Not knowingly, of course.
On my back, I have a tattoo that I love. It’s a vintage typewriter with letters exploding off the page that then sprinkle across my shoulder. It has a banner at the bottom with the well known Mary Oliver quote, “What is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life.”
The tattoo is unique and gets quite a lot of attention. When people compliment me on it, I’ve always responded with, “Thank you. He did a really great job on it.” He, of course, being the tattoo artist. These days though, knowing what I know now, I find it difficult to utter those words. Even though the tattoo is beautiful, exquisite in detail, and for me a prized piece of body art, I find it hard to pay compliments to a known white supremacist.
It is only recently that I became aware of the fact that the artist who had inked me was/is a white supremacist. First, I had trouble believing it, and then I was immensely troubled by it and felt the need to do something. But what?
The thing for me is this: If we are going to be stuck in this capitalist machine, I like to think that we as consumers have some modicum of power in that we vote with our money. By this I mean, we can choose to spend money at and support businesses that reflect and support our own views. Hopefully, these are companies that act ethically (pay their employees fair and equitable wages, adhere to labor law, adhere to environmental laws, etc.). So for example, I choose not to shop at Walmart due to their history of union busting/hating. Often we choose to support (or not) businesses that share our own view of morality or our general worldview. That is, I choose not to frequent a local apple orchard that refused to hold a gay wedding. (Whether or not it was their right to do so is material for a whole other post). What this boils down to is that I would never, under any circumstances (regardless of level of talent, etc.), choose to hire a tattoo artist who is a white supremacist and give him my money (a good chunk of my money. It was a four hour sitting. You can do the math…), so that I can then turn around and (potentially) contribute that money to alt-right “causes.”
The other thing for me is this: This guy and I got on smashingly! Anyone who has ever gotten a tattoo knows that it can be quite an intimate experience. Just you and this person who you are trusting to forever mark your body in a small space, hanging out for, well, often, hours–in my case, four hours. My disbelief upon seeing in print this guy’s involvement with white nationalism was driven in large part by the fact that I couldn’t (refused to) believe that I had happily shared conversation (good conversation, by the way, not meaningless drivel) with a white supremacist for four hours. Like, is my asshole detection just completely broken? Shouldn’t I be able to recognize hatred while it drills a needle into my should blade? How could I not have known? And what does it mean that I actually liked (in the loosest sense of the term) a white supremacist?
How can we root out and fight white nationalism when it lurks in our local tattoo parlors, our local plumbing and heating businesses, our local garden and tree nurseries (these examples are clearly not random…)? How can we choose to put our money where our mouth is when we don’t even know who is a white nationalist and who isn’t?
Initially, I wanted to out him immediately. I wanted to warn others who want to choose wisely about whom they give their money for a new piece of body art. But a little part of me felt bad: He seemed like a good guy to me. I cannot attempt to ruin somebody’s living over something like this? Or can I? And don’t I need to? I found myself clear out of my element. I did not know how to go about combatting the alt right–at least not on this individual/granular level.
Doxxing (Shaun King’s work and Logan Smith’s twitter account, Yes, You’re Racist, are perhaps two of the most well-known examples) has proven to be problematic for a number of reasons–one of the most common being the wrong person being outed. People, wrongfully accused of involvement, have been forced to flee their homes, have found their jobs in jeopardy, and so on. The same, of course, has happened to those who are actually white nationalists. What are the ethics involved in outing a white nationalist? I came to realize that I just didn’t know. Ethics are thorny in many situations, and this one, in my mind, is particularly so.
The mainstream, middle-of-the-road consensus seems to be that it is not okay to out anyone, including white nationalists. Many describe it as a “sloppy” form a vigilante justice. In this Wired article, doxxing is described as primarily motivated by “social and economic punishment.” General arguments about the problematic ethics of shaming people (everything from it’s just not morally okay to it doesn’t generally work to make people change their beliefs or behavior) abound. However, this opinion piece, “Outing White Supremacists is Kosher According to Judaism,” gets out some of the complexities of the issue that interest me. According to Jennifer Thompson, the teachings of Judaism say that the intent behind the outing matters. By this she means that if the sole goal of the outing is shaming or revenge, then the ethics are questionable; however, if the intent is to warn, and thereby keep safe, the community, then, according to the beliefs of Judaism we are acting in a way that is morally sound.
Letting the community know who the publicly avowed white nationalists are is a favor to the community, which has now been warned, and to the person being rebuked – because it gives them a chance to turn their behavior around. This is probably the closest we can get to recognizing their human dignity while prioritizing our own safety.
This is one of the few articles I could find that begins to address my primary concern. Yes, perhaps not choosing not to use a tattoo artist who then chooses to contribute financially to the alt-right is a form of economic justice, but is that such a problem? The same can be said for not frequenting the cake maker who refuses to bake for a gay wedding. Free speech doesn’t mean you’re free of societal consequences when you exercise that right. It simply means the government cannot persecute you for exercising that right. And whether or not free speech applies to hate speech is a whole other thorny (though clearly related topic); however, this post is getting too long as it it.
Ultimately, I have chosen not to name this tattoo artist (though again, he has already been publicly outed by others) and chosen not to actively seek to tell others not to utilize his services primarily out of fear for my personal (and family’s) safety. Over the past months, I have heard too many horror stories of academics who have actively voiced critiques of white nationalism who have then been doxxed themselves (that’s right, doxxing is not just a far-left tactic, as it is sometimes portrayed). I have heard stories about how their lives and families have been threatened. I have read many articles about the power and money behind the alt-right, and as much as I want to fight their existence and their philosophies from being spread, I don’t think that for me personally, taking down the alt-right can begin with this singular person whom I can never really forget–his artwork etched permanently into my skin. These days I cringe thinking about anyone asking me the question, “Who did your ink?” I don’t want anyone to know about this loose association I have with someone who stands for everything that I believe is wrong with the world.
I never expected, or wanted, this post to be quite this long, and yet I find I could go on. I am so deeply troubled by the platform Trump has given to this fringe population. I am angered by their continued existence (resurgence even). And I am further confused and dismayed by my own run-in with one of “them”–a seemingly thoughtful, smart, interesting, slightly nerdy/scrawny white guy (and, oh, isn’t that the general profile though!). I want my money back, but ultimately the thing I paid for is mine. It is a representation of me, a representation of what I think and hope words can do, and reminder to think carefully about how we live our lives. In the end, anything that represents me says we need to to be antiracist every day, every minute, in everything that we do–each in our own way.