It’s easy to say members of the fringe aren’t part of the group. We’d prefer that they not be, at least we it comes to public perception. The fringe is an uncomfortable reminder of the flaws in our beliefs: as the Westboro Baptist Church is to Christians, as PETA is to environmentalism, as racist Trump supporters are to Republicans, as GamerGate trolls are to gamers, and so many others. We want to say these people are not really Christians, or environmentalists, or whatever group they claim to be part of.
But that’s rarely true—more frequently, these are the members we uncomfortably ignore, espousing views we have left carefully unstated inside our communities. They are bad actors we tolerate in our midst because, somewhere, we decided that solidarity trumps civility. When they finally become the loud voices, we suddenly want to distance ourselves from them, but it’s too late. Our complicity is already established.
The push and pull of tribalism is hard to rise above, but the time to reject a bad actor is before their behavior spills out of the group, not after. It’s only after their loud voices begin to reflect on us that the urge to reject them kicks in, but we cannot believably do this after the fact. To argue that anti-LGBTQ evangelicals are not really Christians is ridiculous unless we have been saying so all along. To say that Trump’s passel of prejudice voters are not true conservatives holds no water, because conservatives has studiously avoided alienating those people for decades.
An argument of essence holds sway only when we define that essence clearly beforehand.
Which means we must police these people out of our communities when their behavior can still be contained. For progressives, as I suggested a few days ago, I think this means rejecting anti-science rhetoric, not pandering to it. For conservatives, that means rejecting racism and xenophobia, not milking it for votes.
And for all of us as Americans, that means actively defending our ideals, not ignoring their uncomfortable realities and pretending prejudice can coexist. We undermine those ideals every time we leave unchallenged the notion that immigrants are destroying a country built by immigrants, every time we argue that one religion’s values should be upheld but another’s should be feared, and every time we suggest that discrimination against some people is wrong but ignore it against others.
We’ve ignored our bad actors for a very long time in this country. We’ve built a tent where supposedly everyone is welcome, but we’ve welcomed in so much prejudice that there are people policing the borders and kicking others out. And it’s easy to say oh, those racists are just a few bad apples, we aren’t a racist country. But we only seem to say that when their actions reflect on us, and we don’t work very hard to get rid of them.
I think the supposed silent majority isn’t silent at all. We speak with loud, hateful voices. Not our own, but those of our worst fellows. When we are silent, we cede our voices to them, and we are equally responsible for what they have to say.
Image Credit: Zoi Koraki