Fighting Words

These days, it seems acceptable to call anyone a fascist. Recently, for example, feminist scholars Mary Beard and Christina Hoff Sommers have both been labelled fascists by a number of American student groups, as reported in The New York Times. Both of them have no affiliation to fascism, yet the label seems to be sticking.

One would imagine that the legacy of fascism would have do with the millions of individuals whom it has persecuted, maimed, and killed. After all, that kind of knowledge is available in most textbooks on 20th century history—textbooks in which students learn about the atrocities committed by the Italians and the Germans and, ideally, form their own judgements as to how it happened and what must be done to prevent it from happening in the future. For many, facing the history of fascism forces us to confront the unsettling fact that the ability to do evil seems to exist in most, if not all, humans.

For the most part, students learn in these textbooks that fascism is now a thing of the past. They’re taught that this specific political philosophy must include the following elements: a totalitarian form of government, a glorification of the “citizen soldier,” an othering of a targeted group, a paramilitary and expansionist component, and a strong father-like leader in charge. (This definition of fascism comes in part from Alfred Stepan’s book, “The State and Society.” Stepan’s definition, unlike the short blurbs in dictionaries, begins to express the complexity of fascism.) But we don’t usually use the word “fascism” to refer to what I’ve just described. Instead, we often use it as an insult directed at American conservatives or leftists curtailing hate speech. The word is powerfully charged, so problems arise when we use it as a vague insult.

Based on the requirements I’ve just provided, one would have to look long and hard to find living individuals who directly supported a fascist government. They would have to be at least 80, if not 90, years old. Still, given the above definition, calling neo-Nazis fascists wouldn’t be so inaccurate as to raise a serious problem (though if we were splitting hairs, we would also differentiate between them and historical fascists).

While contemporary “pseudo-fascists” believe in many of the racist, homophobic, and sexist ideas that historical fascists held, most of them cannot truly be called fascists, since they believe in a limited, certainly not totalitarian form of government. An authoritarian form of government tends to be content as long as its citizens refrain from particular actions (like having a satellite dish), while a totalitarian state is hell-bent on impacting every aspect of their citizens lives. Take, for example, 20th-century China under Chairman Mao versus contemporary China under Xi Jinping. Though this is reductive, it’s fair to say that whereas Mao’s government was involved in every aspect of every citizen’s life (and killed tens of millions of people), Xi’s government wants to keep people in line and control their use of the internet.

But our use of the word “fascist” has spread far beyond applying it to neo-Nazis and illiberal nations. Our biggest problem is not that we use “fascist” to describe people who share a similarly oppressive but less radical ideology, but that we call people fascists simply because we disagree with them on political issues. 

Dr. Jordan B. Peterson, a professor of psychology at the University of Toronto, espouses views that are certainly conservative and debatably offensive. Perhaps for this reason, he is routinely characterized as a fascist. But Peterson’s political philosophy is a version of classical British liberalism, not fascism. Peterson has spent several decades studying the effects of totalitarianism, and has been trying to help people (though his audience is predominantly young men) transition away from such extremist views.George Orwell remarked in his essay “Politics and the English Language”  that “the word ‘fascism’ has now no meaning except in so far as it signifies ‘something not desirable.’” Orwell wrote this in 1946.

It is intellectually lazy to use the term “fascist” to characterize an individual that one disagrees with. Recall the last election cycle, when some were quite quick to characterize Trump as a fascist. While he did hold views reminiscent of the historical fascists, his thoughts were (and are) not organized into any sort of meaningful ideology or worldview. By calling Trump a fascist, people are writing him off, such that they don’t have to further engage with his ideas. And this attitude extends beyond Trump: since any so-called fascist is obviously a terrible person incapable of meaningful dialogue, calling someone a fascist seems to imply that one need not take the alleged fascist’s ideas seriously. Given the murderous history of real fascism, this must not be our attitude.

Ironically, our tendency to use the term “fascist” as a broad, pejorative term is exactly the kind of thing that historical fascists did. They used simple, evocative words to construct stereotypes and incite violence. The tendency to use a provocative insult to avoid substantive debate becomes especially pernicious when it’s used to justify actual violence. Neo-fascists often use provocative language to incite violence, but this is exactly what we’d expect from them. What’s less expected (and more ironic) is that members of Antifa, a group that brands itself as “anti-fascist,” often use the slogan “Punch a Nazi.” Exhorting people to “punch a Nazi” is, regardless of how evil a Nazi might be, the same kind of violence-based rhetoric that the historical fascists used. In trying to fight the contemporary bastardizations of fascism, advocates of violence against the “alt-right” only resuscitate its corpse.

This is not simply a matter of semantics, as Orwell reminds us in the aforementioned essay: “But if thought corrupts language, language can also corrupt thought. A bad usage can spread by tradition and imitation, even among people who should and do know better.” Using the word “fascist” to characterize individuals with whom one disagrees is an impulsive action. What Orwell reminds us is that our usage of the word “fascist” creates a vicious cycle: our lazy use of language leads to laziness in thought, which then leads to greater laziness in language, and so on. Simply slapping the label “fascist” on a person will not solve unclear or shallow thinking; it will only disguise it, like a Band-Aid covering a festering wound. 

Even at Colorado College, we overuse the word “fascist” by applying it too broadly to any sort of bigot. This is not to say that we should pat racists, sexists, or homophobes on the back for exercising their free speech. We should, however, engage those people and try to understand their viewpoints. It might seem like too much of a burden to engage with people whose views are clearly outlandish and even hurtful, but on a college campus, we (or others for us) are paying to participate in an intellectually engaged community.

No one benefits from a culture of hushed whispers or brooding silence concerning an ever-increasing list of taboo topics. And if it seems like there aren’t any taboos, consider a question widely considered inappropriate like, “Why is CC committed to having international students on campus?” Is it just because we need more statistics and languages that President Tiefenthaler can mention when talking to donors? The person asking these questions might be dismissed because they don’t know the supposedly obvious reasons for including international students at CC. 

But rather than dismissing that person as ignorant, or as a fascist, we need to respond directly and substantively to this sort of question. Once we stop questioning what we take to be a basic truth, we grow complacent about it, and then we stop understanding how to defend it. And it is precisely when we cannot defend our beliefs that they are most vulnerable. When we reflexively dismiss people who question values like international diversity, we merely brush away the bigotry we perceive to be on the surface, while these beliefs remain unchanged. If we want to have any chance of affecting real change, we need to engage with all the ideas present in our community.

When I came to CC, I found an environment of engaged, motivated, and intelligent students. But even these intelligent students are too often wary to discuss uncomfortable questions. And, unfortunately, the uncomfortable issues seem to be the most important ones. Still, that shouldn’t be a reason to give up. It should make us more determined to try to change what we can.

Changing the way we engage in dialogue with each other on our campus—both in and outside of the classrooms—works to restore the primary purpose of a liberal arts education: learning how to navigate a complex and erratic world. Silence in the face of discomfort will get us nowhere, and will lead to greater resentment and hatred in our own community. 

I know that an essay like this one might anger students. But if that anger does not make us rethink our ideas, I hope it will at least push individuals to engage with an unusual opinion. Here on campus, we are so isolated from disagreement that we will have made progress even if we only interact with the other side of a debate in order to reaffirm our own beliefs. Exposing ourselves to others’ viewpoints and learning from that experience is a core part of a liberal arts education. We cannot embody CC’s “Mission and Vision,” “to develop those habits of intellect and imagination” if we are unwilling to interact with peers with whom we disagree. θ