The Intellectual Poverty of the Southern Poverty Law Center
Branding dissenters as haters undercuts its effectiveness.
With America's president casually stirring racial and other hatreds, it would be helpful for our civic good to have an organization
that tracks with honesty and precision what rabble his rhetoric is rousing. The Southern Poverty Law Center, the nation's largest (and richest) watchdog of hate groups, has long sought to fill that role. Unfortunately, the SPLC is not up to the task. It is too busy enforcing liberal orthodoxy against its intellectual opponents.
For proof, look no further than how it has treated conservative feminist scholar Christina Hoff Sommers.
The SPLC, which was formed in the aftermath of the Civil Rights movement with the noble goals of seeking justice for victims of racial violence and fighting hate, recently published a piece in which it accused Sommers of giving a "mainstream and respectable face" to groups peddling "male supremacy."
It was a single, throwaway line about Sommers in a much-longer report — but it prompted Portland's Lewis & Clark Law School's easily excitable students to declare her a "known fascist" and condemn the Federalist Society, the center-right outfit of legal scholars that had invited her to speak on campus, for perpetrating an "act of aggression." They hooted and heckled her, forcing her speech to be cut short.
Far from being spooked by the students' antics, the SPLC doubled down against Sommers. It accused her of wild exaggeration for tweeting that the SPLC had blacklisted her (which was fair enough because it hadn't done that). Then it ran a whole new piece dredging up Sommers' sins to prove that she was indeed an enabler of misogynistic men's groups, rattling off her podcast appearance on a white nationalist Swedish website, in-person appearances with Milo Yiannopolous, with whom she made common cause in defending GamerGate, her disagreement with liberal feminists on the existence of a gender wage gap and rape culture, and the fact that she has written about a feminist "war on men."
For the record, I find Sommers' brand of feminism, centered on the premise that men and women are equal but not identical, to be tinny and insufficiently attuned to the cultural incentives that shape women's choices. But the SPLC's criticism of her is insanely overboard.
Her podcast on the Swedish website was a mistake that she publicly — and deeply — regretted. Her appearances with Yiannopolous, whom I find revolting to the point that I question the judgment of campus conservatives who invite him to speak, occurred before he had become a flaming hatemonger (even progressive feminists in good standing like Julie Bindle were willing to debate him). And frankly, her skepticism about a gender wage gap, rape culture, and the excesses of modern feminism and its Title IX zealotry against due process rights of men are largely on point.
What ought to be clear is that reasonable people should be able to reasonably agree — or disagree — with her views. She may be wrong, but she is not the hate-peddling monster that the SPLC and its liberal acolytes pretend she is.
Sommers at least escaped being put on the SPLC's formal list of extremists. Not so with Aayan Hirsi Ali — the Somali Muslim woman whose experience with genital mutilation turned her into a fierce critic of Islam — or Maajid Nawaz — a former Muslim militant who now fights Islamic extremism. Ali and Nawaz have their problems. (In particular, as I have argued, Ali's broadsides on Islam are misguided and wrongheaded.) But both are well-meaning reformers, not motivated by raw hatred toward Muslims. They hardly deserve to share space with vicious Islamophobes like Pamela Geller who spread vile anti-Muslim conspiracy theories. Yet the SPLC has them all lumped together.
Likewise, the SPLC put the Family Research Center, a Christian traditional-values outfit, on its list of anti-gay organizations, and featured it on its "Hate Map" page. It also put Dr. Ben Carson, the failed Republican presidential candidate who is now President Trump's Housing and Urban Development secretary, on its "extremist watch list." Why? Because Carson and the FRC consider homosexuality a sin and regard marriage as a union between a man and a woman. Apparently, the SPLC can't see a distinction between religiously ordained opposition to homosexuality and actively preaching hate against gays.
The SPLC's ridiculously loose criteria could even brand the Dalai Lama a hater given that His Holiness considers homosexuality "sexual misconduct." The SPLC is now useful only to Social Justice Warriors who share its ideology in toto. For everyone else it is fast becoming a joke.
The SPLC's original mission was to be the go-to media guide covering extremists and hate groups. But center-right folks like myself who are deeply worried about the forces Trump is unleashing find that citing SPLC raises more questions than it answers. (I try hard to corroborate the center's claims by many independent sources before buying them.)
This is truly unfortunate. And the only way the SPLC can get out of its rut is by being less trigger happy. In order to purge every vestige of hate, it has become overzealous. It needs to rethink its strategy and decide that if it must err, it should do so on the side of branding fewer people and groups as hateful rather than more. It needs to strive to be completely above reproach by limiting its designations to airtight cases rather than going after the merely impure.
It'll do the world a whole lot more good by making a bulletproof case against David Duke—rather than a dubious one against Christina Hoff Sommers. After all, if everyone is a fascist then no one is a fascist.
This column originally appeared in The Week