Normalizing Bigotry & Ignorance

The definition of tolerance, I’ve been told, is accepting things that you are not okay with. It does not mean automatically liking everything. To this, I would add an addendum: it doesn’t mean making room for things you don’t see a problem with, but others certainly do! Into the debate about free speech vs. hate speech and openness vs. echo chambers, this surely has a place!

I witnessed this not long ago when I joined a writers group. On the surface, it seemed like a good way to connect with other aspiring writers. When I became a published author, it was also a good place to share what I learned and get feedback from colleagues. But there was a dark side to this group, which was in the form of its political and social threads.

The moderators liked to engage people in discussions about everyday stuff, historical stuff, issues, and the like. But it astounded me to see just how much bigotry and anti-intellectual content there was. In time, I began to see a pattern forming, where the same few people were doing the majority of the talking and saying the same stuff over and over.

Regardless of the subject, there was the same stink of alt-right and “diet racism” going on in there. There were Putin-apologists, “whataboutism,” Islamaphobes, Brexiters, MAGAts, and people willing to apologize for them. As for the moderators, two out of three of them (both white men) seemed to think it was alright and even participated in it.

What bothered me, aside from the general level of ineptitude and immorality, was the way these two moderators praised themselves for the way they created a “moderate” and “tolerant” group, where all were welcome. But the reality that they completely failed to notice was the fact that no one who was on the other side of these issues — aside from a few people (like myself) — had left the discussion threads long ago.

Worse than that, they refused to see how they had allowed their forums to become clogged with misinformation, racism, xenophobia, and general ignorance because they didn’t see a problem with these views. In short, they were perfectly happy with the accepted racism that was so common in the group. Like many problems, the realization came gradually after a lot of bad encounters and self-doubt!

Muslim Bashing

The first encounter I had with the group’s casual bigotry was in 2014, when the issues of Brexit, the Syrian Civil War, the refugee crisis, and the question of immigration were at the fore. Like most people, I saw plenty of examples of racism and xenophobia in that time, mainly from Europeans and Americans who wanted to turn Syrian refugees away because they thought they were terrorist (oh, not ALL, mind you, just enough!)

One man told me that I had a “big heart” for wanting to let refugees in, but that he would refuse to allow more Muslims into his community (in Wales, UK) because of how it was being overrun. He spoke of how life was good when some Muslims lived in his area, but how the growth of the Muslim population was leading to all kinds of aggressiveness and violence on their part.

He spoke of the growing number of Halal grocers, Shawarma and kebab eateries, and mosques in his community as if they were some kind of infestation. He repeated known-lies about “Shariah squads” going out and attacking people (i.e., “I heard there’s these squads enforcing Shariah Law”).

And in the end, he and others told me that “hey, why don’t you take them?” One particularly sleazy fellow —a dude with one self-published book who never missed an opportunity to say he was a lawyer (yeah, for the porn industry!) — recommended Canada place them in the Northwest Territories, based on Russia’s relocation of Ukrainian refugees in Siberia!

And of Brexit, which was related, a fellow who supported Leave claimed that he questioned the reported levels of hate crimes based on the fact that “I don’t see it.” I challenged this statement, showing him reports of violence against Muslims and other immigrants, to which he replied he didn’t trust those newspapers and liked to read both conservative and liberal ones to get a more “balanced” perspective.

I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry! A man’s entire basis for rejecting something that was actually happening was that he’s wasn’t witnessing it personally. But he won’t even read information that contradicts him unless they satisfy his media bias? Such statements were beyond hypocritical and really didn’t support his claim that Brexit wasn’t really about immigration (yeah, it fucking was!)

The Trump Effect

However, things got particularly mind-numbing and depressing around 2016, when the introduction of the first white-supremacist and Russian hacker-backed presidential candidate seemed to have an effect on people’s brains. It was one thing to see people on social media posting unbelievably stupid and childish things in support of Trump. But when it made it into this writer’s group as topics of legitimate discussion, I was rather aghast.

To Trump supporters, my reaction would be considered the perfect example of “Trump Derangement Syndrome” (TDS). For those who don’t know (yeah right!) this is a gaslighting technique where moral outrage towards a politicians abuses and criminal acts as characterized as “irrational” or “hysterical.” You know, typical “lib” stuff that only showed how much Trump was “owning” us!

Interesting fact, that term is stolen from political commentator Charles Krauthammer, who used the same term to describe outrage towards George W. Bush’s policies — what he called “Bush Derangement Syndrome” (BDS). So much like MAGA, which was ripped off from Reagan’s 1980 presidential campaign, TDS was another tactic Trump’s people “borrowed” from past Republican administrations.

But to me, and many other group members, the fact that support for Trump and his deeds was making a home for himself in our writer’s group was nothing short of appalling. For months leading up to the 2016 election, I was in regular debates with members and even moderators themselves who believed the whole “Russiagate” thing was pure crap, that Hillary committed a crime over her “emails!” and that all evidence to the contrary meant nothing!

On and off, we’d have debates like this. The firing of James Comey, the plea deal of Michael Flynn, the Mueller Probe, the Brett Kavanaugh joke, the murder of Sergei and Yulia Skripal, the Zelensky Affair — the list went on! In EVERY-SINGLE-CASE, it felt like I was talking to a brick wall and an echo chamber of Putin and Trump apologists!

It was always the same people dominating the debate, and liberal-minded members just dropped off because they were tired to listening to these same people reinforcing each others views. Even the third of the group’s three moderators, a black woman, had quit being involved because she was sick of the privilege and pretense of the other two.

Quitting and Requiting

Somewhere between 2019–2020, I don’t recall exactly, I decided to quit the group. I felt like I was getting nothing from it. As of 2020, I was a thrice-published author, whereas the group’s members were mostly independent or self-published authors trying to get other people to read their work. And the echo-chamber nature of it all was leaving a bad taste in my mouth.

Nevertheless, in late 2020, I decided to give it another try. Like I said, self-doubt was an issue and I wondered if I hadn’t been just a little bit hasty. In no time at all, I realized how right I was the first time! The decisive issue was the Jan. 6th insurrection and the unbelievably vile and idiotic reaction I saw in the group.

The political forums filled up with the usual people claiming it was Antifa, or that the protesters had a right to feel angry because they thought “the election was stolen.” One member in particular said something so unbelievably stupid and reprehensible that I resorted to some very unkind and disrespectful words. But more on that in a sec…

He claimed that Jan. 6th was the same as the Portland protests, but the difference was that the insurrectionists were patriots who wanted “their country to remain strong.” The Portland protesters, meanwhile wanted “to burn this country down.” In other words, they “hated America.”

I was so unimpressed! I had known this person to be a bit right-wing and to say stupid things about Obama when he was still POTUS. But this was beyond reprehensible and stupid! In his mind, peaceful protesters who denounced police brutality, and were met with more policy brutality, hated America. They were attacked and killed by police and alt-right instigators, hence the riots.

These people hated America? But right-wing armed militias made up of vicious racists, pissed that they lost an election and brainwashed into thinking it was “stolen”, who screamed “fuck police!” assaulted police officers (resulting in one death and multiple suicides) who wanted to “hang Mike Pence,” “murder Pelosi,” kill any politicians who certified the election, and said out loud they were there to “overthrow the government” (aka. commit treason) — they’re patriots who care about America?

The flagrantly stupid and racist sentiments of this person inspired me to write an eviscerating rebuttal. I told him exactly what I thought of him, his pig-ignorance, his hypocrisy, his thinly-veiled racist intent, and that he was a flat-out stupid bigot. As you can imagine, the moderators were not happy. They told me to remove my comments or they would do it for me.

So I told them exactly what I thought of their policy and leadership. In a civil tone (this time), I said that I rejoined their group in the hope of seeing things anew, but was once again horribly disappointed. I accused them of being a right-wing echo chamber that catered to intellectually and morally base thinking. They disagreed and patted themselves on the back for being so “tolerant.” But I was not alone.

Other “liberal” members came out to say that they didn’t like the flavor of the discussion forums for the very same reasons I raised. They too took issue with the right-wing nature of the group discussions and said they stopped participating because of how they were always so one-sided. I might have mentioned how one-third of the moderators also felt the same way, that these two men were letting their personal views dictate the nature of the group.

But the piece-de-resistance was when one of the moderators said, “I personally don’t see a problem with the Trump crowd.” I couldn’t have said it better myself, and I let him know how this illustrated the problem. He didn’t see a problem with people spreading misinformation, demonstrable falsehoods, and thinly-veiled racism in a forum, so he allowed it!

“Is it me? It’s him right?”

What worried me about all this was the sense of entitlement and normalcy these people had about their views. They seemed to think that just because they bought into a narrative, that made it true. And if you could show where and how it wasn’t, then they’d claim that everyone has a bias, and you were just subscribing to your own. Worse, if you challenged them on it, you were attacking them personally (or censoring them, God forbid!)

What also worried me was the way that the moderators were actually able to fool themselves into thinking that they were hosting an open forum. It was so easy for them to pretend that allowing demonstrably false, harmful, and downright idiotic views was somehow an act of open-mindedness. It was obvious to anyone with eyes and a sense of fair play that they were allowing these views in because they tacitly agreed with them!

That is not tolerance, nor is it moderation. It’s also not something to pat yourself on the back for. Giving intolerance and white nationalism a forum on the basis of “oh, they have their opinion, you have yours” is nonsense! At best, it’s coming from a place of weakness, where people can’t be bothered to take a stand and hide behind claims of “neutrality.” At worst, it’s glaring hypocrisy coming from people who take a stand against such views because they share them.

Being objective means having standards and applying them equally, not being neutral. Neutrality means being indifferent! You can’t take the opinions of white supremacists and liberals and pretend there’s some equivalency there, or claim that you’re being “balanced.” This is a problem in our notions of bias and fairness today, and it reflects just how pervasive racism and right-wing bigotry still is in our society.

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Matt Williams

Matt Williams

Space/astronomy journalist for Universe Today, SF author, and all around family man!