This is an opinion piece, and it may not be popular.
It’s certainly not the main narrative on cable news or Twitter today, and it may not be what soothes the pain of the tragic events in Virginia over the weekend. Yet read on; it could ultimately help move our society forward.
First, let’s establish that the belief that one race or culture is ultimately superior to another is hateful, anti-humanitarian and works against a peaceful and prosperous society. The hate and bigotry demonstrated by groups such as the KKK hold an ugly place in American history. Ideally, our society strives to end this and all other forms of hate and violence.
Now, let’s look at the media coverage of Trump’s Saturday speech. Much of it assumes or implies the following:
- In his Saturday remarks, Trump should have condemned the groups attending the “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville.
- He’s a bad leader for not doing so.
- Trump didn’t because he’s trying to maintain political support from “alt right” groups.
- When Trump finally condemned the groups on Monday, it was too late.
- The white supremacists in Charlottesville were the only ones to blame for the violence.
- Trump’s speech will likely fuel more hate and violence; a condemnation would have led to less hate violence.
It may indeed have been better for the president to condemn these groups on Saturday. It’s also possible some of his past comments and actions inspired these groups to attend the rally and behave violently. It’s constructive for the media to question Trump about this speech, as well as previous ones. But for outlets to make this a main focus of the coverage distracts us from examining the issue at hand: how to solve hate and violence in American society.
Why? Because hatred and violence exist in America independent of Trump. They existed before he ran for president. They’ve existed for centuries, and if they’re persisting now, decades after the civil rights movement, Trump isn’t the only reason for this.
A president cannot cause people to adopt certain beliefs, nor can he singlehandedly cause hate and violence in American society. It’s possible that political support from “alt right” groups is more important to Trump than condemning racism. But to imply that his speech is at fault for the violence and hatred, that a different speech would have reduced it, or that the president is therefore racist himself, doesn’t follow logically. Trump has a lot of influence and his comments might add to the problem, but ultimately Americans share responsibility for the state of their nation.
The media outlets we analyzed didn’t explore these ideas in their coverage (this is apparent in the high slant ratings in The Numbers section below), and they may not be aware of how their focus on Trump’s speech could be problematic. Conservative news outlets didn’t publish stories like these, so we didn’t include them in this analysis. But what they did publish, such as this Breitbart story, or this one, blamed and derided counter-protesters, Virginia’s governor and the media. Breitbart’s stories focused on different culprits, but they still used blame, and this also furthers conflict and hate.
This type of news coverage, whether from outlets described as liberal or conservative, may be teaching Americans to avoid seeing their own responsibility, which can make it difficult to change the status quo. In other words, if Americans want to remove hate or violence from society, they first need to recognize their own participation in it.
One might respond that Trump’s “many sides” comment was inaccurate and disparaging. One could point out that the counter-protesters didn’t encourage “hatred” and “bigotry” at all, and they didn’t seem to instigate violence in the way the “Unite the Right” group did. This may be true. But “Unite the Right” did not exist in a vacuum. White supremacists, the KKK, neo-Nazis—they’re one piece of the puzzle. Trump is another. There are others still.
We could sit down and have a conversation. We could take a hard look at how we all participate in condoning violence. We can take personal responsibility for all the acts of violence we directly or indirectly support. For instance, when was the last time I turned a blind eye to injustice? When did I choose to be passive while violence was carried out? When did I last blame others for the problems in my life? When was the last time I indulged in feelings of anger or hate? When did I act with arrogance? When was I indifferent to the needs of others?
These types of questions, when bravely explored, allow us to see more how our actions can inspire humanity and cooperation – or violence. They can open up avenues to work better together to solve our problems.
How deeply do we understand violence? Is it an inherent part of the biology of humans? Or is it a choice? If we believe it is a choice that can be nurtured in ourselves and in others, then this type of examination may be what it takes for us to understand the deeper issue: the extent to which all Americans participate in dishonor and hate. This remains invisible to most of us, so the first step is to make it visible. Once we do, we may have a more palpable understanding of how we create a world where there’s hate.
Media could build awareness around this. Or, it could just further the blame. But we’re quite familiar with where that leads.