The year was 1983. In a lounge of all white patrons, a country band was finishing up their gig. After the set, the only black man in the venue, a piano player named Daryl Davis, was approached by a member of the audience. “I’ve never heard a black pianist play like Jerry Lee Lewis!” The audience member remarked. “Who do you think taught Jerry Lee Lewis to play that way?” Davis replied, explaining that Jerry Lee learned to play from black blues and boogie woogie piano players.
Daryl Davis, then only 25 years old, was renowned for his energetic musical style; he would later go on to play piano for Chuck Berry for 30 years. But that evening, in that small hall in Frederick, Maryland, Davis was less celebrity and more just an ordinary guy who decided to take up the offer to have a drink with this man. The encounter would change both men’s lives forever.
The man was fascinated by Davis’s account of Jerry Lee Lewis’s musical pedigree. Moreover, he was fascinated by Davis. It turned out the man had never had a drink with a black man before—he was a card-carrying member of the Klan. At first Davis was alarmed, a little concerned for his safety. But the two bonded over their shared love of music and kindled what would become a close, authentic friendship. Eventually, this man would turn over his robe and hood to Davis, a sign of his leaving the organization because of his friendship with Davis.
Almost four decades later, Daryl Davis stood in front of a diverse crowd of hundreds in Philadelphia, recalling how he’d spent his life befriending and deradicalizing over 250 Ku Klux Klan members. He paused for a second, and one of the attendees yelled out, “You’re a hero!” The crowd erupted with applause.
During his talk, @RealDarylDavis shows off the items given to him from the extremists he deradicalized, proving that anyone and everyone can change through honest dialogue and conversation between enemies. #MindsIRL pic.twitter.com/QYqn8U1kk1
— Brent Cherry (@BrentJCCherry) August 31, 2019
Davis’s heroism, celebrated at last week’s Minds IRL event, comes from his courageous pursuit of conversation and friendship in the face of conflict, hostility—even violence. Last week’s Minds IRL convening in Philadelphia was an attempt at operationalizing Daryl Davis’s philosophy: creating a space for mutual understanding and coming to common grounds. Because dialogue is the only way out the brutal deadlock of America’s political climate.
MINDS IRL GRAPPLES WITH RACISM, VIOLENCE AND AUTHORITARIANISM
Minds IRL was the brainchild of Bill Ottman and Tim Pool, who are all-too-familiar with the consequences of defying cancel culture’s stranglehold on political dialogue.
Minds IRL brought together a wide-range of cultural commentators to sit down and actually talk about the issues that fill our Twitter feeds and cable news channels.
Ottman, the event’s chief organizer, is the founder of Minds: an alternative platform to Twitter that promotes free speech and broader, deeper discussions on important issues. Minds was derided by publications like Vice, who dismissed it as a “fringe social media company popular with Nazis.” In truth, it’s become the home for heterodox thinkers, including members of the so-called “intellectual dark web,” many of whom fled to the platform after experiencing erroneous bans and censorship on Twitter.
Ottman was joined on this venture by veteran video journalist Tim Pool, known world-wide for his popular news and commentary channels on YouTube.
In partnership with Subverse and Mythinformed, two organizations committed to viewpoint diversity and good-faith journalism, Minds IRL brought together a wide-range of cultural commentators to sit down and actually talk about the issues that fill our Twitter feeds and cable news channels.
Popular YouTubers, heterodox academics, free speech activists: the list of speakers and attendees met almost every benchmark for diversity. Attendees and panelists tackled difficult, complex topics such as the difference between shame and guilt, and thinking through what an “Internet Bill of Rights” would look like. Of particular note was the panel “Changing Minds: How to Admit When You’re Wrong,” which featured speakers like YouTube commentator Lauren Chen (aka Roaming Millennial), Melissa Chen, who is the Managing Director of Ideas Beyond Borders and Editor at Global Conversations, and Pool himself.
Beyond the organized panels, Minds IRL lived up to its mission, going above and beyond to deliver on its promise of a healthy, thriving space for disagreement and healing.
Jack Posobiec tweeted about the event’s “Let’s Debate” feature, where regular attendees could engage in a wide variety of topics based on questions provided by the organizers. These included questions like “should a maximum income be implemented?” and “how to prevent school violence?”
Stephen Knight, host of The Godless Spellchecker Podcast and a speaker at the conference, reported how during a Q&A session, a man rose up to bravely admit that he’s once considered himself “far right” until he realized he was “no better than the extremists on the other side.” The statement was met with “a huge cheer and round of applause.”
ANTIFA’S EFFORTS AT CENSORSHIP
It’s crazy to think that this incredible event almost didn’t happen.
The criticism snowballed into outright protest—and eventually violence.
Leftist media immediately dolled out sharp criticism of the convening, berating organizers for including so-called “right-wing provocateurs” on the roster—individuals like Markus Meechan, a Scottish free speech activist who was prosecuted in the United Kingdom over a comedy skit on YouTube. The criticism snowballed into outright protest—and eventually violence. The so-called “anti-fascist” activists, or Antifa, had conducted a weeks-long harassment campaign and threatened to burn the original venue, the Pitman theater to the ground. The theater responded by reneging on their contract, effectively pushing Minds IRL out of New Jersey.
Pool and Ottman acted quickly, moving the event venue to Philadelphia and sidestepping the efforts at censorship by announcing the change of location to event-goers just three hours before it was scheduled to begin. Despite the many obstacles, the two remained steadfast in their commitment to make Minds IRL a success.
But Antifa is nothing if not persistent. At one point, former Media Matters agent and professional fabulist Talia Lavin made an appearance and remained extremely on-brand by attempting a series of bad-faith interviews. Unable to find sufficient fodder for Twitter disparagement, Lavin left—dramatizing her exit by claiming to have been “chased through a casino,” which was, of course, a lie.
Lauren Chen later reported that protesters made an appearance at the after-party, calling conference goers “literal Nazis.” “Overall,” she admitted, “they were low energy and didn’t end up staying the whole night.”
Ultimately, these naysayers could not dampen the positive energy and enthusiasm of Minds IRL attendees.
EVENTS LIKE THIS ARE VITAL
Ottman, in describing the thought process behind Minds IRL, argued that silencing and censoring people—whether on social media or in real-life event venues—doesn’t change their views. Instead, it sends them to the deepest, darkest parts of the internet, where their views are inflamed and radicalized.
Silencing and censoring people—whether on social media or in real-life event venues—doesn’t change their views. Instead, it sends them to the deepest, darkest parts of the internet, where their views are inflamed and radicalized.
Unfortunately, we live in dystopian times. Good, decent men like Daryl Davis are flagrantly abused with pejoratives like “white supremacist” or “Nazi”—just because they favor a non-aggressive, dialogue-based approach to resolving hate, instead of shunning or violence.
These labels have little to do with who a person is or their actual views. Think of the utter illogic of it: Daryl Davis—a man of color—is labeled a white supremacist. It’s a highly evolved form of bigotry, borne of collectivist thought.
These labels have actual, severe effects: they lead to rampant deplatforming.
Social media is how we communicate in 2019, and social media companies have markedly more power than the state to police political speech. When these companies capitulate to cancel culture and deplatform users deemed “racist” or “sexist,” what they are effectively practicing is a modern day mode of banishment: they are shunning people, keeping them out of the public square because of their beliefs.
Against this cultural zeitgeist, Minds IRL proudly profiled a diversity of topics and perspectives. Attendees, sometimes in open disagreement with one another—whether it be on the merits of cancel culture, or YouTube’s terms and conditions—were listening, laughing, and empathizing with each other. These were everyday people, from all walks of life, political ideologies, religions, ethnicities, cultures, and backgrounds. What they shared, however, was an aversion to labels, hyperbole, and the us-versus-them orthodoxy.
Dialogue, remember, is the only way through the many layers of hate and animosity that’s impeding unity in America. And in these trying times, Minds IRL is putting in the work to heal the rift.