Over the weekend, members of the Ku Klux Klan, one of the deadliest terrorist organizations in United States history, gathered for a rally in Charlottesville, Virginia. They marched alongside Nazis, the self-proclaimed heirs of murderous racists who killed many millions, to express shared regard for Robert E. Lee, who led a traitorous army under the Confederate battle flag in defense of a slave state. In the days since, some of the men who participated openly have been outed by anti-racist activists.
My colleague Gillian B. White gave a cogent overview of the issues surrounding a campaign to cost them their jobs in her piece “Is Being a White Supremacist Grounds for Firing?”
As she summarized the stakes:
All of these cases indicate that there is real pushback against the trend that my colleague Matt Thompson described over the weekend: that white supremacists feel increasingly comfortable expressing their views in public fora. This is certainly true, but apparently they can't do so with impunity: The hoods may be off, but the torchbearers may not have jobs to come back to on Monday. The efforts to push employers to fire the offending employees are an example of how the public—but, importantly, not the government—can strengthen the norms against these ideas, attach a stigma to them, and try to move society away from them.
Of course, the consequence of this dynamic is that taboo political ideas of all stripes can lead to workplace sanctions. While many on the political left are now lauding firings as a way to hold white supremacists accountable, it’s also worth remembering that pressuring employers to sever ties based on political activities, or social and racial beliefs, has historically been targeted in the other direction. McCarthyism involved reporting Communists and Communist sympathizers and pushing them out of the workforce, and Hollywood in particular. And as Walter Greason, a historian and professor at Monmouth University said in an interview, “Historically it's more dangerous as an employee to be associated with racial justice and the NAACP, than it was to be affiliated with the KKK.”
Two desirable norms seem to be in tension: The vast majority of Americans sensibly want Nazis, the KKK, and other white-supremacist organizations to be condemned, denounced, and stigmatized, so that they remain powerless and ostracized at society’s fringes. And many of the very same people are wary of a society where factions vie to deprive one another’s members of their livelihoods over politics.
Questions of effectiveness only complicate matters. Greason, who is wary of firing people for holding unpopular views, told my colleague that while firing racists might seem like a quick fix, “those folks are then sent out into the world without any means of changing, and they connect with others who share that same hate.” In a spot-on conclusion, my colleague responded, “That’s true: Firing someone for their racist ideas is unlikely to make them less racist. But it's also true that the public, with the business community as its actor, often has the right to use its power to reject some ideas and ideologies. And doing so is part of the messy, haphazard process by which the country decides what the future will look like.”
If being fired for one’s political views was an ordinary rather than an extraordinary occurrence, it would impose an enormous social cost. So which cases are exceptional enough to justify or warrant termination? If I were a business owner asked to fire an employee, here are some factors I might weigh:
Is the person hateful?
Stigma is a fraught tool: Humans have a long history of misapplying, overusing, and abusing it. And even when applied justly, stigma is often ineffective. So I’ve often wondered if we’d be better off were the prevailing norm to stigmatize only hatefulness. Deciding what qualifies is sometimes tricky, but few champion hatefulness itself.
If I discovered that I had an employee who spent his off hours spewing or stoking hate, I would be strongly inclined to part ways, regardless of whether he was shouting racial slurs at the family that lived next door to his house, or subjecting women he encountered on the street to misogynistic verbal abuse, or shouting from the stands to visiting bullpens at baseball games, “I hope you all get cancer and die!” Hate is poisonous and without value; while most humans feel it welling up at one time or another, and even give into its seductive pull in anomalous moments of stress or fear, every mentally fit adult can avoid routinely stoking, expressing, or abetting hatefulness; and those who fail do grave harm to the fabric of whole societies, disproportionately contributing to a wide range of social ills and human miseries.
What is the person’s relationship to violence?
Firing a perpetrator of violence, like the leftist who shot up the congressional baseball game, or someone who breaks the law by threatening murder, are the easiest calls. The next easiest is the person who stops short of openly calling for violence to stay on the right side of the law, but whose views are inseparable from it. Think of the radical Islamist preacher in Australia that Graeme Wood wrote about in “What ISIS Really Wants”: Even as he avoided legal incitement, he tried to lead new recruits to a brutal terrorist organization and hasten humanity toward apocalyptic battles in which Islamist radicals would rape, oppress, and kill non-Muslims.
For sound prudential reasons, the line one must cross to be punished by the government for inciting violence is high. The line that triggers strong social stigma should be lower. It isn’t illegal for someone to declare that they hope neo-Jacobins one day organize death squads and set up guillotines on Wall Street, or that women ought to poison their husbands if they so please; but I’d fire an evangelist for either position. A useful question to ponder is: What violence or loss of innocent life, if any, would be inevitable if the course a person champions were successful?
Can they be persuaded?
One hesitation with regard to firing the hateful or those with a certain relationship to extralegal violence is that I might refrain if I thought that I could persuade them without undue risk to anyone else. I don’t know the odds against convincing a member of the KKK to give up his robe, but I know that the black musician Daryl Davis had astounding successes; I don’t know what it takes to deprogram a young white supremacist, but I know that unsung heroes at Derek Black’s college succeeded. The end of reaching the best possible outcome should always loom large. And that sometimes means engaging in loving outreach to a hateful person rather than causing them to be ostracized by all but a radical fringe.
Are there mitigating factors?
If a typical person is extremely hateful toward Catholics and indulges violent fantasies against the religious group, that is one thing. If a victim of molestation by a Catholic priest harbors irrationally broad hatred toward Catholics and fantasizes about blowing up the Vatican––but his job is such that he won’t interact with any Catholics, and his violent desires are never going to be acted on or catch on among the small group of people who hear them expressed––that’s a very different case.
These standards are grounded in defensible moral intuitions. And they are practical in a way that the social-justice left––the faction in American politics that is most inclined to seek terminations right now––might do especially well to consider.
Applying my standards, Nazis, KKK members, and fellow-traveler white supremacists might be the easiest of cases. Their faction’s extreme hatefulness is clear to anyone who has spent time reading them online. David French, a white, Christian veteran who writes for National Review, had this to say about his experience with the alt-right online during the 2016 presidential election:
I distinctly remember the first time I saw a picture of my then-seven-year-old daughter’s face in a gas chamber. It was the evening of September 17, 2015. I had just posted a short item to the Corner calling out notorious Trump ally Ann Coulter for aping the white-nationalist language and rhetoric of the so-called alt-right. Within minutes, the tweets came flooding in. My youngest daughter is African American, adopted from Ethiopia, and in alt-right circles that’s an unforgivable sin.
It’s called “race-cucking” or “raising the enemy.” I saw images of my daughter’s face in gas chambers, with a smiling Trump in a Nazi uniform preparing to press a button and kill her. I saw her face photo-shopped into images of slaves. She was called a “niglet” and a “dindu.” The alt-right unleashed on my wife, Nancy, claiming that she had slept with black men while I was deployed to Iraq, and that I loved to watch while she had sex with “black bucks.” People sent her pornographic images of black men having sex with white women, with someone photoshopped to look like me, watching.
Things only got worse from there.
To march with torches down the streets of a Southern city in the company of the Ku Klux Klan is an inherently hateful act—it was calculated to draw on the iconography of bygone anti-black terrorists, and to stoke fear and intimidation among an out-group today. All that was a premeditated act among all who participated.
As for individual participants, even their family members regard them as hateful. Here is one chilling part of a letter the father of one of the marchers wrote, disowning his own son:
He once joked, “The thing about us fascists is, it’s not that we don’t believe in freedom of speech. You can say whatever you want. We’ll just throw you in an oven.” Peter, you will have to shovel our bodies into the oven, too.
Please son, renounce the hate, accept and love all.
Here is how a prominent white supremacist web site reacted after one of their bigoted fellow travelers killed an anti-racist protester in Charlottesville with his car:
The Daily Stormer, a neo-Nazi website that advocates for white supremacy, referred to Heather Heyer as a “fat, childless 32-year-old slut” in a headline on its site. The article, by Daily Stormer founder Andrew Anglin, said, “Despite feigned outrage by the media, most people are glad she is dead, as she is the definition of uselessness. A 32-year-old woman without children is a burden on society and has no value.”
And the relationship to violence of these people doesn’t end there. Richard Spencer, the alt-right leader, insists that when his sort attend gatherings like Charlottesville, they go “in peace,” and as a matter of law, he is correct: They have a right to assemble and speak (though not to beat up, let alone run down, protesters). Those legal rights ought to be assiduously defended for everybody’s sake.
One needn’t look very closely, however, to grasp how these groups really feel about violence. That is because they march openly beneath battle flags of the bloodiest wars in American and European history, and with one of the most violent terrorist groups in history. As in bygone centuries, there is no peaceful path to the repressive world they are working toward, even if they have deluded some among their ranks into thinking so. There is no peaceful transition from a multi-ethnic state to a Nazi state. The Confederacy they harken back to with nostalgia held and raped more slaves than has ISIS. Should they grow sufficiently powerful, epic carnage is inevitable: ruin like their co-ideologues brought upon Georgia in the 1860s and Dresden in the 1940s. They are would-be destroyers of Western civilization.
So yes, if it is ever justified to fire someone from a job for the public beliefs they espouse, it is justified here, if only to deprive moral monsters of resources to advance what would destroy us. But a limiting principle is needed, and not only to protect against a downward spiral into a society where political factions are constantly trying to get one another fired, to the detriment of civic participation and the economy. A limiting principle is needed for moral and strategic reasons alike.
After all, if the argument is that termination is useful to convey the depth of society’s disapproval—to signify that Nazis and KKK members are an execrable fringe to be kept on the margins of society—then surely it is just and prudent to refrain from urging the exact same punishment when, say, a PR professional tweets insensitive gallows humor about AIDS; an MSNBC host expresses discomfort with applying the word hero to every U.S. soldier; a Christian executive at a technology company donates to a ballot initiative that would’ve prevented gay marriage in California; a female developer tweets about a joke that offended her; two Yale professors wonder if undergraduates in the Ivy League might benefit educationally from establishing their own social norms around Halloween costumes; a beloved longtime art professor is accused of being insensitive to a student; or young-adult authors run afoul of ever-changing rules on social-justice Twitter. If one took everyone already terminated at the urging of the social-justice left and applied those implied standards universally one would have to terminate vast numbers of people.
There is a diminishing marginal utility of stigma. The more it is applied to everyone and every thing that could be deemed in any way problematic, the less effective it is when marshaled to bolster norms like the ones against the Nazis and the KKK. The more that the center-left tries to tar mainstream conservatives as Nazis, or at least worth firing; or the center-right tries to conflate Black Lives Matter with the KKK; the harder it will be for the center to hold against the fringes. The more that the average American without any hate in his or her heart fears they, too, may be set upon by a mob charging them with a transgression against a taboo, the more they will undermine the power of informal social sanctions in self-defense, or regard them as tools of opportunism, not anti-extremism.
But make no mistake: Every American has a civic obligation to oppose the forces of hate and civilizational destruction even if some “on the other side” are being unfair to them. Our forefathers fought fascists and Stalinists. To refrain from opposing the most odious elements of the left or right because some folks on the other side were mean to you on Twitter is a shameful abdication.
That said, if the rules of the game were clearer, if taboos were easier to navigate, if a person who eschewed hatefulness felt that was enough to avoid a shame-storming (though not constructive critique and disagreement), I suspect there would be a strengthening of shared taboos against extremists that has somewhat eroded. I’ve proposed a framework that strikes me as an improvement over the status quo. I encourage emails of dissent, or agreement, or alternative proposals about censure—email firstname.lastname@example.org with your thoughts.