I recently read the Whitefish Pilot’s story, “Whitefish rallies for ‘no hate’ ordinance.” According to the story, 100 people, led by a group known as “Love Lives Here,” packed into Whitefish’s small town city council chambers demanding our local government pass an ordinance prohibiting Richard Spencer and the National Policy Institute he represents from doing business or having offices in Whitefish.
It appears Richard Spencer and the National Policy Institute hold views many believe promote hate. Because I never heard of the institute, and the Whitefish Pilot didn’t mention any specific acts of hatred perpetrated by them, I spent some time perusing primary source material I found on the Internet in the hopes of learning more about them. In my incomplete research I discovered this group to be no more or less troubling than the plethora of other culture-centric organizations that flourish in America.
But for the sake of discussion, let’s assume the worst of Richard Spencer and the the National Policy Institute and suggest they are looking to create a separatist white society. Is it against the law to hold or express such views? Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor was once a member of the National Council of La Raza, and the man who married President and Mrs. Obama preaches black liberation theology; would we respond to news of them moving to Whitefish with fear and loathing?
I am troubled by the intensity of Love Lives Here’s actions. In fact, I might even say I am alarmed and unsettled by it. The mob rule reaction to Richard Spencer’s mere existence in Whitefish reminds me of the old Frankenstein movies where the townspeople gathered with pitchforks and torches to round up and kill Frankenstein without due process. This is not a healthy community response. I am ashamed of the behavior of learned men and women who know better, but seemed to have forgotten we are a community ruled by law, not outrage.
We have a moral dilemma on our hands. On the one hand, we have a fellow citizen who has broken no law or harmed anyone; however, he holds a world view a majority of us find offensive. On the other hand, we are a citizenry who theoretically respects the rights of others to freely express opinions — so long as they don’t harm others.
When faced with moral dilemmas, it is often helpful to look into our moralist tool bag for assistance. When I reach in mine, I find Immanuel Kant’s categorical imperative:
“Act only according to that maxim by which you can at the same time will that it should be a universal law.”
By using Kant’s categorical imperative, we can universalize the actions of Love Lives Here to see if they are morally acceptable. Do we want to use the authority of municipal government to prevent others (like Susan Cahill, the abortion practitioner, or the Flathead Area Secular Humanist Association, which attempts to shut down Christmas concerts and remove the Jesus Statue from Whitefish) from residing and earning a living in our community? If it is appropriate to demand City Council action to prevent Richard Spencer from living and working here because we find his world view offensive, then it should be appropriate to use municipal government to ostracize ANYONE the majority finds offensive.
When I use Kant’s categorical imperative and universalize Love Lives Here’s behavior, I find the medicine more distasteful than the ailment.
My understanding of tolerance is we are to allow others to hold and express ideas and opinions, even when a majority of citizens dislike them. This means we can disagree with our neighbor if he is a Republican, argue with our Kiwanis buddies over the danger and necessities of labor unions, or even get in heated discussions with our church friends over the topic of traditional marriage. But, at the end of the day, we are to allow others to coexist with us even when they hold diverse and opposing views. Under no circumstances are we to prevent citizens who do no harm to our bodies or property from living and working in our community.
We don’t have to like what Richard Spencer believes, but he is an American citizen created in the image of God. His civil rights are every bit as valid as those who proudly belong to Love Lives Here. Rather than shun Richard Spencer, we would do well to debate him, to probe his intellect, and attempt to find the genesis and authority of his positions. From what was reported of both parties in the recent article, Richard Spencer appeared to present himself more thoughtfully, and his positions more articulately, than the aroused horde attempting to run him out of town.
In Alexis de Tocqueville’s Democracy In America, Volume I, Chapter 15, Tocqueville speaks of the irony of America’s free speech tradition:
“In America the majority raises formidable barriers around the liberty of opinion; within these barriers an author may write what he pleases, but woe to him if he goes beyond them. Not that he is in danger of an auto-da-fe, but he is exposed to continued obloquy and persecution. His political career is closed forever, since he has offended the only authority that is able to open it. Every sort of compensation, even that of celebrity, is refused to him. Before making public his opinions he thought he had sympathizers; now it seems to him that he has none any more since he has revealed himself to everyone; then those who blame him criticize loudly and those who think as he does keep quiet and move away without courage. He yields at length, overcome by the daily effort which he has to make, and subsides into silence, as if he felt remorse for having spoken the truth.”
Tocqueville observes that although the law protects all Americans’ right to freely express themselves, woe to the citizen who attempts to present a minority viewpoint. While the Constitution may guard the citizen from persecution, the presenter of an idea outside a community’s preference should keep his silence lest he suffer the condemnation of his neighbors, the abandonment by his customers, and the disparagement of his good name.
As a resident of Whitefish, I am ashamed that Tocqueville’s observation of America, as presented by Love Lives Here and its supporters at the Whitefish City Council meeting, was accurate.
I encourage the membership of Love Lives Here and those who support them, as well as our City Council members who seem to have lost themselves in the moment, to reflect on Martin Luther King’s six steps of nonviolent social change. We would do well to gather our facts before picking up our pitchforks and torches. Prior to engaging, we should go through a process of self-purification to ensure our own hatred, prejudices, and biases don’t filter into our direct actions. Finally, we should always strive for reconciliation as our final outcome.
Although I don’t question their intentions, Love Lives Here and those supporting their efforts to ostracize Richard Spencer handled this situation incorrectly. In Whitefish we don’t condemn first and ask questions later. We are a better community than this. By treating Richard Spencer and his organization with the same rights all citizens enjoy, we can ensure spectators from outside of Whitefish will know that love, not hate, lives here.
Joseph D. Coco Jr. is a resident of Whitefish.