Horrific attacks this week on multiple mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand left 50 people dead and scores more injured. In the aftermath of the attacks, a manifesto emerged that reads in a manner similar to that written by another mass murderer who, in 2011, killed 77 people in a series of attacks in Norway. The main concern verbalized in both cases was the extinction of the white race and a loss of European culture.
As we piece ourselves together after the New Zealand tragedy, the question on everyone's mind is how to minimize or, more specifically, eliminate such horrific acts of violence in our communities. This is clear from the responses of politicians on the right and left, including UK Prime Minister Theresa May:
On behalf of the UK, my deepest condolences to the people of New Zealand after the horrifying terrorist attack in Christchurch. My thoughts are with all of those affected by this sickening act of violence.
and U.S. Senator Cory Booker:
I'm sickened by the news coming out of New Zealand-the horrific terrorist attack targeting Muslims at prayer that killed at least 49 people. The rising tide of white supremacy and Islamophobia around the globe must be met with our determination to work against hate.
One effect of such tragic events is to remind us that we are terrifyingly powerless to prevent them. And while most of us desperately want to craft a world where such atrocities are exceedingly rare, we struggle to understand how to get there. Yet, while we can't control individual actors, we are not helpless in the climate we create. We can do something about the way we communicate with and listen to one another. And a climate in which people are led to view other identity groups as adversaries on a zero-sum battleground for resources is not one that will minimize such atrocities.
Granted, to a certain extent, competition between groups may well be innate. However, it is a perilous move to encourage groups to divide along visible fault lines, appealing to entrenched histories and apparently intrinsic identities.
It would also be foolhardy to pretend that there aren't large numbers of people who share the concerns outlined in the manifesto, even though they may never be led to violence. Consider the following: the author of the manifesto in the New Zealand case wrote about how he'd traveled internationally, how the people he'd met in other countries were kind and welcoming, and how he'd enjoyed the experience. And yet, and yet…
The most common theme of both the Norway and New Zealand manifestos is a fear of replacement. Such a fear will not be shouted down, but it can be starved. That fear thrives and grows in a society where identity group-based differences are highlighted as both paramount and primary. It can wither when we focus on shared experiences and common goals.
Viewpoint diversity, moral clarity and hate
In the aftermath of atrocities like these, it may seem like the most reasonable and sympathetic response is to double down on group identity, and to recommit to protect our most vulnerable populations. However, this will not succeed. A more effective strategy is to emphasize superordinate goals, our superordinate identities. Although this was an attack on a particular religious group, it wasn't just an attack on them. It was an assault on our values, norms and ways of life. The terrorist cannot be allowed to succeed in his purpose by sowing still more resentment, distrust, and contempt against one another.
Responsibility for changing this toxic climate is shared across progressives, conservatives, and everyone in the middle. One of the ways in which some folks are trying to move towards this goal is through advocating for viewpoint diversity. However, such efforts are often viewed as a 'trojan horse' for the same white supremacist ideas as those expressed in the manifestos. Advocates are sometimes seen as justifying the sort of ideology espoused by both killers or, at a minimum, enabling them to more effectively spread their hate.
Let's be clear: there are people out there who are trying to use the language of free expression and viewpoint diversity to advance a political agenda, spread hate, or just enrich themselves on the culture wars. Those of us who champion viewpoint diversity and open inquiry need to speak out forcefully and vociferously against them. We are trying to seek out the *best* ideas - white supremacist ideology is not among them.
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