This week my friend Emily learned an uncomfortable truth about a former law school classmate. It turns out he’s a white nationalist, one who believes that her interacial marriage makes her a race traitor (she’s white and her husband is Asian).
This personal reveal came just after the white supremacist rally-turned-riot in Charlottesville this weekend, which ended with one death and at least 19 injuries. This is actually how my friend Emily found out that her former classmate was a white nationist. He posted on Facebook in support of those gathered at the “Unite the Right” rally, which came as a shock to people who spent their law school days learning alongside him.
It turns out, social media is the great exposer of beliefs once hidden behind a white hood. Indeed, despite the kinship these nationalists may feel with the KKK, none of the angry young men in Charlottesville brandishing tiki torches popular at backyard cookouts wore hoods. And they are now learning that the KKK members of yore didn’t don them for fashion reasons but because they obstruct the identity of those marching.
Especially in the internet age, those who gathered really ought to have known better than to allow their faces to be visible. Americans don’t like Nazis; as a viral internet meme reminded us, we fought a war about this; the whole world was involved.
Now, others are gathering up those white faces lined up with their tiki torches held high and using the Internet to sleuth out their names, as well as their academic and employment specifics. You can guess where the story goes from there. Their lives are about to be publicly decimated.
It’s already starting. Take for example white nationalist Cole White. Until this weekend, White worked in a restaurant in Berkley. But he was exposed by a Twitter user named @YesYou’reRacist, who doxxed White, tweeting his name and job above a photo of White at the rally. White was subsequently fired from his job. “Cole White, the first person I exposed, no longer has a job,” @YesYou’reRacist tweeted.
That tweet now has 114,176 likes and over 44,000 retweets. In other words, there’s lots of online approval for doxxing these guys and ruining their lives.
But this is a terrible, terrible idea. For starters, remember the word “alleged”. It’s not yet clear if Cole White of Berkeley is the same man who marched in Charlottesville. The internet mob is not known for its accuracy: you can ask Ryan Lanza, who was briefly identified by CNN and other news media as the shooter in Sandy Hook. Or ask the elderly couple falsely identified by Spike Lee in a tweet he believed contained George Zimmerman’s address. Vigilante justice doesn’t taste nearly as sweet when innocent Americans are on the receiving end.
There’s an understandable righteous feeling that accompanies these kinds of witch-hunts. This is especially the case when it comes to what feels like morally justified witch-hunts, like the ones where people try to identify the perpetrators of crimes. But these invariably go awry.
And even if these white nationalists are being properly identified, firing individuals based on their political beliefs, no matter how repugnant, creates an incredibly slippery slope. Writing about hate speech on Twitter, the ACLU warned, “Restricting any group or individual’s speech jeopardizes everyone’s rights. The same laws used to silence bigots can be used to silence you.” In other words, the rights of every single one of us depends on, well, the rights of everyone single one of us, even – especially – those we disagree with.
This is far from a defense of nazism, or alt rightism, or white supremacy. Quite the opposite – these guys make me as sick as the next person. I’m not asking that you feel sorry for these guys. I’m arguing that their right to believe and say horrible, racist things with impunity is actually the grounds upon which my rights and your rights depend. It is absolutely crucial that certain inalienable rights, like the right to privacy and the right to free speech, apply across the board. Free speech isn’t just allowing speech with which you agree.
What I’m arguing for is extending the legal rights we all share to the social — and social media — sphere that we now share, too. It is a sacred American belief that people should not be persecuted for their beliefs, no matter how repugnant they are. While it’s true that legally, every workplace is entitled to employ or fire whomever they wish barring discrimination, as a society, we must put a stop to punishing people for their beliefs.
This has become all too common a practice – one that internet vigilantees take up with glee, and to much fanfare. Already in this country, it’s acceptable to hound individuals out of jobs for holding certain political beliefs; just ask Google engineer James Damore or Mozilla CEO Brendan Eich.
You can forgive conservatives especially for worrying about this in today’s political climate. There’s a dangerous slippage that’s entered the mainstream discourse surrounding conservatism and Republicans, one that fails to distinguish between the alt right and more mainstream figures. Joy Reid was only the most recent to make this category error when she took to Twitter to write of the rally: “What did they think they were getting in the White House? What did they say when he hired Bannon and his crew? Or Sessions or Kobach?” But Bannon and Sessions are entirely different animals; by equating them, Reid highlights why conservatives are wary of the thought police going after people’s jobs.
Cole White was the first to lose his job to the Charlottsville rally. Peter Cvjetanovic, 20, currently attending the University of Nevada in Reno, is another person identified from the white supremacist rally who now will be hard-pressed to find employment after he graduates (if he’s allowed to stay enrolled and isn’t hounded off of campus, that is). For White and Czjetanovic, being white nationalists has no impact on their ability to do their jobs. Had they held other jobs in which their white nationalism would directly affect their job performance, perhaps the internet mob would be justified in its quest to take heads (white nationalists shouldn’t be teaching WWII history to impressionable middle school students, for example).
But firing individuals based on their personally held beliefs not only creates a slippery slope, but also as one of my Twitter followers half-joked, “an outcast class of bright, reactionary, but unemployable young men with little to lose. What. Could. Possibly. Go. Wrong?”
Bethany Mandel is a Forward columnist. Follow her on Twitter, @bethanyshondark.