On Tolerating Dylann Roof

January 6, 2017, 7:43 PM UTC

Like so many of you, I’ve been following the Dylann Roof trial in South Carolina with a mix of horror and fear. The horror is self-evident. In his short life, Roof has resurrected the worst images of white supremacist violence: Stalking and killing innocent people because of the color of their skin, secure in the knowledge that what he was doing was right.

Yesterday, prosecutors shared excerpts from his prison journal. This dispatch from the Washington Post captures the coldness of his hate:

Roof spared virtually no group from his ire, and he made clear he did not regret what he did. Jewish people, he wrote, were “undoubtedly our enemies,” as were Hispanic people, who he said “introduce crime and violence to our country.” He said that being homosexual was “nothing more than a sick fetish” and that he believed Hitler would be “inducted as a saint.”

He seemed to view his violent action as necessary, even brave. “I would rather live imprisoned knowing I took action for my race than to live with the torture of sitting idle,” Roof wrote.

Here’s the fear: That that there has been no serious, public examination of his radicalization online, of the systems which either validated his thinking or allowed him to devolve unchecked, all but guarantees that more Dylan Roofs are coming.

Consider the sad example of the A&E Network, which came under fire recently for a documentary series about modern-day family members of the Ku Klux Klan – and there are plenty of them – that had been slated for January. The series, called Escaping the KKK: A Documentary Series Exposing Hate in America, drew critique from some who argued that it would only serve to validate and normalize hateful views. Supporters believed that the show could have the opposite impact; by seeking to understand how bigotry was passed on through generations, the anti-hate activists who appeared in each episode could make a personalized case for tolerance.

We’ll never know. The documentary was abruptly canceled, not because of the backlash, but because of the embarrassing revelation that the producers had paid several of the Klan members and coached their “performances.” In the rush to have a conversation that we desperately need to have, entertainment values won out over human ones.

As I was searching for better ways to think about the Dylann Roofs of the world, I stumbled on this essay by Yonatan Zunger, a Google engineer who in his spare time writes about history, ethics, and politics.

He begins by saying something shocking: Tolerance is not a moral absolute and religious maxims like “love your neighbor as yourself” or “do unto others” can do more harm than good:

[I]f you have ever tried to live your life this way, you will have seen it fail: “Why won’t you tolerate my intolerance?” This comes in all sorts of forms: accepting a person’s actively antisocial behavior because it’s just part of being an accepting group of friends; being told that prejudice against Nazis is the same as prejudice against Black people; watching people try to give “equal time” to a religious (or irreligious) group whose guiding principle is that everyone must join them or else. Every one of these examples should raise your suspicions that something isn’t right; that tolerance be damned, one of these things is not like the other.

Instead, he argues that tolerance is a peace treaty, one to be considered and negotiated. And that changes things.

[T]he model of a peace treaty differs from the model of a moral precept in one simple way: the protection of a peace treaty only extends to those willing to abide by its terms. It is an agreement to live in peace, not an agreement to be peaceful no matter the conduct of others.

That makes the conversation about tolerance less about the actions of an individual person, but about the contours of a society in which we all must live. In this case, one that has overlooked bigotries large and small for so long that they have been rendered invisible.

Which is what makes the deafening silence around the life and hate of Dylann Roof so terrifying. He is not a confused boy, a one-off monster, an aberration. He is the collective child of generations who have failed to negotiate even the most basic peace with each other.

But it’s also what makes your work—negotiating the tough conversations of tolerance and inclusion on time, under budget, and at scale—so vital now, the blessed peacemakers that nobody saw coming.

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Yesterday I was clever, so I wanted to change the world. Today I am wise, so I am changing myself.
—Jalaluddin Rumi

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