On the night of Friday, August 11, a large group of white nationalists marched through the campus of the University of Virginia for a so-called “Unite the Right” rally. Wielding tiki torches and chanting racist slogans, the crowd would herald the start to a weekend of violence that shook — and continues to shake — the American political landscape to its core.
Among the marchers that night was a familiar face to some here at the University of Nevada, Reno. UNR student Peter Cvjetanovic, 20, was photographed by Getty Images, a service that provides images to hundreds of news organizations nationwide. In the next few hours, the photo was widely circulated as outlets across the country hurried to report on the increasing tensions in Virginia.
It would take less than 24 hours for Cvjetanovic to be identified online by the Twitter user “Yes, You’re Racist.” What would follow is nothing less than an online witch hunt, and the ease by which some people in this very community adopted a mob mentality to threaten and harass Cvetanovic — despite his heinous views — is concerning in the least.
His message was one of hate and should absolutely be met with condemnation. The ideology of groups participating in white supremacist rallies around the country are founded in racism and it has no place in the modern world. However, hate should not beget hate. The response on social media to Cvjetanovic’s enthusiastic presence at a white supremacist rally was fueled by hatred. Nobody, especially those who already claim to be victimized by whatever it is they are victims of, will ever learn or change from such abrasive and uncompromising rhetoric.
Cvjetanovic’s views and the views of other white supremacists, white nationalists and neo-Nazis who may be on our campus should not be accepted or shared, but they should be understood. Those of our peers who identify with these groups are confused no doubt, but it’s not against the law to be confused. White supremacists are allowed to speak out for what they believe in. They should not be kicked out of school or alienated by their peers. Alienation will only lead to further alienation and uncivil, ineffective discourse.
Simply saying that Nazis are bad doesn’t make it so to someone already deeply couched in Nazism and other white supremacist ideologies, especially when the only community embracing these individuals are groups like the KKK or neo-Nazis. To shame these people in the way that they were shamed post-Charlottesville will likely only serve to drive them deeper into the only communities that still accept them, which is to say communities of hate.
In the same way, saying “f— Nazis” or threatening those identified at the march with death doesn’t help either, however cathartic or just it may seem to be. Violence begets violence, and the fighting we see in Berkeley cannot be the way forward if the people of this country are to move forward.
However, this is not to say that the conversation will be an easy one, nor is it a simple proposition to get a white supremacist to “change their mind.” Indeed the avowed white supremacist and alt-righter Richard Spencer maintains that he is not racist.
Their logic is twisted and their rhetorical strategies are often brutal and underhanded. Arguing, even in the pursuit of ideological change, will be a tedious and bruising affair. But even so, we should all try. If we don’t, the tenets of white supremacism and white nationalism will not only persist, but harden to a point of no return.
This country can’t afford that.