On ignoring evil

In which the author weighs the merits of ignoring despicable people

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When people talk about right wing hatespeech, there is a certain subtext that seems to lie beneath many of their arguments: no matter how misguided, evil, or dishonest the rhetoric might be, just to listen to it can cause you to lose your mind.

Videos and podcasts from Alex Jones, Ben Shapiro, or Jordan Peterson need to be erased from the public sphere. Like a virus, anyone exposed to these ideas will perish to their maniacally misguided and fatally attractive deep-fried propaganda.

This is the belief that fuels waves of criticism towards any media outlet that covers someone despicable. These critics say covering fascists, quoting them, sharing the ideas they believe in is giving them a platform. It is, they say, essentially aiding the hatespeech.

They are not entirely wrong. 10 men in white sheets lighting a cross on fire in the middle of the woods is one thing, but those same images splashed across the internet have a much wider and definitive impact. At the very least more people are watching. And some of those people are bound to be teetering on the edge of extremism and this was the last push they needed. That’s the target audience much of this media was made for.

Some outlets do not give care to the issue they are covering and do so poorly and haphazardly, simply acting as megaphones for the despicable people that they are trying to document. This is a hazard, but not one that I think should preclude ever attempting the task.

It is hard to imagine what a world looks like where we do not cover despicable people, the despicable things they do, and the despicable things they say.

In fact, I think those are core tenets of journalism. In some of my most idealistic moments I imagine the point of journalism is to make the world better by having a more informed public who can make better decisions based on the truth of the world around us. A core belief, shared by hackers and journalists alike, that information wants to be free and that the world and individuals are bettered by being more informed.

There has been a lot of research done about the way that media coverage of suicides affects suicide rates in the days and weeks afterward. It seems like covering prominent suicides is enough to push people over the edge, the coverage in itself changing the world for the worse. There are guidelines now for journalists that cover suicide. To my knowledge, no such similar guidelines exist for covering radical speech.

Similar things have been said about the way we cover mass shooters and terrorist attacks. I need only an ethical, not a scientific basis, to take extra care when covering these things.

I believe that these events should involve intense coverage of what happened and why, but at all times to try to ignore the killer who craved the coverage and attention. They forfeited that coverage by committing heinous evil. The media coverage their self-assigned reward, even as ghosts, and journalists should not become inadvertent accomplices for the world’s fatally insane to get their “message” out.

How little we discuss the intertwining and knotted roots of the issue. Not just how easy it is to get guns, or how we abandon our mentally ill, but what kind of society we live in that this is how people choose to send their messages.

Americans want our sermons delivered with a gun and some explosions. Look at our cultural heroes and the TV we watch and the games we play.

The disenfranchised and mentally ill who live at the outskirts of our society are not ignorant of our desires. They have had their pain, pleas, and desperation ignored on a daily basis. America is not well attuned to listen to messages of desperation, but we listen loud and intently to explosions and blood. It’s in the DNA of our country.

Yet I do not believe ignoring these outbursts of evil will make them stop. The coverage of the worst corners of our society is instrumental to improving it. We still, as a society, don’t understand our own brains.

We don’t know how to control our own thoughts, let alone understand or judge the thoughts of others. The methods we (and our ancestors) have created to communicate with each other as humans are crude, and the stakes have never been higher.

I am proud to be live in a country that places the concepts of free speech on an (untouchable?) altar. I am proud to live in a country that has a long history of journalism, built into the backbone of our society, even as journalists unflinchingly pursue the stated goal of annoying the powerful. Shining light on things people would rather keep hidden.

Which is why when someone says “don’t look over there, don’t report on that guy, it’s bad over there, those people are bad” it makes me pause. I’ve always been more attracted to something when someone says that.

There are valid criticisms that coverage should be more honest, more obedient to the colloquial realities that modern corporate news organizations seem loathe to accept or at least utter out loud. But that is a different, more nuanced, more difficult criticism to make than the ones I often hear.

Idealogical battles are waged in reality. In bars, in coffee shops, in dimly lit Michelin star restaurants expensed by lobbyists, in clashes on the street, in riots, and especially at uncomfortable family dinners.

The coverage of these radical speakers is not unimportant, but it is also not the epicenter of certain waves of change. The people they are talking to, and what makes those people listen, are much more interesting and difficult to grapple with.