It is Not the Messenger. It is the Message
By Rachel Carroll Rivas, Co-Director, Montana Human Rights Network
“Jews will not replace us,” chanted the mob of white nationalists during the 2017 march in Charlottesville. They didn’t wear Klan robes. Instead, many white nationalists wore the corporate casual uniform of polo shirts and khakis, but they carried torches of bigotry. The uniforms may have changed, but the underlying ideas are the same and so is our call to respond.
Charlottesville jolted many Americans awake but it also reinforced the central role anti-Semitism plays to white nationalist ideas. While many people are shocked by the recent overt displays of racism, the Montana Human Rights Network has resisted the violent extremism for nearly 30 years and continues today with projects like the Speaking Volumes: Transforming
Communities use many tools to combat bigotry: counter protests, alternative events promoting diversity, or elected officials and faith leaders making statements. But, the media has often treated it like a sporting event, keeping a scorecard of which side “won.” And, then when public switches focus, communities are left to pick up the pieces and make sense of what’s happened.
Folks ask who are these torch carriers, why are they doing this? Unfortunately, we hear that racists are either mentally ill, poor, had bad parents, or are “not from around here.” None of these are satisfactory and miss the point that ideas have power and appeal to otherwise “good people.” Powerful ideas transcend geography, economic status and personality. Failing to recognize the importance of the ideas behind the wacky behavior causes us to just blame an individual and not address the ideas. These harmful ideas include: keeping public activities (aka government) to a bare minimum, conspiratorial thinking, the belief in absolute truths devoid of scientific thinking, and the scapegoating of blaming an “other.” These ideas appeal to regular people, including 5th generation Montanans with good mental health, wealth and education.
Very little of what’s happening today is new. The chants of “Jews will not replace us” are essentially the same messages in The White Man’s Bible, a hate book transformed into art in Speaking Volumes. Today’s white nationalists peddle the same hatred that’s plagued us for hundreds of years. However, a significant difference right now is the political support given to these hateful ideas and organizations.
Today it is hard to reconcile how otherwise “good people,” and even our leaders, sometimes believe these “crazy” things. Folks often want to vilify the “bad guys” and honor the “good guys” without question. We are made to believe that, if we just remove that one nasty leader, it will all be better. The bigger problem is not the messenger. It is the message.
Ideas have power. White nationalists and others peddling fear and hatred don’t exist in a vacuum. Instead, they prey upon and amplify the everyday bigotry, institutionalized racism, and marginalization of certain groups.
Just as Speaking Volumes transformed the physical manifestation of ideas, when we understand how “good guys” end up marching down the street with torches, we can find creative and impactful ways to transform our communities to be resilient to hate and welcoming to all.
The Montana Human Rights Network is sponsoring Speaking Volumes: Transforming Hate exhibition of art created from 4,000 white hate books acquired from a defecting white supremacist and used as an educational tool to organize resistance to white nationalism. The exhibition and programming stimulates discussion about the dangers of anti-Semitism, violence, racism, homophobia, and bigotry.
The Network and eight other community organizations will sponsor programming in Helena that will provide opportunities to address bigotry in our communities through thought-provoking art, theater, and lectures that will challenge and move attendees. A list of the programmatic events follows and can also be found at www.speakingvolumes.net.