If we are to believe the leftist take on the riots and violence that leave people dead in American streets, millions of dollars of damage, and family businesses (including minority businesses) built up over decades destroyed in a night, it is all the work of a “fringe.” There is no violence wrought by the protesters. They are peaceful. The whole lot.
If we to believe the rightist take on white supremacists — their marches and vile messaging (including anti-Semitic messaging) over social media are all the work of a “fringe.” There is no ill will, no nastiness, no hatred among the right-wing. It is peaceful and principled. The whole lot.
One man’s fringe is another man’s mainstream. On one side of the political spectrum, one partisan’s perception of the bad actors is their size and status as a mere “fringe,” while from the other side of the political spectrum, the “fringe” is actually the mainstream. And so it is, mirrorlike, from the other side of the political spectrum.
The attribution of violence and vile messaging to a “fringe” is a failure to face the rot that has infected vocal segments of political discourse today.
It really makes no difference what the actual number of bad actors is. They are all mainstream, because when the “fringe” is sure of itself, it often infuses and reshapes the mainstream. How many true Bolsheviks were there 20 years before the October Revolution in 1917? How powerful was Hitler in the early 1920s? How influential were the biting social critics of the institution of marriage in the early 1960s? On political and social issues, minorities matter much more than might meet the eye. As often as not, it is the minority actor or point of view that changes history.
From the political left to the political right, to call the bad actors of today a “fringe” is a dangerous exercise in denial. So-called fringe opinions and fringe actors need to be acknowledged as burrowing in — or already rooted in — one’s own political position.
At a certain point, the “fringe” label blows up in one’s face. There is only so long that the ubiquitous eruption of riots and violence in the face of police action can be dismissed and mentally marginalized. Houston, we have a problem! There is only so long that vile messaging over social media can be wished away because, of course, reasonable people would never believe it. Houston, we have a problem!
The spurious substitution of “fringe” for “mainstream” also works in reverse, and is equally dangerous. When blacks die at the hands of brutal police, and this is perceived painfully more than the greater number of blacks who die at the hands of blacks, then an equal and opposite reaction sets in. When police brutality is seen as the major source of violence in this country, and when as a consequence police are defunded or demoralized — that is, when police brutality is perceived to be mainstream, vigilantes move in. If nature abhors a vacuum, so does policing. Here is proof of the deleterious effect of a violent, so-called “fringe.” Not faced as the serious menace it is, the fringe triggers the vigilantes, who engage in their own violence and also stimulate it by perversely legitimating it. In simpler language, if the cops stand down, someone else steps in.
The bottom line is this: Violence cannot be whitewashed, no matter how “fringe” its perpetrators might seem to be. Once they latch onto the idea that the “system” is hopelessly corrupt, the allure of violence will spread. Similarly, hatred cannot be whitewashed, no matter how “fringe” its articulators might seem to be. Once they latch onto the idea that society is out to get them, their allure will also spread. It too spreads not just in words but in violence.
Let us be careful how we perceive and speak about bad actors. As they accompany what we take to be the normative, majority, legitimate, well meaning, essential social action and political positions, the “fringe” bad actors can undermine us all.
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