Look beyond the Swastikas in Charlottesville

The abominable violence in Charlottesville is hard to understand, but it is important we try to comprehend the dynamics that took us there. I don’t pretend to know enough about the details — the groups involved, the planning of the event, what was said by the speakers, the timeline of police action, the counter protesters — to give a very insightful analysis today. But I have a strong feeling that the Confederate Identity Project will give us needed insights as we continue to investigate.

Here’s a few thoughts to start:

  • The stated reason for the rally was to protest the removal of a statue of Robert E. Lee, the most famous and venerated figure of the Confederacy. Although self-described Nazis took part, there are no statues of Adolf Hitler to protect. Confederate history is much closer to mainstream American history, and offered the “Unite the Right’ rally both an immediate cause for protest, and a fig leaf of legitimacy.
  • Because they are so much further outside mainstream American society than Confederates, the Nazis who participated (and their symbols, like the Nazi salute) earned more interest from on news and social media. Certainly my social media feeds showed more anti-Nazi rhetoric than anti-Confederate.
  • One question facing us now is whether the event won converts. If not for the murderous car attack, I suspect many organizers would have been pleased with their surprisingly strong show of force in Virginia.

Those are immediate take aways. But this project intends to be deliberate and thoughtful. It uses social identity theory to explore the growth of Confederate identity outside the South. The basis of the theory, as its founder Henri Tajfel put it, is “the individual’s knowledge that he belongs to certain social groups together with some emotional and value significance to him of this group membership”  

I like to think of it as “hats.” As in, “Well, I can see how it is a fun app, but if I put on my hat as the information security officer, I have to say we shouldn’t allow it on company-issued phones.” We all wear many hats in our lives: our race, sex, what organization we work for, position in the company, as a fan of specific sports teams, residents of a town. Every single one of those identity hats has some value to us, and which ever is most important at the moment is said to be most “salient.”

Two critical things:

  1. We think and operate based on who is in and who is out of the  group salient at the time.
  2. We favor our ingroup. All of us.

Let’s take just those basics and look again at Charlottesville. What is the value that people derive from identifying as part of a hate-group? It’s hard for most of us to fathom. But fringe groups attract people who are already on the fringe of society, with little to bind them to the larger norms of conduct. We’re familiar with these outcasts banding together — people who would earn no public notice while wearing their other identity hats can receive significant media attention if they are willing to put on the Nazi hat and give the salute at a public parade.  But that has been the case for decades.

Charlottesville seems different. If nothing more had been accomplished than the torch-bearing parade through the University of Virginia, that would have stood out. It was brash — done without masks to protect the identities of the individuals, and in full view of the news media. And it was large — if you’ve watched news coverage of hate groups before, you know there’s frequently eight of them and eighty counter-protesters.  

Here’s a pre-car-attack nugget from a Washington Post story:

Michael Von Kotch, a Pennsylvania resident who called himself a Nazi, said the rally made him “proud to be white.”

He said that he’s long held white supremacist views and that Trump’s election has “emboldened” him and the members of his own Nazi group.

It would appear that some who came as participants to the rally  found it the same as we did: bigger and bolder than normal. In fact, it was billed as a “United the Right” event, bringing together radical groups. To be clear, the anti-hate protesters far outnumber the Nazis and Confederates, and the rally organizer fled a press conference after being attacked today.

Still, the reason the radical right feels empowered to gather en masse has much to do with the election of Donald Trump. What is the connection? That’s at the center of this project’s interest, and we aren’t there yet.

We have to keep looking. The violence and hatred we saw this weekend is already too much. But it won’t be ended with strong words. We need to find the ultimate cause, and the the solution.


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