Somewhere online recently, someone wrote to the effect of ‘historically speaking, white supremacy has always been popular. That’s why we keep having to fight against it’.
Initially I dismissed the comment because I generally ignore white supremacy except when it comes to disdain, in which case I am happy to pile on. The historical origins of bigotry don’t interest me. I get why they interest some people, and I don’t doubt the importance of studying those origins. But for me, I’m comfortable with saying ‘Nazis are bad’ and leaving it at that. I have little interest in differentiating between Nazis and KKK and other white supremacists. Choosing between poisons still ends with you dead.
But something about this comment stuck with me. ‘Historically speaking…always been popular’. Again, I’m paraphrasing the tweet. But that notion that white supremacy, which has been a cornerstone of civilization for ages on end, has been popular…yeah, I’m not sure I buy that.
Now, if I acknowledge that it has been a cornerstone, why would I argue that something was popular? Because I do think there is a difference between being popular and being common place. Daylight Savings is commonplace in America, but I’ll be damned if I’m prepared to say its popular. In fact, nothing but sheer cultural momentum is the reason we still engage in the provenly harmful and disruptive practice.
I’m inclined to assert that white supremacy is the same way (at least to a certain extent). Certainly, that’s not excuse for it (then, now, ever). And when faced with something so harmful, to hide behind ‘cultural momentum’ is nothing but cowardice. But I do think there’s a difference between that and popularity.
Likewise, I think there’s another issue. Namely that white supremacy, like all forms of bigotry, is a form of hate. And hate is never popular: hate is addictive.
An addiction is an odd variable to account for in a societal perspective because, frankly, we still don’t have a complete understanding of what addiction is. Until recently (meaning the last 20-40 years), addiction was thought of as an overwhelming love of something. You got addicted to drugs because of how good they made you feel. You got addicted to smoking because of how calm and relaxing it was. It’s only been in the last few decades that research has shown that addiction doesn’t really feel good; it actually blocks you from feeling good. Addiction steals your ability to feel good, leaving you with only a muted sense of happiness and pleasure, and narrowing the sources of those feelings. The chemistry of addiction is still being unraveled, but we have learned that addictive substances don’t just feel good; they remap the brain so that it can ONLY feel good from a given substance. Moreover, that substance offers less and less pleasure. So without the addictive substance, you fall farther and farther into displeasure and misery. And reveling in your addiction provides less pleasure than it used to.
I think this goes a long way into understanding the proliferation of hate. Hate, like most negative emotions, is addictive because it is so toxic. Hate is destructive and damaging and there’s something compelling and empowering about destruction. There’s something invigorating about breaking a glass object, smashing a fragile statue, popping bubble wrap, crushing a malfunctioning piece of electronics. Whether it is rooted in some juvenile need to express power or whether it is rebelling against a self-preserving instinct, or some combination, or something else entirely, I couldn’t say. But the energy derived from negative emotions is very real. And there’s little as negative as hate.
Hate is a remarkable experience. It can override all reason and logic, and allow so many lies to overwhelm our senses. With hate, the flimsiest excuse becomes iron-clad. With hate, the ugliest trait can become divine and patriotic (and both). Hate is not popular; it is powerful. And time and time again, we have seen that the instant the powerful lose their influence, they are abandoned. Hate is no different. The instant that addictive hit is removed or soured, hate is seen for what it truly is: a malignancy that ruins everything.
White supremacy isn’t popular. I question that it was every popular. But it is prevalent, certainly. It’s prevalence doesn’t have to do with people enjoying it or preferring it, but with its insidious duplication. White supremacy is a contagious disease. Initially the sick mistook their disease for health, and now they think their disease is a trait of might. In reality, it a toxic eroding and it is evident in everything they say and do. ‘Don’t mix the bloodlines’? Anyone with even an ounce of middle school education knows who defeatistly stupid that is.
So I argue that white supremacists are addicted to their own hate. And when confronted with that addiction, they simply double down on it because they re just that: addicts. And looking at white supremacists as addicts helps explain a lot of their behavior.
So no, white supremacy hasn’t been popular historically. It’s been as popular as influenza, diarrhea, and smoking. Which is to say that it’s a plague and one that has been defended because certain people refused to believe for one second they might have been wrong. And from there, the addiction spread.
This isn’t to absolve those who partake in white supremacy of their actions. But it must be understood that it’s hard to quit smoking when your parents forced you to start as a child. But like smoking, it’s an influence that does need to be purged. And it can be, with just a bit of effort and education. Smoking rates in the modern world were plummeting. Vaping bucked that trend but people quickly realized what a sham that was and are eschewing it too. In a century, smoking may be a thing of the past all together. If we keep at it, white supremacy can be gone even sooner.
Which still won’t be soon enough.