History shows that violence generally climbs in election years, and given the media-fueled polarization of Americans just now, 2020 bodes to be especially combustible in the United States (it has been such in the UK). Unlike 2001, when hate crimes peaked in the aftermath of al-Qaeda’s 9/11 assaults, this time the threat of violence is largely homegrown.
Far-Right violence has been on the rise in the US. Hate crimes nearly tripled in 2016 rose nearly 8 percent in 2017 and 12% in 2018. Targets were mostly black, Hispanic, Jewish, and Muslim people, all harmless human beings. A 2018 survey of thirty major cities found that hate crimes against whites rose 15.5% to ninety-seven incidents. While hate-driven attacks are small in number (5,565 out of 1.2 million violent offenses reported in 2018), by design they have an outsize impact.
“The Racial World War starts today,” white supremacist James Harris wrote in 2017 “God has ordered us to eliminate the Negro races from the face of the earth for the good of all mankind.” Oh, really? Then he went out and stabbed Timothy Caughman, a middle-aged African-American man, in the back.
White supremacists are not alone. Politicians and crass people on social media join in as well. Then there is Russia, endeavoring to divide and break up Western institutions, exploiting the internet and stoking racial hatred. They are at it constantly, as you read this.
Hatred has no place in our political discourse. Democracy is in peril, let alone tolerance and decency. Social media companies are grudgingly tackling only the most egregious examples of crudeness and hate, in little ways and in bits and pieces, denying culpability and issuing pathetic excuses about freedom of speech.
Those of us who support liberty do not equate it with saying vulgar, violent and hurtful things in public. Nor are blatant misrepresentations and lies acceptable. To suggest otherwise is to support license and violent language, coarsening public discussion. It was never this bad before Twitter and Facebook et al.
Speech is not “free” if it comprises caustic tweets and violent outbursts that loosen the bonds of society and breed hatred and distrust. Such speech comes at terrible cost. Weigh up the pros and cons of social media and I believe the scales tip toward strict oversight. And normally this would not be thought Epicurean or in the tradition of Western tolerance.