Should we be scared of the ‘extreme right’?

During the past few days, three more mass shootings have occurred in the USA. In at least two of those cases, the motivation of the gunman seems to have been antagonism to immigrants and non-White people. Some commentators have attributed this upsurge in violent White Supremacism to President Trump’s rhetoric and his reluctance to do anything about American gun laws. Whether the president is an important factor is a matter for conjecture, but the FBI are said to have claimed that White Supremacist terrorism is now the biggest terrorist threat to the country, and they’ve apparently dealt with 100 related incidents during the past year.

There has been a similar upsurge of the extreme right in Europe, including the U.K., though our rigorous firearms legislation has precluded such ghastly events as have occurred on the other side of the Atlantic. Nevertheless, violence to MPs and other public figures is recurrently threatened via social media, and the murder of the Labour MP Jo Cox by a British White Supremacist three years ago remains a sorrowful memory. The rise of the extreme right isn’t something we should take lightly. However, what we should not do is to try to suppress or censor it. We’ve tried to do that with so-called ‘Islamic terrorism’ and it hasn’t worked. It’s probably had the opposite effect, implying the kind of officially-sanctioned prejudice that promotes a backlash, encouraging rebellious affiliation to dangerous manipulators and radicalisers.

Among the most prominent proponents of extreme right-wing views in Britain is Katie Hopkins, whose associations with newspapers and television programmes have been serially terminated because her comments have either elicited public opprobrium or verged on the illegal. She’s embroiled at least one right-wing tabloid in an expensive defamation case and her comments have more than once led to police investigations. There’s no doubt that she’s egotistical and self-aggrandising, which are not endearing characteristics (she ran a television series called If Katie Hopkins Ruled the World), and some of her remarks have been unacceptable by any reasonable standards. By referring to immigrants as ‘cockroaches’ she recalled the atrocities in Nazi-occupied Europe during the 1930s and ’40s and in Rwanda during the 1994 civil war. Her Islamophobia isn’t unique, but when she publicly suggested a ‘final solution’ to the ‘problem’ of Islam she was surely aware that the phrase was the Nazi government’s label for the holocaust. She’s an outspoken opponent of migrants, multiculturalism, most brands of feminism, and is unapologetic about her class snobbishness.

On this basis she could be regarded as a distasteful eccentric – except that a number of people in Britain echo her sentiments. What’s scary is not so much her views as the size of her following. While she proclaims herself to be a “conduit for truth” and “declaring what other people think but are too scared to say”, others dub her a “professional troll”, indicating what a (deliberately) polarising and divisive figure she is. But whatever side we take, she shouldn’t be suppressed or censored. When she blames the “left-wing liberal media” for marginalising and hiding opinions such as hers, she has a point. Zoe Williams, writing in the Guardian some time ago, said more or less what I believe: “I’m not saying gag her: I’m saying fight her”. Yes, Ms Williams, but let us fight fairly, by reasoned public debate. It’s not enough to demonstrate that we consider Ms Hopkins’s views unacceptable. We need to demonstrate that they’re wrong.

I certainly don’t want to see Ms Hopkins subjected to the kind of personal abuse to which she’s subjected others. Ad hominem (or in this case, ad feminam) attacks don’t help anyone. It’s been noted that she suffered from epilepsy from early life, and some have asked whether this handicap has affected her mental state and her judgment. Now that the epilepsy has been treated by surgery, unfortunately leading to complications, similar below-the-belt remarks are likely to continue. I’d ask these “critics” whether they imagine that every other right-wing apologist who shares Ms Hopkins’s sentiments are similarly afflicted by physical disorders. Like anyone with a serious medical condition she merits sympathy and support. But this should in no way be conflated, positively or negatively, with the need to engage in reasoned political debate with her – and all those with similar views.

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