By Maddy Ard
Richard Spencer has some rather unpopular opinions.
The outspoken white supremacist delivered a speech advocating for an ethno-white state on Oct. 17, 2017, at the University of Florida. Though vastly outnumbered by protesters demonstrating against Spencer, it seems Spencer’s supporters made the biggest waves.
About an hour after Spencer’s speech, a non-fatal shooting led to the arrests of three men claiming to be white supremacists and Spencer supporters. Tyler Tenbrink, William Fears and Colt Fears drove from Texas to show their support for Spencer in Gainesville.
“[The protesters] don’t need to be afraid of us,” William Fears said in an interview with CNN prior to the shooting. “It’s always the left that brings the violence.”
Spencer has been attracting violence wherever he goes in the past year. Most notably, Spencer actively led a torch-lit Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville last August, orchestrating anti-Semitic chants of, “Jews will not replace us.” This rally caused the death of one anti-protester who was run over by a car.
At Auburn University, Spencer’s speech led to violence and ultimately the arrest of three Spencer supporters. And now, three more have been arrested in Florida.
Spencer’s views instill at the very least discomfort among many Americans. He has often made overt references to Adolf Hitler, producing rage and disgust among his opposition while simultaneously seeming to embolden his followers.
In his 2016 address to the National Policy Institute, a white supremacy think tank of which he happens to be the president, Spencer’s rallying cry, “Hail Trump! Hail our people! Hail victory!” solicited Nazi salutes from the crowd and harkened to the Nuremburg rallies of the 1930s.
In an address at the American Renaissance conference in 2013, Spencer called for a peaceful ethnic cleansing, citing the 1919 Paris Peace Conference as an ideal example.
“Today, in the public imagination, ‘ethnic cleansing’ has been associated with civil war and mass murder,” Spencer said. “But this need not be the case. 1919 is a real example of successful ethnic redistribution—done by fiat, we should remember, but done peacefully.”
With Spencer and other white supremacists making regular waves across the country, journalists are faced with a dilemma: Is silencing an opinion ever ethical?
German political scientist Elisabeth Noelle-Neumann introduced the Spiral of Silence theory in 1974. This theory states that individuals have a fear of isolation, and thus individuals who believe their opinions are in the minority will choose to be silent to avoid being isolated by their peers.
Journalists have an ethical obligation to be conscious of this factor and work to incorporate various viewpoints to avoid isolating or silencing a group which holds an opinion perceived to be in the minority. Society benefits from a plethora of viewpoints and opinions which shed different angles of light on a given issue.
But how far does that journalistic obligation extend?
The diligence of Spencer and other outspoken white supremacists, along with American media’s coverage of these individuals, have made Spencer’s alt-right movement seem much more widespread than it is.
WaPo/ABC polled Americans in August of this year and found that 10 percent of the United States identified as alt-right. On the other hand, 50 percent opposed the movement.
Clearly, the opinions of Spencer are in the minority. But by giving the alt-right and Spencer airtime, journalists create the illusion that far more people support this racist, anti-Semitic ideology than data would suggest.
The message Spencer is spreading is causing mental harm to minorities he deems lesser and physical harm to those who choose to protest his speeches. By interviewing Spencer – allowing him to explain his viewpoint and show his smiling, clean-cut face – journalists unintentionally make Spencer and his racist ideology more approachable and understandable.
“The media is so influential in what we think is acceptable,” said Kayte McClintock, a 2017 University of Alabama grad who studied psychology. “Richard Spencer is a terrible man, but he’s dressed well and smiley whenever you see him in interviews, and that approachability can definitely soften his message to would-be supporters.”
In the case of the alt-right, it is perfectly acceptable to make Spencer and his followers feel isolated in their hate-filled opinions. On rare occasions such as this, the Spiral of Silence is a good thing.