The state sign reads “Welcome to Pennsylvania,” but that does not include everyone because where we’re headed in this episode of Viceland’s “Hate Thy Neighbor” is home to the largest Neo-Nazi group in the United States of America. (Oh, but don’t call them that!) Despite their white-supremacist rhetoric, these extremists don’t consider themselves a hate-group and would rather you refer to them as the National Socialist Movement (NSM) in order to avoid confusion. For those of you who have never come in contact with a member of the NSM, the opening footage does well to contextually situate its audience.
Meet Nick. His dog is named Adolf, his child has a swastika baby blanket, his oldest son doesn’t shake hands but instead salutes the Seig Heil. His wife is holding their crying child as she admits, “There should be another genocide or a genocide.” And this is only the first fifteen minutes.
“Hate Thy Neighbor” follows Jamali Maddix, a standup comedian whose British-Italian and Jamaican background gives him an interesting standpoint to interview the very people who criticize and threaten his existence. Jamali’s job is to confront hate groups across the globe and share his experiences through humor. Juxtaposing Jamali’s comedic narrative with actual footage of extremist societies, like that of the Ku Klux Klan, somehow softens the blow. There is constant shock as Jamali motions through the toxic reality certain Americans live and breathe, and learning how to laugh about it ensures that we’re listening.
Much of the success in this show seems to be rooted in Jamali’s ability to listen, to engage in a conversation that is difficult to digest. Communication is his weapon, and words are their ammunition. Jamali is met by individuals who aren’t afraid to say “As long as I get a shovel, I’ma bury mine” in regard to people of color. They spit out nonsense and it feels like a bullet has been fired from their lips, but Jamali remains composed. He has mastered the art of conversation because his motive is to understand where they’re coming from, even if that means listening to individuals who interpret Darwin’s theory of evolution by comparing African-Americans to primates or Asian-Americans to felines. It’s complete bigotry, yet Jamali manages to listen with acute curiosity, attempting to understand what orients the beliefs of these hateful extremists.
Early on in the episode, we hear this quote, “It’s not that Trump is telling these people what to think, it’s legitimizing it,” and this sets a tone of urgency because what we’re witnessing at a political level affects us individually in a way that is detrimental to the well-being of our society. When engaged in a controversial discussion, the motive so often is to change alternating opinion, but how can we reach a consensus when neither side of the altercation is willing to listen? Jamali exhibits the importance of such by maintaining respect and furthering the conversation even if it’s targeted against him.
I truly admire his patience. I find myself cringing at the edge of my seat when I hear a white-supremacist laugh, “We’re going to steal the Jewish bagels and then we’re gonna genocide them all.” The NSM relentlessly vocalizes how they are not a hate group but their behavior proves otherwise. Part of me believes, some NSM members honestly do believe they are hate-free, and perhaps it’s because of how they interpret and communicate their ideology.
For instance, the NSM are very aware of the negative associations with Nazism and racism, so they’ve replaced these identities with euphemisms like “nationalist”. Their power is in the ability to make a name for themselves, an ideal name that removes liability for their questionable actions. They can read and believe Nazi propaganda, and even carry out a Neo-Nazi agenda, but because Nazi isn’t on the label, they can get away with it. Their control of language, how they respond to controversial questions, how they represent their organization is clever in the most corrupt way. When the KKK set fire to a swastika, they called it a “lighting” ceremony since they don’t appreciate the word “burning”.
I encourage you to watch this first episode and see for yourself how they manipulate language to their benefit. In a political climate where everyone has something to say about everything, I am honing in on how they speak and to what effect. I question if there are several ways to interpret one concept, particularly how someone I don’t agree with would conceptualize our conversation. I carry this quote in my pocket, “there are no two thinkers alike,” and I really must be conscious of this; I must be painfully aware of people’s ability to misinterpret information, to repurpose it and manipulate cognizance. Language is a multifaceted system, and I’m still learning how to master it.