The Irony of the Southern Poverty Law Center’s Authoritarian Desire

I just returned from the Mid-South Sociological Association meetings, held this year in Birmingham, Alabama, where I presented on the Nordic model of corrections (“Approaching the Rehabilitative Ideal: The Structure of Crime Control in Sweden and Norway”). Before my session, there was a plenary session on the role of the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) in advancing civil rights in the south. Heidi Birch, Intelligence Project Director, was the speaker. She focused on hate groups and the methods the SPLC uses to shut down hate speech. SPLC sues hate groups hoping to put them out of business. They have succeeded in obtaining through legal action the assets of hate groups and then distributing the proceeds to the victims. Because of the emergence of the Internet and social media, they have shifted their attention to shrinking the electronic footprint of hate groups and limiting online hate speech.

An attendee rose to challenge Birch on the SPLC’s inclusion of black nationalists groups in the listing of hate groups. She did not understand why, given the power dynamic, black nationalism should be a subject of SPLC work. Birch said she was sympathetic to the woman’s complaint, and agreed about the power dynamic, but, since black nationalist groups advocate racial separatism, antisemitism, and anti-white bigotry, the SPLC has to be consistent. However, the appeal to power in the attendee’s objection is illustrative of the problem of postmodern thinking in sociology, where the truth of hate, prejudice, and discrimination are not determined by form and content but on identity. The implication is that race prejudice and discrimination and ethnic and other hatreds are entirely on the majority; a black person advocating anti-white sentiment is not engaged in hate speech because a black person is a member of a minority group. The postmodern reduction of truth to identity and power harms sociology’s legitimacy. It runs counter to sociology’s claims to be both scientific and humanist. 

I appreciate the consistency in the case of black nationalism, however the SPLC’s work is deeply problematic. The tactic of robbing people of their First Amendment right by depriving them forums in which to share their ideas runs counter to Enlightenment values of maintaining a free and open society where the dialectic is most rational form of persuasion. While I agree that the SPLC accurately identifies some hate groups, leaders, and speech, they are wrong about others, and their opposition to First Amendment protections of the speech they do not agree with means that they seek to censor ideas that are not only not hate speech, but that are necessary for the progress of humanity. They seek to use authoritarian means to impose their worldview on the rest of us. This is quite unbecoming to an organization that claims to fight authoritarianism.

One sees this very obviously in their practice of labeling criticism of Islam—including even Muslims and ex-Muslims—”anti-Muslim extremism.” As the Abrahamic traditions are responsible for centuries of pain and suffering, and as Islam, especially as currently practiced throughout the world, limits and oppresses women, gays, and free thinkers, critics of Islam and religion are desperately needed for the advancement of human rights. Such voices of freedom and reason as Ayaan Hirsi Ali and Maajid Nawaz should be supported, not smeared, by organizations claiming to represent the struggle against hateful and divisive ideologies. (The SPLC finally relented and removed Ali and Nawaz from the list, but it continues to smear critics of Islam as extremists.)

Harassing people with legal action for their speech and misrepresenting those who put their lives on the line for human dignity and freedom as engaging in extremism undermines the legitimacy of the SPLC as an organization that claims to speak for the victims of oppressive and irrational ideas and actions. If groups like the SPLC were consistent, they would join the secular humanists engaged in irreligious criticism and properly identify extremism.

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Andrew Austin

Andrew Austin is on the faculty of Democracy and Justice Studies and Sociology at the University of Wisconsin—Green Bay. He has published numerous articles, essays, and reviews in books, encyclopedia, journals, and newspapers.

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