In her book “Sisters in Hate,” author Seyward Darby investigates the roots of white nationalism in America with much-needed rigor, examining what draws people into hate movements — and what makes them leave. In the wake of the Jan. 6 insurrection at the U.S. Capitol, Darby’s coverage contextualized the overlap between widespread disinformation and the opportunistic ideology of hate. Here’s what she had to say about the long roots of the Capitol attack, what it says about American history, and what to do if someone you love gets sucked into the white nationalism-adjacent world of extreme online conspiracy theories.
(This interview has been edited and condensed for length and clarity.)
How do you draw the line between reporting on white nationalism and giving it a platform?
This question is one we’ve seen people grapple with over the last couple of years, especially as we’ve seen the rise of various right-wing voices, and I think increasingly what we’re seeing is that they’re going to be spreading their ideas no matter what. The Marjorie Taylor Greene stuff that’s going on right now is quite interesting to me, because she’s in the national spotlight, she’s officially an elected representative, and people are suddenly like, “Wait, but she’s been saying all these things all these years?”
And all of that was knowable. All of that was known, frankly. She was communicating those things on social media and various platforms well before it was being covered by The Washington Post [and] The New York Times … if you don’t cover these ideas, that doesn’t mean that they’re going to go away. …. I think that it’s all about the care and consideration you put into covering the topic, and not either allowing them to just say what they want to say and not countering it in any way, but then also not mocking it. Because that’s fuel in and of itself. So I’m currently on the side of shining a light, but making sure it’s positioned really well.
For people who know someone in their friend circle or family who are taken in by these views, what can they do?
The top line answer is that it’s not easy, and one thing that I think is an absolute certainty is that people can’t be argued out of what they’ve decided to believe. … But if it’s a loved one, and they have gone down the rabbit hole of a conspiracy theory … the key thing is to listen, so asking questions — “Why do you believe what you believe?” — as opposed to confronting, and allowing them to express it on their terms, but then also setting boundaries where you say, “I want to be able to talk to you about this, I understand that it’s important to you and understanding it is important to me, but” — for instance — “I don’t want to hear anti-Semitic language” or “I would prefer that you not attack me and tell me I’m wrong,” or something along those lines.
And if somebody violates those boundaries, then you can take a step back … there’s not necessarily going to be this “aha!” moment that you’re able to introduce into their lives, but rather, in the same way that they started believing something — because it made sense for them at the place they were in their lives — they’re going to stop believing it for that reason, too, when it is no longer serving what it was for them. And by having conversations with them, engaging with them, not confronting them … trying to maintain contact and keep a dialogue open means that when they are ready, when they are willing to engage with the idea that maybe they were wrong, you’re there to potentially offer a hand or an ear … if you just absolutely can’t, if … let’s say it’s a friend, and you are a person who is in a community or have an identity that is targeted by whatever this conspiracy theory is, and it feels too dangerous for you, then don’t do it. It’s incumbent upon the people who feel comfortable having those forms of engagement.
The deeper people get into these spaces, the more likely they are to start to embrace other conspiracy theories. Right now we’re in kind of scary moment, in the post-inauguration stretch of time, where you have some Q[Anon] believers who [are] finding other ways to believe in Q. … And there’s been active chatter online in the right-wing corners of the internet amongst more hard-core white power, white nationalist types, of reaching those people. Because white power is nothing but a conspiracy theory at the end of the day, this idea that the white race is under threat, that a white genocide is happening … if a person was already primed to believe in something like Q, then it’s not such a stretch that they would start believing in something like that.
The women you interviewed had different things they were getting out of this movement that have nothing to do with the movement itself. Do you think that might be a route out — a point where it no longer is providing this sort of unrelated payoff?
Yeah, absolutely … radicalization is a fundamentally selfish process. It’s all about you, and what you need … and deradicalization is quite similar. It’s selfish. It has to make sense to you, there has to be a reason that you leave this other thing behind, and it’s not going to be this sense of moral rightness all of the sudden, like, “Oh, I’ve been wrong the whole time.”
It’s just not that simple. … What’s tricky is that it’s highly individualized. So, part of what we’re up against is the sheer number of people who have come to believe these things, because certain ideas have been normalized over the last four years, especially, and there’s not a recipe to deradicalizing someone. People’s circumstances are different, people’s needs are different, and so … how do we do this, potentially, at scale? How do we think about it as a problem that we need to tackle at scale, as opposed to on a more individualized level?
What about the overlap between the unregulated world of wellness influencers and right-wing extremism?
Unregulated wellness communities are problematic from any number of standpoints, public health maybe foremost. But if you think about what kind of principles undergird a lot of these wellness communities, it’s autonomy, it’s a sense of elevating the self above all else, and maybe your immediate family, friends, your people, above all else, and it is ultimately all about purification. It’s about purifying your existence — not having toxins in the cleaning supplies you use, only eating vegan food, or only eating organic … it’s all about purifying yourself, making yourself clean and whole, and I think that there is a natural overlap between that and an ideology that is obsessed with purification of community, and purification of nation and race … the thing about something like white nationalism is that it’s an opportunistic ideology. So yes, there are purists … but more often than not, people come to white nationalism because they’ve found a world, an ideology, a way of being that overlaps with it in some way. And it can overlap with a lot, and … in the wellness communities, it’s really just not that many moves from “I just want to make sure that I’m as healthy and safe and taken care of as possible” to “I want to apply that mentality to a community that I’ve chosen.” … The wellness community has always been a space where things like conspiracy theories have propagated, and … if you’re someone who gets into the wellness community because you want to understand this narrative of the world that’s bigger than yourself and how you fit into it, there’s always a risk of that sliding into a different type of conspiracy theorizing.
It’s striking how ahistorical a lot of white supremacist lore is, even down a comment one source makes about “The Lord of the Rings.”
This space is ahistorical, without question. It is also full of mythology, about what whiteness is, what America is or should be. It’s a place that tells stories, most of which are lies, that make certain white Americans feel good about themselves, about what they care about, about what they unite around. And people like to be told stories that make them feel good about themselves. That’s human nature. But I think the other thing I will say … the United States is a relatively new country, but it is a place built on tons of mythology … the stories we tell ourselves about what it means to be a person in this country are very deeply connected to founding mythologies.
That’s certainly what has been interesting about the dialogue surrounding The 1619 Project, from The New York Times — that so many people seem upset with the mere idea of reimagining what the beginning of America is, and there are people who consider themselves Americans today whose existence as Americans began because of this truly despicable trade in human beings.
The fact that the Trump administration’s response was the 1776 Commission? That is a country holding fast to a mythology that it needs to keep in place, or even something as simple as Joe Biden saying, you know, “This isn’t who we are as a country” after the insurrection happened.
It’s exactly who we are as a country. We just tell ourselves that it isn’t — the “we” there is white Americans and legacy, mostly white-dominated institutions. Those are the myths we tell ourselves, as opposed to saying we aspire to be a country where this doesn’t happen, we aspire to be a place where equality is just the norm, we aspire to a higher standard of justice.