The idea that liberal elites are trying to change the electoral dynamics of America in favor of Democrats by racially diversifying the country has wide currency on the political right. We should note at the outset that the plausibility of this idea on the political right carries with is an implicit admission that the policies endorsed on the right are hostile to people of color and immigrants. More thoughtful people on the right might wonder just why immigrants and people of color would want to vote Democratic and consider how to shape policies that would appeal to these demographics.
At any rate, I have yet to hear white replacement as an electoral strategy endorsed by anyone on the left. The white replacement theory is unhinged, it simply has no basis in reality. But then it is not even aimed at reasonable or true belief. Like the big lies about election fraud, the whole point of the white replacement theory is to stoke hostility towards people on the left, and especially people of color. Dehumanizing hostility that has once again led to violence in Buffalo.
Ideas do matter. Bad ideas motivate some of their adherents to do bad things. Of course, the Buffalo shooter bears the moral responsibility for firing the bullets that killed 10 people. But pinning this responsibility on this individual falls far short of giving a full account how these killings, mostly of people of color, came to happen. There are systemic phenomenon at work here. The propagation of the white replacement theory was a causal factor in this violence. The shooter has told us so. The people who have spread this bad idea don’t bear responsibility for pulling the trigger, but they have served as conduits for hate and that’s a bad thing to do in itself.
There is a hazard in drawing this conclusion, one that needs to be negotiated with care. People are often quick to take offense and quick to feel personally attacked. Bad ideas spread like invasive weeds through the minds of uncritical thinkers. While some of the propagators of the white replacement theory know what they are doing, and bear personal responsibility for their hate mongering, a great many more are simply duped. People who lack the critical thinking skills needed to avoid such intellectual grift are also likely to miss the crucial difference between negatively judging a bad idea and negatively judging them personally. Perhaps they are at fault for failing to think more clearly and failing to pull the toxic invasive weeds from their own intellectual garden. But that’s another matter.
The pattern of racist attacks that have brought us so much grief in New Zealand, Charleston, El Paso and now Buffalo were motivated by bad ideas. So, how do we fight bad ideas without ourselves getting into the business of hate mongering against those infected by them? Perhaps we don’t hate the people who have been duped into embracing and spreading bad ideas, we just hate the bad ideas. But again, there is the high risk that people who aren’t reasonable enough to defend themselves against the bad ideas also won’t be reasonable enough to distinguish hatred of the idea from hatred of them personally. The subtleties of our intentions often don’t alter the impact.
Meeting this delicate challenge on a case-by-case basis is not easy and many of us have tried only to see relationships with friends and family suffer or perish. I’d suggest that what we ultimately need is a systemic solution to the systemic problem of bad ideas spreading unchecked across entire populations of people. We need to understand this phenomenon as an intellectual public health crisis.
In fact, I think we already have a fairly effective intellectual vaccine. There is nothing reasonable about racial hatred. What we lack is a collective sense of urgency when it comes to getting the critical thinking skills that can help to inoculate people from bad ideas like the white replacement theory into the minds of students and the public at large. To be clear, I don’t think critical thinking is a complete solution to the spread of hate. As educators, we do attack bad racist ideas head on, as we should. But this will not be enough to stop the spread of bad racist ideas among people who lack the endemic intellectual immune response that only well-developed critical thinking skills can provide. Indeed, it hasn’t been enough.
To be clear, I don’t think critical thinking is a complete solution to the systemic aspects of racial hatred. Hatred is not entirely an intellectual problem. But poor critical thinking is exploited in spreading hatred. And the critical thinking skills that can provide some protection against this are in desperately short supply.