Democracy in the classroom: Struggles for mental equilibrium, trust and knowledge

Thursday, March 4, 2021

Guest blog by Constance Morley, PhD, Conflict Studies, Saint Paul University

Recent events in the United States are a stark reminder of how currents of racist hatred and thinking can lurk, concealed in the privacy of people’s thoughts until called-upon or provoked. There are folks who maybe had the misfortune of being raised by parents who missed the history lessons of the 1960s that awakened North Americans to grave inequalities, segregation in America and the need to learn the truths about colonialism. Governments slowly started to address racial injustices in America and elsewhere, offering political support for greater cultural diversity. Still, undercurrents of racism in society persisted or reappeared in new forms. In America, a whole range of “white power” groups slowly formed since the Vietnam War, and came together finding common cause in ideas of white ethno-nationalism, hatred of government and dreams of setting-up a separate white country.[1]

Before Trump’s rise in American politics, awareness of the ongoing problems of racism and white power groups was more limited. During the 2016 U.S. election campaign, I was teaching a 2nd year level course on Social Justice, Inequality & Conflicts (Saint Paul University) and felt a duty to engage students in discussions of ideologies, misogyny, racism and violence (among other topics) due to the appalling nature of Trump’s speeches, personal history and political rallies. The course was well-attended. I felt pleased with ongoing participation and interest in discussions.

In the final lecture, however, a small number of young men sitting at the back of the room announced their support for Trump’s ideas! I felt my heart sinking, but quickly responded that the history of racism made support for Trump morally unacceptable. I could hear laughter and snickering as I expressed shock and dismay. The class ended. I felt sadness that such a gulf in understanding of human rights and the need for democracy had been part of the group learning experience. 

It is important to note that the event is not used herein to label the group of laughing students as racists – maybe the Trump-supporting students had missed the class and discussion about Trump’s racist inhumanity in pushing for incarceration of “The Central Park Five.” It is also hoped that as students, they found capacity to change their minds about their support for Trump. Yet, the laughing sadly stood as a reminder that colonialist culture and racism are a long-standing problem in Canada.

The gulf in understanding was certainly insulting to many of the fellow students who had worked all semester on research and thoughtful discussions about racism in Canada against people of colour, problems facing the LGBTQ community, discrimination against women, and more. While many students shared heart-felt experiences of discrimination and their personal struggles to understand and support one another, the coldness of the laughter at the end of the semester felt like a betrayal of a most basic element of trust that is needed for a collegial environment and community. Maybe there were other Trump supporters who remained quiet in their disagreement with discussions throughout the semester, or also somehow masked or hid their views in class.

My efforts for that 2016 course in explaining the historical importance of democratic society supporting human rights, as opposed to fascist, communist and dictatorial forms of government felt so inadequate in the face of the laughter. The gulf in understanding underscores the need for more academic work addressing concepts that influence political culture, institutions, rules and customs that support racism.

Since the 2016 American campaign, the need to confront racism in Canada was highlighted by events including the Quebec City Mosque shooting, public discussions of the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and the rise of the Black Lives Matter Movement. The moral imperative to address racism with its roots in disproven science of the 1800s leads one to ask: How can students in Canada feel any tie, at all to Trump’s revival of racism and hatred and how is anyone drawn into racist groups?

While a consideration of academic research on this subject is not possible here, we can briefly look at some recent headlining groups such as the Proud Boys with links to Trump and the January 6 attempted insurrection of the U.S. government.  The Proud Boys operated without much notice in Canada, led by Gavin McInnes who wrote about and publicised his views in support of Trump and “his calls for violence” at political rallies.[2]  McInnes also wrote that women should be housewives rather than waste their time at work. It is critical to note that the Proud Boys are known to have a broad communication strategy online and infiltrated in universities via conservative student groups.[3] Thus, the movement of conservatism towards extreme political ideologies is important to understand since its reach among the public, including university students, may well continue.

Gavin McInnes wrote about the Proud Boys to make them appear just “alt-light” as opposed to alt-right which was known for its ties to white nationalism and neo-Nazi groups that believe in “ethnic cleansing, …White genocide, holocaust denial and supremacy of the White race.”[4] Research indicates that some members joining groups such as the Proud Boys were first attracted to online content discussing males as victims of social changes and feminism. Finding this online “manosphere” then opens the door to content on racist ideology and conspiracy theories that “demonize” left-leaning liberal groups and anyone arguing against conservative views. Kutner explains that “perceived social exclusion stemming from changing demographics and a shirking of traditional values has left many conservative-leaning students on campus vulnerable to recruitment” from extremist off-campus groups such as the Proud Boys.[5]

The fear of diminishing social status of “whites” was shared by recruits to the Proud Boys and Trump supporters alike. Public condemnations of Proud Boys as violent white extremists and terrorists appears for the moment to have quieted white power groups along with their social media content sites.

However, Belew explains that the January 6 gathering in Washington was really intended as a “demonstration of power” to attract and radicalize more people who feel frustrated with government and democracy.[6] The emergence of cryptofascism (the secret support of, or admiration for, fascism) also suggests that white power activism and right-wing groups will continue to attract members. Cryptofascism involves the use of communication strategies in public spheres to avoid recognition by any centrist and left-wing individuals and groups. Efforts to attract followers may use camaraderie, emotional manipulation, blame-shifting or scapegoating, memes, jokes, pedantry and secret symbols, to list just a few examples, in discussions online or in situations with others.[7]

Evidence indicates people may suffer psychological vulnerability, which leads them to seek a sense of “belonging” and self-help in the “manosphere” as well as in the world of conspiracy theories. Cryptofascism helps secure the ‘belonging’ by reinforcing the importance of shared perceived struggles against government, liberal and left-wing groups and racialized groups that are all seen as 'the enemy.'

My years of thesis work helped me imagine how I might try to avoid gulfs in understanding due to cryptofascism or other efforts used to mask racist views. One solution might be to provide students, at the outset of each course, with discussion of the Principle of Generic Consistency, (PGC) which states that by virtue of being human, everyone has the “same generic rights to freedom and well-being”. This principle requires thought and action-taking that recognize others’ needs as more important than one’s mere desires: One must accept to “Act in accord with the generic rights of your recipients as well as of yourself.”[8]  All rational persons must agree to (PGC) which is the basis for trust in one another and loving relations, or inevitably suffer the pain of self-contradiction. In other words, a person is bound for self-struggle in the loss of understanding and knowledge that comes with denial of another’s rights – such as exists with racism or ignoring poverty. Students also need to learn that a struggle for knowledge and understanding of situations involving rights require “moral justifications”.[9]

The pain of self-contradiction is absolute as a person suffers loss of his own capacity for rational thought required for morality in his denial of human rights of others and loss of thought and understanding of others. For example, individuals denying the PGC by engaging in racism and disrespect for fellow humans, deny themselves knowledge needed for morality in action taking. Denying the PGC and rights of others leads to loss of “mental equilibrium” that is otherwise gained in a healthy community where people enjoy educational and work opportunities for self-fulfillment.[10]

The loss of mental equilibrium can help explain psychological vulnerabilities in being attracted to virtual online groups that help shape the white power movement. Boldness is required in discussing loss of “mental equilibrium” in relation to vulnerabilities, racism, hatreds and spiraling conflicts that can threaten democratic communities. A university classroom may become a collegial community with cultivation of shared mutuality that may result for example, from understanding the PGC and in respecting one another’s human rights as an essential foundation for gaining knowledge. Shared mutuality and human rights are needed prior to any learning about and addressing methodologies and concepts used in theories rooted in colonialist culture that must change.

[1] See Belew, K. (2018). Bring the War Home: The White Power Movement and Paramilitary America. Harvard University Press. (EPUB).

[2] Samantha Kutner, 2021. “Swiping Right: The Allure of Hyper Masculinity and Cryptofascism for Men Who Join the Proud Boys,” International Centre for Counter-Terrorism – The Hague. 3.

[3] Ibid. 6

[4] Ibid. 5

[5] Ibid. 6.

[6] Belew, K. (2021). “The White Power Movement at War on Democracy.” HFG Harry Frank Guggenheim Foundation.

[7] Ibid. 15.

[8] See Gewirth, A. (1996). The Community of Rights. The University of Chicago Press. Chicago. 19

[9] Ibid. 8-9

[10] Ibid. 14.



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