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Act of the Imagination

I'm trying to imagine: If I belonged to an organization that contained actual Nazis (i.e., people who honestly believe (and say publicly) that it would have been better if the 25% of my extended family that survived the Holocaust hadn't), would I want to resign from the organization unless those people were expelled?

I find that my answer is not clear.  I know that I would be offended, frightened, and feel personally threatened, and  I wouldn't want to attend meetings where those individuals were present.  I  would not want to engage those persons in conversation.

But I belong to several very large organizations, with thousands or even tens of thousands of members.  I have not audited the politics of the members of any of those organizations (although most, it's true, tend to be more left-leaning than right-leaning, because of who I am).  Statistically speaking, it's nearly certain that there are Nazis in one or more of those organizations, but I don't have confirmation of it because they haven't announced themselves.  I have not resigned from those organizations, because the result would be that I would belong to no large organizations.

So the question isn't whether I want to belong to an organization that contains Nazis, but whether I want to belong to an organization that contains people who admit that they are Nazis.

Again, my answer is complex.  On the one hand, the willingness of a person to announce such vile beliefs feels more scary than the mere knowledge that Persons Unknown are thinking such things anyway.  The act of displaying them makes it feel as if they are more likely to be acted upon — this may not be fully rational, although I'll bet if it were possible to do some sort of long-term longitudinal study, you'd find that people act on beliefs less frequently if they never speak them.  Also, the instantiation of the beliefs into words gives them an aura of (at least slightly) enhanced respectability and acceptance.  Finally, because I have studied MacKinnon and was a student of James Boyd White, I believe that words have power: I believe that the act of saying a certain relationship exists a way of building that relationship.  This is the very meaning of constitutive rhetoric, the discipline in which I have done much of my legal writing.  To say that I am inferior and should have been killed is a way of creating a world in which that happens.

But I also have an American phobia of shutting down speech.  Whenever I imagine sanctioning someone for saying something awful, I always imagine the converse — that someday what *I* have to say will be viewed as awful, and I will be the one sanctioned.  I have the sort of "slippery slope" paranoia that thinks that expelling people for A today will make it easier to expel them for A & B tomorrow, and A & B & C the day after that; and I have the other sort of paranoia that thinks that expelling someone for A today makes it easier to blacklist someone for A tomorrow makes it easier to put someone on a surveillance list for A the next day makes it easier to.. and so forth.

What I find, ultimately, is that I am choosing between two kinds of fear: fear of the danger represented by someone who wishes me harm on the one hand, and fear of runaway institutions and the stifling of expression on the other.  Or I'm choosing between two different types of communities:  communities that tolerate (and therefore promote) harmful speech on the one hand, or communities that shut down opinions they don't like, on the other.  I am not so naive as to think that it's possible to have the best of both worlds.

And I am suspicious of myself in both directions.  Maybe I don't have enough imagination to know how I would feel in an organization that had vocal Nazis; maybe I'm deluding myself by thinking I'd have any reaction except terror, fury and a need to protect myself.  Or, on the other hand, maybeI wouldn't feel threatened at all, and would welcome the chance to argue with these morons in public for as long as they had the energy.  The thing is, I'm not in that situation.  Imagination and empathy are all I have to work with.

Ultimately I must decide what I think, and act on it — because, of course, there is no such thing as true silence.  Qui tacet consentire videtur.  But I will be troubled by whichever decision I make.  The purpose of this meditation is not to announce my position; it is to explain why, even when I make the issue as personal to myself as I can, my position remains muddy and confused.

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