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Refuting harmful views with logic, not labels

November 3, 2017

This piece represents the opinion of the author.

Last week, the Orient published an article profiling Evan McLaren, a former Bowdoin student who is currently the executive director of the National Policy Institute (NPI), a group dedicated to promoting white supremacy and the creation of a white nation-state. The Orient’s editorial board also simultaneously published a separate explanation for why they profiled McLaren, stating that they “want Bowdoin students to engage with McLaren’s values not as abstract thought experiments but as concrete ideas.” Despite that claim, not once, in either of the articles, did anyone actually engage with the ideas promoted by the NPI. The closest anyone came was when the editorial board stated that McLaren’s views are “abhorrent and antithetical to the core principles of our paper, our college and our nation.”

This is not sufficient. We cannot merely say that these views are self-evidently wrong. They are to most Americans, but this does nothing to refute the arguments that now hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of our fellow citizens believe to be true. While it may be clear to most of us why the ideology behind white nationalism is faulty, clearly there is a significant portion of our nation that does not think it is so readily apparent. When we merely declare that ideas are not reconcilable with our core values without explaining the values we are referencing or without exposing the holes in arguments we disagree with, we are not properly engaging with those arguments.

There is real value in making sure we properly and fully grapple with views we oppose. It’s through this discourse that we are able to not only improve our own arguments, but also possibly change the minds of those with whom we disagree. It is presumptuous to assume that all white nationalists are beyond the reach of reasonable and thoughtful discourse. When we say that white nationalism is self-evidently wrong, we imply that anyone who agrees with those views must either be incapable of having, or unwilling to have, a rational conversation. How could we ever hope to have a reasonable discussion with someone who is unable to see such “obvious” truths? If we hope to win back the hearts and minds of our compatriots, we must go further and better articulate why we know these views to be flawed. Stopping anywhere short of this allows those who actually disagree with us, to walk away with their views unchallenged and unchanged. It’s exactly this kind of intellectual laziness, simply saying that views are self-evident, that allows people like McLaren to leave Bowdoin with their logic intact.

So if we are going to denounce the views championed by McLaren and his colleagues, let’s do it properly. Let’s say that we believe all people inherently hold equal value. Let’s point out that America was built on the backs of countless immigrants. Let’s argue that diversity, whether it be of race, religion, gender or sexuality, makes us stronger. Let’s point out when McLaren says that he wants “to be able to come back to a place where [his] racial and ethnic group feels like it belongs,” that whites still enjoy comparative advantages and luxuries not afforded to minority groups. Let’s push him to further explain  why his comfort must come at the expense of others. Whatever we do, let’s not dismiss his argument as obviously false.

If you disagree with the ideas promoted by McLaren and the NPI, it is imperative that you actually engage with the ideology they represent, not simply promote engagement. You have a moral responsibility to actively refute views you deem harmful with logic, not labels. If you don’t explain the reasoning for your opinion, you have not fully engaged with the ideas in question.

Theo Christian is a member of the Class of 2019.

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