Dave Smith using the example and message of Daryl Davis is an insufficient justification to platform and reach out to fascists

Dave Smith is host of the Part of the Problem podcast where he has hosted controversial individuals such as Richard Spencer, Christopher Cantwell, Michelle Malkin, Nick Fuentes, and others on the authoritarian right wing. Smith has long defended his choices for podcast guests as serving a greater goal of having ‘interesting conversations’ where two sides can learn from each other. Recently, in his debate with Rabbi Litvin over the appropriateness of an infamous tweet by the Libertarian Party of Kentucky twitter account, Smith referenced activist Daryl Davis’s TED Talk to justify his decision to host individuals on the far right wing. As we will show in this post, Smith has misrepresented Davis’ words and actions in his justification for platforming various authoritarian guests.

For those who are not aware of Daryl Davis, he is famous for helping convince over 200 members of the KKK to leave said organization. This feat is even more impressive when you consider the barriers to trust and communication that Davis had to overcome because he is an African American. In a TED Talk, Davis explains he did this because he believed ignorance leads to fear which leads to hatred which leads to destruction. With this thesis, Davis sought out these klansmen “not to argue or fight, but to learn from them... Not just talking, but respecting each other to air their points of view… willingness to listen.” At the end of his talk, Davis concludes, “I am a musician, not a psychologist. If I can do that, anyone can do that.” For many, Davis is an inspiration on how to confront the hatred we see amongst white supremacist (and other hateful) groups.

It’s also worth noting that Davis is not the only one supporting a compassionate, humanizing approach. In 2017, Christian Picciolini gave a TED Talk where he explained his descent into an American neo-Nazi movement and how he got out of it. Picciolini explained that most people fall into hate movements because of their “potholes - things in life you hit that invariably nudge us off our path and if they remain unresolved or untreated or not dealt with, sometimes we can get dangerously lost down dark corners.” Picciolini further elaborated that potholes include but are not limited to trauma, abuse, unemployment, neglect, and even privilege. In explaining how Picciolini helped others get out of various hate movements, he said: “I don’t argue. I don’t tell them they are wrong. I don’t push them away, I draw them in. I listen to their potholes, and then I try to fill them.” Picciolini concluded with a challenge to his audience to “give people compassion even if you don’t think they deserve it.”

If you take these concluding remarks out of the context of their talk, you might conclude that everyone, regardless of knowledge, skill, or background should initiate good faith dialogues with white supremacisists or others with dangerous ideas. However, this conclusion, which Dave seems to share, misrepresents the words and actions of both Davis’s and Picciolini’s talk, both of which communicate:

Attempting to connect with or convert a fascist or other reactionary is not something to be taken spontaneously, lightly, or without preparation because this action is ultimately difficult and dangerous.

Regarding the danger, both Davis’s and Picciolini’s talks demonstrate that interactions with white supremacists often gamble with someone’s safety. In Daryl’s case, he explains that during an interview with a klansmen, a random, but startling, background noise almost resulted in his and his secretary’s murder. Picciolini admitted that he was savagely violent towards countless individuals whose actions did not deserve such violence. Circling back to the context of the aforementioned debate between Smith and Rabbi Litvin, Rabbi Litvin explained that mere act of engaging in a debate on twitter, presumably just between libertarians and those concerned with a tweet, Rabbi Litvin faced a torrent of vulgar and threatening anti-semitic tweets and messages.

Regarding the difficulty, Davis is famous because his accomplishments are so rare. If converting klansmen were easy, most people would have a klanmen’s robe in their closet and there would be less klansmen in the United States. Picciolini was given a TED Talk because leaving a hate movement and convincing others to do the same is a rare accomplishment. Neither of these speakers walked into these conversations with hate movement members with ignorance. In Picciolini’s example, he was armed with his unique and relevant personal experience and used it to successfully connect with other hate movement members. Davis acknowledged in his Talk that “music was my profession, but studying race relations was my obsession”. Davis continues that this obsession started at the young age of ten when he was the target of violent racism.

Despite Davis stating his original intention was solely to listen rather than argue, the recordings and recountings of his conversations with various klan members reveal that Davis was excellently well prepared with statistics on the subject of race relations. In one conversation, Davis was able to dispel a klan member of his belief that people of African descent were biologically more disposed to commit crime, by turning the same argument around regarding serial killers. Davis leveraged statistical data to argue for the biological predisposition of white people towards being serial killers. “Well, that just sounds stupid,” said the man and Davis made his point. 

In another conversation recorded in Davis’s documentary, Accidental Courtesy, Davis is armed with the historical knowledge to answer a klan member’s question/accusation that white people should be able to have their own spaces just as people of African descent have their own spaces. What’s repeatedly demonstrated in Davis’s conversations, is while he absolutely treats individuals in conversation with respect and actively listens, he does not appease or excuse ignorant or harmful behavior.

On the other hand, Smith seems to approach conversations with his guests with ignorance, appeasement, excusal, or dishonesty. Rather than being an expert, Smith will occasionally pander to elements of the authoritarian right by making claims no professional academic or pundit could defend. In a conversation with America Firster, Michelle Malkin, Smith claims that the real problem of racism in the US is the “hatred of white men that is pushed on our culture and is completely accepted.” Smith doubles down in a later conversation when he claims the real problem with racism in the US is anti-white racism. In a conversation with Nick Fuentes,  Smith demonstrates his lack of expert knowledge in civil rights history when he compares Twitter enforcing their own anti-bigotry rules of conduct with Jim Crow era “whites only” signs.

Showing his ignorance even around the individuals Smith platforms, in a conversation with Nick Fuentes, for example, Dave acknowledges being repeatedly told about the Fuentes’ hateful ideas and behavior before incredibly claiming to never seeing evidence of it and concluding that Nick Fuentes is “Good dad. Really nice guy. Turns out, not at all what you’re telling me he is”.

When Smith is not completely ignorant, he often excuses and minimizes bigoted and harmful behavior. In a conversation with Michelle Malkin, Smith flat out declared he doesn’t care about behaviors exhibiting racism or holocaust denial. Beyond not caring, Smith has even stated he has found jokes of those ilk to be “hilarious.” Compared to Daryl Davis, who will frequently put his guest on the spot and ask his guest how his or her behavior is supposed to make Davis feel. In doing so, Davis forces his guests to reconcile how his guests' behavior affects others.

Circling back to the debate between Smith and Rabbi Litvin. Rabbi Litvin used Fuentes as an example of Smith platforming an anti-semitic (or otherwise bigoted) individuals. It’s worth noting that Smith’s response was not to deny the premise, that Fuentes was anti-semitic, or to profess ignorance at the time. Instead, Smith used Daryl Davis’s example to justify having a conversation with Fuentes. This implies that Smith, at least at the time of the debate, was aware Fuente’s bigoted beliefs. This is even more telling when you compare how Smith has recently compared Fuentes to those who criticize Fuentes. 

In conclusion, using the example of Daryl Davis or Christian Picciolini is an insufficient justification for platforming or reaching out to fascists.