"Racists Are Recruiting. Watch Your White Sons," warns a recent New York Times piece by the feminist writer Joanna Schroeder. While it is undoubtedly true that white supremacist trolls try to appeal to vulnerable young men, the incident that prompted Schroeder to write her piece suggests she is succumbing to unnecessary panic.
What happened? Her two sons, ages 11 and 14, liked some memes and used the word "triggered."
Upon hearing them use this word, "I almost lost control of the car," writes Schroeder, reacting in the very manner her sons were probably deriding. "That's because I know that word—often used to mock people who are hurt or offended by racism as overly sensitive —is a calling card of the alt-right, which the Anti-Defamation League defines as 'a segment of the white supremacist movement consisting of a loose network of racists and anti-Semites who reject mainstream conservatism in favor of politics that embrace implicit or explicit racism, anti-Semitism and white supremacy.' People associated with this group are known for trolling those who disagree with them, and calling critics 'triggered' is a favorite tactic."
That is true as far as it goes. But calling critics "triggered" is also common in other parts of the right, and by now it has entered apolitical quarters as well.
Next, Schroeder criticizes her son for liking a meme that he didn't understand was anti-Semitic. "I worried that he was being pulled toward a worldview that would see this painful history as fodder for jokes, or worse, as something to celebrate," she writes.
It's good for parents to be engaged with what their kids are consuming and to talk to them about not being racists. But if they are in danger of succumbing to far-right internet culture, shaming them in the pages of The New York Times does not seem like the best strategy for bringing wayward teens back into the fold.
Schroeder—whose oeuvre also includes two articles for The Huffington Post, "7 Things I'm Not Afraid to Tell My Sons About Love, Sex, and Their Bodies" and "Is It My Responsibility to Make My Son 'Cool'?"—also spoke with NPR about her obsessive monitoring of her son's social media usage. It veers toward self-awareness but does not make it all the way there:
Schroeder has become determined to prevent her young boys from being groomed by radical messaging through these online pathways. But she says it was important to not approach her kids about the topic from a place of shaming. "They're kids and we can't expect them to automatically be able to detect propaganda when it's being presented to them," she said.
And shame, as she noted on Twitter, is the same tactic used to recruit young men to extremist groups. When kids are castigated for sharing these memes with teachers and parents—which often carry themes criticizing oversensitivity and political correctness—they become even more susceptible to their influence, she says.
"The boys [are] consuming media with the 'people are too sensitive' and 'you can't say anything anymore!' themes," Schroeder tweeted. "For these boys, this will ring true—they're getting in trouble for 'nothing.' This narrative allows boys to shed the shame—replacing it w/anger."
On one hand, Schroeder seems to understand that part of the appeal of the alt-right is that it offers young people the chance to be transgressive. But what could be more transgressive than defiantly continuing to explore internet subcultures that your mother not only opposes but complains about in national news media?
Her New York Times piece also makes some questionable claims. As evidence that alt-right indoctrination is causing real harm, Schroeder cites a 17 percent increase in hate crimes from 2016 to 2017. But as I've pointed out repeatedly, the increase in the number of agencies reporting data to the FBI makes year-to-year comparisons difficult: In reality, we can't say with any certainty that hate crimes are more prevalent nationally than they were earlier.
Schroeder also refers to PragerU, the YouTube channel that hosts content from conservative pundit Dennis Prager, as "a propaganda machine that introduces viewers to extremist views." PragerU gets plenty of things wrong—especially when it comes to its alleged "censorship" by Big Tech—and it does sometimes feature interviews with extremist figures. But most of the channel's videos are standard conservative fare. It's not exactly neo-Nazi stuff.
Similarly, Schroeder accuses Jordan Peterson of offering "a path to more extreme content and ideologies." It is of course true that some people who like Peterson eventually go on to an interest in the alt-right. But it's also true that some people who would have become alt-rightists are directed away from it by Peterson, who rejects that ideology.
Recently, some in the media seems to have transitioned from overhyping the threat of radical Islam to overhyping the threat of white nationalism. In a recent piece for Foreign Policy, Wellesley College's Simon Cottee warns that "the collective response to white nationalism has swung wildly from complacency to terrified myth-making." While white nationalism is real and dangerous, he argues, exaggerating its influence is dangerous too.
"One of the lessons of the last few years is that the media frenzy that surrounded every attack inspired or directed by the Islamic State in the West helped create the group's monstrosity, feeding it and provoking it to carry out ever more monstrous acts," writes Cottee. "Another lesson is that focusing on so-called signs of extremism—in the form of what people say, what music they listen to, or how they dress—is a surefire way of antagonizing them. It is also deeply illiberal."
In other words: Keep an eye on your teenage sons, but don't be too worried that their social media habits will lead them toward Nazism. Especially if the "signs" you're watching for are things like saying "triggered."