Celeste Liddle on the Alt-Right & Hate Speech
Hate speech by another name: Why the term 'alt-right' should not be legitimised
The first time I heard the phrase "alt-right" used with regard to political discourse, I honestly thought I was imagining it. Perhaps it's my lefty bias, but the idea that the right could have an "alternative" when they are the generally staunch defenders of the status quo (as they tend to benefit from it) seemed somewhat out of place. Yet since then, I have seen the term used over and over again, to describe a specific group of people within the right and why they feel they're distinguishable from the traditional right.
Alt-right has been mainly used in regard to the US election and those who've supported Trump. There's already been much written about this but if people are not aware, the man who penned it; Richard Spencer of the National Policy Institute; might be able to explain while he talks about how the US is meant to be a "white country". As might the gleeful group of white people throwing celebratory Nazi salutes in honour of Trump's victory. This occurred in mid-November when alt-right leader Richard Spence described white people as "children of the sun", and told the National Policy Institute in Washington DC that with President-elect Donald Trump, ‘their time has come’. Breitbart Technology journalist Milo Yiannopoulos could explain as well while also telling us how he feels feminist bullies are destroying the video gaming industry
There has been a lot of great coverage on the need to stop using the fluffy titles the alt-right created for themselves in order to obfuscate what they actually are: white nationalists, misogynists, homophobes and the like. It's notable that the editors from online publication ThinkProgress have released a statement outlining that they will ‘no longer describe racists as 'alt-right'. I cannot echo their views strongly enough. To frame hate speech as a mere alternative stream of political philosophy is not only dangerous, but it is not remotely conducive to a cohesive and accepting society where safety and tolerance is prioritised over persecution and fear. I admit to being amused that the recent rally in support of Trump by these groups mobilised a tiny fraction of what the counter-rally of anti-racists managed to gather together. A minute rally showing, though, should not be taken to mean that these extremist reactionary elements are not of concern here.
However, when it comes to the term "alt-right", my concerns about the use of it don't end at the fact that the messages of racists are being sanitised. I'm also concerned that via the nifty clean packaging of people who are outwardly hateful to build their notoriety, we reinforce idea that their message is in some way an "other". I draw from the example in this country knowing that while Australia and the USA are different in so many ways, we also share many similarities as a western settler colonial society. Australia additionally benefits from a lot of US cultural input.
Let's be honest: racism is hardly "alternative" in society. Indeed, it is so mainstream that it permeates all our social structures and has been actively promoted via legislation. Look no further than the current discussions on lifelong bans on Australia visas for "boat people" country along with expensive and discriminatory measures such as the "Community Development Program". As the First Dog on the Moon shows in a cartoon, racism forms our very foundations. Former Prime Minister Paul Keating recently stated that Australia continually fails to rectify these foundations. While the US may have treaties with its First Peoples, - like here the fights for rights on Indigenous lands (as the Dakota Access Pipeline battle shows), rage on. It's only now that moves are being made to embrace the truth of Columbus Day from a Native American perspective.
Excusing racism is also hardly an alternative stance in this country. Right now in our Parliament they are again debating whether 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act should be amended or removed. This is because mainly white powerful men with broad media and political platforms are concerned about their access to "free speech" – ideas they have borrowed from American ideas of free speech, while they concurrently show no understanding of what the Australian Racial Discrimination Act actually states.
There is also the danger that racism will get framed as only an issue within the right, and indeed, only within a dedicated attention-seeking fraction of the right. Racism transcends the political spectrum and neither the conventional right nor the broad left is free from it. The Australian union movement, for example, is still working hard to redress its history of support for the White Australia Policy. Recently Indigenous writer Luke Pearson argued the left-wing media often neglects to recognise its own racism when it comes to addressing Indigenous issues. When I see catch phrases like "Real Australians Say Welcome" I can only think of how this forcibly assimilates those of us whose unacknowledged heritages predate any concept of "Australia" even though these statements are intended to be inclusive.
The alt-right in the US, and its parallels here, need to be named for exactly what they are. These are not merely "different opinions" that need to be tolerated for the sake of free-flowing social dialogue. They are "hate speech" designed to generate controversy to increase the discrimination inflicted upon some of the most vulnerable in society. While we are calling it out though, we need to be careful that we don't paint them as too exceptional in our societies. Trump's presidential rise did not come from nowhere and the alt-right's support of him is not a freak accident. While racist structures continue to flourish and racist messages are tolerated, racist groups will continue to have a place in our societies.
Celeste Liddle is an Arrernte woman living in Melbourne, Australia. She is the current National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Indigenous Organiser for the National Tertiary Education Union (NTEU) and a prominent freelance opinion writer, social commentator and public speaker. This article was published in the Brisbane Times in November 2016 and has been republished with permission from the author.