By Shira Goodman
Words matter. This is a lesson we teach our kids, but adults must heed this as well. And often, the intent behind the words becomes less important than the meaning imbued in those words by the audience. Our country is again realizing this as we deal with what President Donald Trump did and did not say during last week’s debate.
Trump was asked by moderator Chris Wallace, “Are you willing, tonight, to condemn white supremacists and militia groups and to say that they need to stand down … ?” Rather than condemn white supremacists, Trump repeatedly dodged the question, and then responded, “Proud Boys should stand back and stand by. But I’ll tell you what, somebody’s got to do something about antifa and the left.”
Immediately following the debate exchange, ADL CEO Jonathan Greenblatt tweeted that he was “trying to determine if this was an answer or an admission. @POTUS owes America an apology or an explanation. Now.” Forty-eight hours later in an interview on Fox News, the president finally said, “I condemn all white supremacists.” This delayed response, however, could not undo the messages sent and heard Tuesday night.
Here are the facts. Domestic extremism is a growing and increasingly deadly problem. In 2019, domestic extremists killed at least 42 people in the United States in 17 separate incidents. Although there are extremists on the left and the right who have engaged in violence, over the last decade, right-wing extremists have been responsible for 76% of all domestic extremist-related murders. Trump’s own FBI director recently testified that “the most lethal of all domestic extremists since 2001” have been those who are racially and ethnically motivated, with white supremacists encompassing the largest share of such extremists. And a September 2020 draft report from the Department of Homeland Security identifies white supremacists as the greatest domestic terror threat to the United States.
We cannot defeat this deadly form of hatred if we fail to recognize it and if our leaders fail to condemn it unequivocally, every time. Tuesday night, those who fight hatred, bigotry, anti-Semitism and racism heard silence where there should have be a simple, strong statement.
Worse, those motivated by hatred and bigotry heard a call to action. They were emboldened and empowered; one Proud Boys chapter used the phrase “Stand Back, Stand By” in a new logo. The Philadelphia Chapter posted a doctored image of the president wearing one of the Proud Boys’ standard polo shirts. Others tweeted, “Standing by.”
Words matter. In the pyramid of hate that ADL uses to demonstrate how hate unchecked can escalate from biased attitudes to violence, we emphasize how important it is to interrupt hate at every level. That includes calling out friends and family for telling offensive jokes and posting racially biased memes, criticizing and correcting those who misgender trans people, and condemning community leaders for racism, anti-Semitism or any other hateful speech.
When we fail to do so, a cycle of escalation begins that is harder to interrupt. This is because once we tolerate the jokes and posts, those speakers are emboldened. It is not a tough leap from words to action, and as we normalize that kind of speech, it creates an atmosphere where discrimination, hate incidents and violence can occur.
We all share the responsibility to call out hate wherever we see it, whichever side of the aisle it comes from, and whoever the speaker is — ally or opponent, friend or critic. In these highly polarized times, it is easier to call out the other side and to give more leeway to those we might agree with or support. This is a dangerous trap because those who are motivated by hate will be empowered by that polarization and any silence it creates. Words matter — what is said, what is heard, and how we respond.
Shira Goodman is the regional director of ADL Philadelphia, which serves eastern Pennsylvania, southern New Jersey and Delaware.