Countering Hate: An Interview with Aaron Ahlquist of the ADL

It seems to me that, in the battle between nature and nurture, it’s nurture that proves to be our undoing when it comes to learning hate. If it indeed “takes a village”, and ones village is filled with militia-men and women, generational racists, and other so-called “economically distressed” persons, then what kind of individual will a baby become? It’s not a guarantee, but the chances are higher here. 

And, in this Southern region of the country, the Anti-Defamation League certainly has a lot to undo.


According to their values page, the ADL “embrace the power of collaboration,” and “have the courage to speak out against anti-Semitism and bigotry, discrimination and injustice.” Their organization is an absolutely valuable resource on information that tracks the trends and spreading of hate-speech and activities across the country. “Fighting hate for good,” absolutely. 

We at Big Easy Magazine reached out to Aaron Ahlquist, the regional director of the ADL covering Louisiana, Mississippi, and Arkansas, with a series of questions about what he does, the times with which he all live in, and how we all can push back against hate in all of its forms.

I don’t believe we are born with evil in our veins, but I do think it can be unlearned, no matter where one comes from:  

Before we dive in deeper on some of the challenges we are confronting as a society around hate-fueled violence, tell us a little bit about ADL and what your organization does.

Aaron Ahlquist: ADL was founded in 1913 to “stop the defamation of the Jewish People and secure justice and fair treatment for all.”  Since that time, ADL has become one of the foremost organizations in the world dedicated to combating anti-Semitism and all forms of bias, bigotry, and hatred.  To effectuate this mission, ADL works to track and counter-extremism in society, we educate around issues of bias and bullying, and we advocate around issues of equity and access to justice.  ADL is broken into 25 regions that cover the United States (with an office in Israel as well). We also have bureaus of European Affairs and Latin American Affairs working to address rising anti-Semitism and hate abroad.  As regional director for ADL’s South Central Region, my job is to work on these issues and in these spaces in Louisiana, Arkansas, and Mississippi.    

How did you get involved with the work you do currently? What inspired you and what keeps you going?

AA: I have always been committed to issues of social justice, and trying to find pathways forward to a better, more inclusive society.  I had the extreme good fortune to work for Senator Paul Wellstone when I was younger, and I learned what inspired leadership and determined commitment to improving society looks like from one of the great voices of our recent history.  As a lawyer, I worked to better the lives of those impacted by corporate wrong-doing. However, I reached a point where I looked around at what is happening in our country and culture, and I looked at my children, and I realized that this was an opportunity to have an impact on how we stand against the normalization of hate, and how we figure out how to heal as a community.  Our job at ADL is both as challenging and as important as it has ever been, and the stakes keep rising.

As hate crimes have become more overt and prominent in our society, and as rhetoric and discourse seem increasingly divided, is there a connection between the divisive speech we are hearing and the violent, hate-fueled actions we are seeing?  

AA: One of the things that we worry about with polarizing or divisive speech, is that it diminishes the shared, common ground which connects people.  Instead, the narrative pushes discourse to the margins and away from a healthy center space. As the connection we feel towards one another diminishes, and as we are barraged with language that diminishes one another and creates a “Us versus Them” mentality, the opportunity for vilification, demonization, prejudice and discrimination can become more normalized.  When this happens, it opens up an increased opportunity for violent expressions of hate to manifest. This is now being amplified through online and social media spaces which act as megaphones and echo chambers for extremists and extreme ideologies, reaching more people and more like-minded or susceptible people than anyone could reach via direct contact or older methods of communication.  This has the potential to accelerate the divisions we are seeing in society and accelerate the spread and dissemination of hate-fueled ideology.

We came across the term Stochastic Terrorism recently – can you explain what this means and why it’s important to familiarize ourselves with this term?

AA: defines the term Stochastic Terrorism as: “the public demonization of a person or group resulting in the incitement of a violent act, which is statistically probable but whose specifics cannot be predicted.”  This is another way of saying that words matter. It means that we are seeing the language used in political rhetoric demonizing vulnerable communities being repeated in the “manifestos” that are allegedly being written by individuals who are conducting hate-fueled attacks.  

The tragedy of the El Paso shooting several weeks ago illustrates that words matter.  The racist, xenophobic manifesto written by the alleged shooter made dozens of references to an “invasion” by Mexicans and others from Latin America, which paralleled the language which has been used by President Trump in his rhetoric about migrants and refugees coming to our southern border.  

As forces in our society work to increase polarity, and voices on the margins are amplified, the risk is that these marginal or extremist viewpoints start to sound more normal and that this normalized language is used to justify the violent actions by individuals.  It becomes both scary and dangerous when these outcomes are encouraged or anticipated. We are not in this space yet, but the language we are hearing is having an impact, and our leaders need to be aware of the danger that demonizing language presents.

The US has seen mass shootings targeting vulnerable communities, be it attacks on religious institutions, or against groups of people, what are some of the reasons that we are seeing violent attacks against vulnerable communities?

AA: Every vulnerable community in America feels like it is under attack in this current climate.  Whether it is rising anti-Semitic assaults, attacks against the LGBTQ Community, arson in traditionally black churches, anti-Immigrant language, and violence, or any other group who feels that their safety and sanctity is under direct threat, emboldened hate in our society is the cause.  Particularly, white supremacist ideologists are actively pushing their racist, anti-Semitic, xenophobic agenda. Listing some of the most visible recent attacks – Tree of Life Synagogue, Christchurch Mosque shootings, Poway Synagogue, St. Landry Parish Church Fires, Gilroy Garlic Festival, El Paso Walmart, all of these have ties to white supremacy and racism.  

White supremacist ideology prays on the fears of its adherents that White America is being replaced by changing demographics and that it is up to them to stop or reverse this outcome.  Often times, Jews are blamed for orchestrating these demographic shifts and for coordinating the downfall of the white race, which is a reason why white supremacy so often manifests in acts of anti-Semitism.  By terrorizing vulnerable communities, hate groups send a message and try to sew fear. This was exemplified by the chanting in Charlottesville at Unite the Right I, where tiki-torch wielding white supremacists and neo-nazis chanted “You will not replace us…Jews will not replace us!”  

How are the proponents of ideologies of hate working to expand their accessibility and influence?

AA: This really points to the incredible proliferation of hate we are seeing through the use of technology and social media.  We have our mainstream platforms…Facebook, Google, YouTube, Twitter, etc… which we have seen become vulnerable to their own algorithms.   Platform users can find themselves directed to increasingly polarized spaces through no fault of their own and can be exposed to extreme viewpoints and ideologies just because of click selection and the algorithm in place on that platform.  Mainstream platforms are aware of this problem and are working (with ADL and others) to address it. 

There are other platforms, however, that fall outside the mainstream, or have little moderator control, which are much more problematic.  Sites such as 4chan, 8chan (which just went down), vk (the Russian competitor to Facebook), Gab, and Reddit, are all acting as recruitment spaces and echo chambers for hate.  And these are the spaces where alleged attackers are posting their manifestos. In fact, Christchurch, Poway, and El Paso are all examples of how attackers are using social media platforms to amplify the impact and exposure of the attacks (The Christchurch attack was live-streamed, and the alleged shooter in Poway intended on doing the same). 

What are some things that ADL is doing to combat the threat posed by hate in our society, whether it is white supremacy or other forms of extremism?

AA: ADL, as an organization, is committed to countering hate and extremism in all of its forms.  We do this through a number of avenues. ADL’s Center for Technology and Society works with tech platforms and within the tech community to examine and study the impact of hate online while working with partners on strategies to counter it.  This could be working with platforms on their terms of use, moderating and enforcement practices. It can also look at the impact of corporate practices, such as our study that looked at white supremacist uptick of users on Gab, when people are banned on Twitter.  Or partnering with the Network Contagion Research Institute to look at how hate is actually manifesting online. There are many spaces online where hate needs to be countered, from video games, to Facebook, to search algorithms.  

ADL uses its Center on Extremism as its primary tool to track and counter hate in society.  Our COE tracks extremist organizations and individuals around the country, and we communicate closely with law enforcement when threats are identified.  ADL, generally and specifically through COE, is also an organization that provides research and training resources around issues of extremism.

Finally, ADL works to with schools and with children in building anti-bullying and allyship skills for students and teachers.  In this region, our programming engages over 40,000 students per year. If we can build skills to counter hate, and to build a more inclusive and accepting society, that is the best hope for all of us.

What can we all do to stand against hate in our community and our society?

AA: Everyone has a part to play.  As silly as this may sound, if you see something, say something.  Since El Paso, there have been dozens of arrests of individuals threatening mass attacks.  If anyone out there sees something that they think is a problem let someone know, preferably law enforcement.  However, existing only to stop the threat of violent attacks isn’t enough. We need more out of our society, and we should expect more.  It also means we need to keep working to build a space that is inclusive and accepting. We need to hold our elected leaders accountable in doing the same.  If anyone out there wants to learn more about ADL and our work, please feel free to reach out.

Finally, this week President Trump said that American Jews who vote for Democrats are “disloyal”, and then clarified what he meant by that by saying they were being disloyal to Israel.  What do you think of these remarks?

AA: They are anti-Semitic.  They play on and promote that anti-Semitic trope that Jews are loyal to Israel first, and cannot be primarily loyal to the United States (or any place that we have lived for thousands of years).  We are in a dangerous time where American Jews, and Israel, have both been used as a political tool between the parties, and this kind of political gamesmanship of the Jewish people never ends well for us.  It needs to stop.

Bill Arceneaux has been an independent writer and film critic in the New Orleans area since 2011, working with outlets like Film Threat, DIG Baton Rouge, Crosstown Conversations, and Occupy. He is a member of the Southeastern Film Critics Association and is Rotten Tomatoes approved. Follow him on Twitter: @billreviews

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