Why do we care whether Richard Spencer is articulate and dapper? It's time to stop critiquing news figures with our feelings instead of facts.
Last week, when audio was leaked of Neo-Nazi Richard Spencer going on a racist, anti-Semitic tirade in reaction to the negative press his “movement” was getting after Heather Heyer was killed during a Unite the Right rally in 2017, a lot of people (myself included) wondered if this would spell the end of profiles about the sartorial choices and “well-spokenness” of professional hatemongers.
But did the people who wrote those articles really need to hear Spencer sounding so ugly and angry to realize how hateful his views are? I think they’re well aware, but they were trying to reckon with what appeared to be a contradiction between appearing “well put together” and being an “evil person.” To them, pointing out this “contradiction” was likely meant to challenge our assumptions of what a white supremacist looks and acts like.
It really shouldn’t though.
As much as the onus is on these outlets and reporters not to publish these kinds of profiles, it’s worth considering why stories about a “Dapper Nazi” are clickbait—and how we have all participated in creating this culture.
While few of us would say that we regard young, good-looking, well-spoken, affluent people as being more moral, we are often more than happy to point out when people we consider to be immoral are lacking these qualities. How often do we see people equating hateful ideas and ignorance with poverty or living in a trailer park? Or with being ugly or old?
Who among us hasn’t shared, at some point, one of the “Hate Ages You!” memes, comparing pictures of 50-year-old Paul Rudd and other good-looking celebrities to pictures of Stephen Miller, Kellyanne Conway, Sarah Huckabee Sanders, or Ted Cruz? I know I have.
But as cathartic as it is to wield ad hominem attacks against our enemies, many of us know these sorts of comparisons—equating attractiveness with morality—don’t make for substantive criticisms. And there is no shortage of real, weighty material to work with, so why are we grasping for the superficial?
Perhaps because tying bad behavior, ideologies, and evildoing to a deficit of looks and charm makes us feel safe. Even superior. Because it makes us feel as though we have the ability to “sense” and distinguish good people from bad, as though “badness” is some amorphous quality attached to a person’s very soul and not a set of ideas and actions.
The other side of this is that many of us assign negative feelings to innocent people because we associate certain qualities with people we don’t like. We live in an ageist, ableist, size-ist, classist, misogynist, racist, looks-obsessed world that is already very cruel to people who don’t conform to arbitrary standards, and we don’t need to add to that.
How often do we hear people saying things like:
“I don’t know, something about them just bothers me, but I can’t put my finger on it.”
“Ugh, it’s just that they remind me of [someone I don’t like].”
“They just creep me out.”
“I just get a bad feeling/vibe from them.”
Saying that you “can’t put your finger on” why someone bothers you may be among the cruelest attacks, because people will often take it more seriously than a specific criticism. How can you defend yourself against something so vague, but which alludes to something so grave?
The thing is, when we say things like that, we usually can “put our finger on” what bothers us, but don’t feel comfortable saying it out loud. For instance, a woman might feel more comfortable saying a man is “creepy” than getting into more detail; if the answer is “he violated my boundaries and that made me uncomfortable” she may withhold it for fear of seeming vain. She also might simply mean that she thinks he’s unattractive, but doesn’t want to sound shallow. It is a bad word for that reason. Our best chances of making sure men are aware that they are behaving badly is to say, in no uncertain terms: “He violated my boundaries and I felt uncomfortable.”
Specificity is important so that we’re all clear: The problem with Stephen Miller is not that he is balding or unattractive; it is that he is a white nationalist who is responsible for much of Trump’s anti-immigration policies. The problem with Jim Jordan is not that he’s “creepy”; it’s that he enabled the molestation of children. That is objectively worse than giving someone a “bad vibe.”
And if we wield vague, superficial criticisms at them, we open the door to allowing the same to be done to us.
Since Elizabeth Warren launched her presidential campaign, how many times have we seen or heard people actually suggest that her simply reminding them of “a teacher they didn’t like” ought to somehow disqualify her from being president? How many times did we have to hear, from people who were never, at any point in their lives married to Hillary Clinton, that she reminded them of an “ex-wife” whom they could imagine yelling at them to “take the garbage out”? A Politico writer recently suggested that Kamala Harris connected with audiences “too much,” without ever feeling the need to specify what that even meant or what the fallout from such a thing could possibly be. He just knew it was “bad”—probably. Somehow.
Tying bad character to some mysterious and unchangeable essence within a person, unrelated to anything they actually do or say, also allows for people to say or do bigoted things and then say, “But I don’t have a bigoted bone in my body!” It allows people to frame illegitimate prejudices and assumptions about people as more legitimate-seeming “gut feelings” that cannot be questioned. It also is an invitation for good-looking and/or charming bad people to fool us.
Sure, ad hominem attacks may make for clever memes, but we will never be able to combat a culture where profiles on “Dapper Nazis” exist so long as perpetuate them. This isn’t about going high when they go low; it’s about making sure that our criticisms are focused exclusively and specifically on toxic behaviors and actions.
It’s not just about the stories. Journalism is also about who is telling them.
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