the problems faced by all kinds of marginalized groups across the country. However, I have to imagine what it would be like if I were still a right-wing libertarian like in high school. Would it be better if I were listening to Ben Shapiro and Candace Owens, who are now arguing that the “erratic behavior” of a fearful George Floyd somehow justifies his murder? I certainly would not be listening to the liberal -> leftist -> socialist -> communist -> Antifa Biden supporters telling me I was racist for trusting FBI statistics. We need to meet people where they are at, not where we want them to be.
You may be wondering why we need to interact with these people at all. It’s because we need to win. Our country is entering a recession, experiencing a rapid escalation in sectarian violence, many are losing faith in the Democratic process, and people are so polarized that they can’t even agree on basic facts. Some people find the current situation untenable and look forward to a collapse of the systems that currently exist so they can replace them with new, ideal systems. I want to remind these people of the Syrian Civil War, which started out with pro-Democracy protests in response to growing economic inequality and environmental problems like drought. These protests were suppressed violently and as the Assad regime spread propaganda meant to turn various factions against each other, they spiraled out of control into one of the worst human catastrophes in recent memory.
Another historical event to keep in mind is the rise of Adolf Hitler. While the Communist Party of Germany was busy fighting social democrats, whom they labeled as “social fascists”, the Nazis aligned themselves with more moderate conservatives and business interests to maneuver themselves into positions of political power. The Nazi party was relatively fringe until the Great Depression, when massive unemployment coincided with widespread cuts to benefits like unemployment insurance. This led to an increase in extremism and polarization. Wealthy businessmen, rural communities, nationalists, and the middle class put their support behind the Nazis in hopes of a return to economic stability and protection from the rising communist movement. After successfully negotiating their way into positions managing the internal security of various German states, Nazi leaders like Göring, Himmler, and Heydrich reorganized the police force of Germany to serve the needs of the Nazi Party.
I am not advocating that anyone abandon their values. Escalating violence and polarization is not an acceptable solution to political unrest, but neither is capitulation. We do, however, need to be pragmatic. That means forming coalitions with people who hold similar goals, curating a public image that appeals to the majority of Americans, and forcing white supremacist views and talking points to the fringes of American political belief. I think the third point is fairly obvious to anyone identifying as center or left in the political spectrum. Neo-Nazis have been working very hard at mainstreaming their beliefs since at least the 60s, and in 2017 we saw them come out in full force at the Unite the Right rally like never before. I don’t think I need to explain that Nazism is deadly for literally all ideologies, ranging from conservatism to republicanism to socialism. The only way it can achieve any sort of success is by parasitically latching onto other movements like anti-communism.
This is where the second point comes to play. The left has done a terrible job of promoting its own narrative. Although many leftists such as myself consider Biden center-right at best, the right has managed to conflate his viewpoint with those of socialists, anarchists, anti-fascists, marxists, and somehow Stalin. This is why many on the right cannot listen to arguments about Black Lives Matter without thinking of rampant destruction, violence, political suppression, and the downfall of democratic institutions. Ironically, if we want democracy in this country to survive we need to combat this narrative with our own. That means constructing narratives that appeal to the right and center and getting them to spread throughout conservative spaces. I have seen over and over in conservative spaces people talking about how “communists” don’t have human rights and many escalate the rhetoric to necessitating violence. Violence towards protestors is seen in a sympathetic light by people who see BLM as a sneaky way to destroy the foundation of American democracy. Even if people on the right disagree with the methods and goals of the Black Lives Matter movement, just getting them to see us as fellow Americans and human beings will go a long way towards ending political violence and steering the discourse away from white supremacist rhetoric.
I imagine the first point is going to be the most contentious for people. After all, Nazis are notorious for infiltrating movements, and after years of stonewalling and stark obstinacy from the Republican party, compromise feels like a cruel trick that’s used to pull the country further and further to the right. I agree that compromising personal values and beliefs to appear more “acceptable” is manipulative at best and actively detrimental to your own platform at its worst. Building a coalition does not mean you have to compromise on your values. What I advocate for instead is working with people who agree with you on specific issues in order to build a united front that’s maximally effective at accomplishing your goals. The right is very good at this, which is why you see religious conservatives like Mike Pence supporting Donald Trump despite being unable to defend his salacious lifestyle. Trump’s ability to align himself with religious conservatives and right wing libertarians has allowed him to infiltrate their discourse with ideas they would have never accepted otherwise. There is indeed peril to accepting dangerous ideologies into your coalition, and an essential part of building a successful movement is deciding which factions are acceptable to work with and which need to be actively repudiated.
Combining all three of these elements means building a community where violent extremist views are excluded and a mutual understanding can be built between individuals who genuinely want a brighter future for our country. I know that there are people across the aisle we can work with, and people who will change their minds on certain issues important to us if they are exposed to our beliefs in the right way. Politics is social at least as much as it is ideological, and right now social groups are dramatically separated by political lines to the point it often feels like there are two Americas that exist in two completely different realities. If we can get more people to see the left in a sympathetic light, we can build broader coalitions to achieve our goals. When people work with us, we’ll be able to build relationships and explain what our views really are. When people understand our views, they’ll be less afraid and won’t feel the need to align themselves with right-wing extremists. Over time, those who build close relationships with leftists will start using similar speech patterns to us and experience the world through our lens. Once they come to realize how inclusive and optimistic our world view really is, they may even look back at former allies with a sense of revulsion. Many people interpreted my original article in a cynical light, and I want it to be very clear that I wrote it in from a place of great optimism. I look forward to reading the comments on this article. I’m hoping it will give me a chance to grow and make better articles in the future.