Has the Southern Poverty Law Center Finally Jumped the Shark?

By George Yancey Published on November 6, 2016

About ten days ago I ran across an online article voicing outrage over the Southern Poverty Law Center’s decision to place two persons on their “Hatewatch.” Normally this would merit little more than a yawn, but these two individuals were Ayann Hirsi Ali and Maajid Nawaz. Both of them are progressives of color who are highly critical of Islam. It’s because of that criticism that they have found themselves on the Hatewatch list.

I have been critical of the SPLC in the past. I found that they selectively use a slipshod methodology to impugn the reputations of political enemies. It is not true, as some suppose, that only conservatives find their way unto their hate lists. Indeed certain black radicals and separatists also have been marked as hateful. Somehow, though, the SPLC hasn’t been able to find any examples of white progressives being hateful. I’ve been able to find such examples (documented here and here) but white progressive hatred seems mysteriously nonexistent to the SPLC. Even their latest additions are people of color. The reason, I suspect, is that being an organization that caters to white progressives, they are blind to hatred within their own tribe.

Several Christians and Christian organizations have felt the SPLC’s wrath in the form of being placed on the hate list. They have tried to explain the error and injustice of being designated as haters, but their attempts have typically been confined to Christian and conservative media channels. Being stuck in this communication cocoon greatly limits Christians’ ability to protect their reputations from being sullied.

But now the SPLC has gone after people who can fight back. Both Ali and Nawaz have the respect of mainstream media. They can get their case out there. Indeed, Nawaz has already struck back at the SPLC’s listing through the Daily Beast. Even atheist bloggers (although Nawaz is not an atheist but a progressive Muslim) have risen to defend these two individuals, for if they can be put on the list, why cannot someone like atheist Sam Harris and Bill Maher be added as well, for this criticism of Islam? This is why I say the SPCL has finally “jumped the shark:” not because they are acting worse than before, but because they are attacking someone who can fight back in mainstream media.

I must admit that even for someone who is willing to out himself as a non-leftist scholar, criticizing the SPLC has been a little scary for me. I have seen how other academics take SPLC’s word as scripture. The very people who teach about confirmation bias fail to see how it operates when the SPLC confirms their hatred of their own political enemies. The same scholars who readily recognize the way we socially construct reality do not see how social construction contributes to making the Hatewatch list. I have feared that criticizing the SPLC could paint a target on my back, making it hard for other scholars to take my work seriously.

Now, however, progressives of color have started to fight back, and I suspect that scholars will have to rethink their nearly blind loyalty to the SPLC. Not all of them will do so, unfortunately; certainly some of those who criticize the inclusion of Ali and Nawaz on the list will still struggle mightily to justify keeping Christians on it. They will contrive all sorts of “false equivalency” arguments. Do not fall for it. You are free now. In the future when people attempt to use the SPLC list to justify denigrating a group or individual, you can say this is the same list that includes Muslims and ex-Muslims of color who are trying to reform Islam’s injustices.

The SPLC’s shining reputation has now been marred enough in the eyes of people outside of the conservative and Christian world, we can finally be free to subject it to the critical scrutiny it deserves.

The truly sad element of this episode with the SPLC is that this is an organization that once provided a powerful service to the community, identifying genuinely violent racist groups that few people knew about. The SPLC helped individuals deal with these groups. They were able to cripple some of them as well. The organization emerged at a time when it was not clear whether we as a country would ever establish a healthy racial atmosphere. They played an important role in reducing supremacist activity.

But that was the past. Today the SPLC has itself been reduced to producing an enemies list for white progressives. That was the conclusion I came to as I did my earlier analysis of the group. Now with the backlash they will receive from the inclusion of Ali and Nawaz on their Hatewatch list, I suspect many more individuals will come to a similar conclusion.

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