Hate Maps

Spatial metaphors are inadequate for charting the impact of extremism

In August, after torch-bearing neo-Nazis marched through Charlottesville, Virginia, a map went viral. It was released by the Southern Poverty Law Center, and it showed the physical offices of 917 organizations that the SPLC’s team of civil rights lawyers have classified as “hate groups” operating across the United States. The designation is applied to any organization undertaking activities that the SPLC considers to “attack or malign an entire class of people, typically for their immutable characteristics,” and they have been releasing an annual census since the 1990s. This year’s map is most dense with icons in the south and north-east. SPLC reports a massive rise in hate groups since the turn of the century, noting a 197-percent increase in anti-Muslim groups since just 2015.

The project of mapping hatred seeks to draw extremist groups and their operations out of the realm of rumor and into the territory of demonstrable fact: Clinton Township, Michigan is north of Louisville, Kentucky, and both cities are host to white nationalist organizations. Picturing these groups in physical meeting rooms can demystify them: The mental image of malfunctioning printers, wobbly tables, and chairs with uncooperative wheels makes these organizations seem less like portals into unfathomable terror and more like harsh geographic features of an inhospitable landscape. Knowing the elevation of a mountain helps us scale it, as knowing the breadth of a river makes it possible to bridge it. As tools in the colonial project, maps helped monarchs dominate territory. Paradoxically, maps created in service of social justice seem to promise that we can conquer hatred the same way — by measuring it, recording it, and rendering it visible.

Tools in the colonial project, maps helped monarchs dominate. In service of social justice, maps promise that we can conquer hatred the same way — by measuring it, recording it, and rendering it visible

At the same time, the Charlottesville rally indicated that hate groups themselves want to put their movement on the map. In Vice’s video documenting the event, reporter Elle Reeve tells the camera, “They’re supposedly here to protest the removal of a statue of Robert E. Lee, but they’re really here to show that they’re more than an internet meme, that they’re a big real presence that can organize in physical space.” The discourse of the hate groups at the rally is shot through with language that invokes geography, from the chant “blood and soil” to the white nationalist who declares “We want a homeland.” The counter-protesters also appealed to their claim on America’s geography. In the moments after a car crashed into a crowd, killing counter-protester Heather Heyer, a Charlottesville resident named Timothy Porter shouts at the camera in disbelief, “I seen blood and people on the fucking ground — this is my town! We did not want the motherfuckers here!” At Heyer’s memorial the next day, Tanesha Hudson, a local activist, said to the crowd, “We need everybody to make Charlottesville a real place of resistance.” Vice’s video camera captured both sides chanting the same slogan. “Whose streets?” both camps asked. “Our streets!” both sides answered.

How does putting hate groups on the map differ from hate groups putting themselves on the map? Maps claim to represent the world as it is; their crisp lines and high-contrast colors seem to indicate clear divisions and static territory. Reality eludes the map, and yet without maps we are lost. Organizations that track hate groups and hate crime hope to use the power of mapping to make sense of and ultimately find solutions to North America’s extremism. And yet the implication that we can somehow “orient” ourselves with regard to hatred enlists spatial metaphors that may not be able to bear the weight of our need for an explanation.

For centuries, when mapmakers’ pencils hovered over territory they didn’t know, they filled it in anyway. Jan Huygen van Linschoten’s 1596 map of West Africa is detailed along its coast, where Dutch trading ships had gathered something of the lay of the land; but inland, in what looks to be the present-day Democratic Republic of Congo, is a doodle of a lion and the phrase “hic effoditur aurum in magna copia” — here gold is dug out in great supply. To the southeast, Zaire Lake is decorated with drawings of brawny, tailed creatures, and the legend “Tritones & Syrenes in hoc lacu sunt” — this lake contains mermen and sirens. A 1639 map of North America is similarly composed, its coast crowded with names (“Novum Belgium” in what may be present-day Ohio), while the middle of the continent features more or less fancifully placed mountain ranges and pictures of horses, rabbits, and wild boars. In the mid-1700s, French mapmaker Jean Baptiste Bourguignon d’Anville began producing maps that eliminated place names or topography for which he found insufficient evidence; vast swathes of territory that older maps had named or described were suddenly empty, reflecting the genuine state of European knowledge about these regions.

While today’s maps tend to go easy on sea monsters, contemporary cartography is hardly immune to the biases that informed ancient depictions of the Earth. I have a world map on my office wall, a 2012 publication by the Canadian Cartographics Corporation. It has several features that mark it as more than a neutral record of geographic facts. It uses English and French place names not only for locations within Canada, but for locations in Japan, China, Argentina, Russia, and everywhere else. “China” is an exonym, a foreigner’s name for a place. Within China, the country is officially known as Zhongguo, which translates to “central country”; for the Chinese, this is the center of the world.

A map raked with swaths of violent feeling makes hatred seem like corn or barley, something America is actively cultivating

Perhaps most significantly, like most maps traditionally hung in North American elementary schools, mine is a Mercator projection, a 16th-century design by Flemish cartographer Gerardus Mercator that was intended to help sailors plot their courses. All world maps attempt to depict a spherical shape on a flat surface, which leads to some distortion; the Mercator projection exaggerates the size of regions farther north and south of the equator, while foreshortening those located near the equator line. Greenland looks bigger than Brazil, and Alaska could fit Namibia, Botswana, Zimbabwe, and South Africa. Thetruesize.com allows users to correct these misperceptions: You can click on a country and move it around the map, watching it shrink as it approaches the equator and swell as it approaches the poles. If I lift Congo over to where I am in Quebec, it covers the entire province. If Sweden is lifted up and dropped on the equator, it seems to be the same size as Peru — in fact, Peru is more than twice as large.

In the 1960s and ’70s, counter-mapping came into vogue. Where maps had been used as instruments of domination by state authorities, communities started creating their own maps to declare different narratives about the use or occupation of space. The creation of the self-governing Inuit territory of Nunavut in northern Canada in 1999 came about partly as a result of local residents mapping out land use for hunting, trapping, and berry-picking. In England in the 1980s, the Parish Maps project had small communities making maps of what was important to them in their day-to-day surroundings; rather than being mathematically precise drawings of boundaries and city-placements, these collaboratively created maps took the form of quilts, collages, watercolors. They might show parks with kids playing basketball, or where patches of wild strawberries grew, or where to feed the ducks at the pond.

Hate maps can be seen as a form of mapping back, designed to shock the percipient into rejection of a landscape that shouldn’t be. In a political climate in which the concerns of marginalized or oppressed groups are often not taken seriously, concretizing the way extremist ideas have propagated across the country (in 1999 the SPCL found 457 hate groups in the U.S.; this year it documented 917) is a way of using the map’s authority to build consensus. The dominant culture finds many ways to dismiss personal testimony from people who are hatred’s targets; it’s harder to call a map a matter of opinion. The hope is that the debate can advance — from denying the existence or seriousness of American hatred to correlating the incidence of hate groups and hate crime with other potentially illuminating data, like unemployment levels or health of municipal law enforcement-community relations. The hope is that once Americans can visualize the fact that Black Lives Matter is operating in a context of militant white supremacy, then the context, rather than the response, will be understood as the problem.

For their intended percipients, a map of hate groups burns a painful symbology into the American landscape. A map of the U.S. dotted with swastikas and Klan hoods instead of place names is both familiar and unrecognizable — a layer has been added, or, perhaps, scraped away. A map raked with swaths of violent feeling makes hatred seem like corn or barley, something America is actively cultivating. For many, state and hometown are important identity-signifiers: Once the concept “Vermont” is twinned with the concept “neo-Nazi,” that negative valence clings to an entire complex of emotions about belonging. It can be difficult to motivate people who are not the targets of racial, religious, or other forms of hatred to feel that these are their problems; by partially reframing the issue as one of regional identity, hate maps show a geography being “taken over” by hate groups. These maps warn the percipient that groups they don’t identify with are creeping into their territory; they are calls to reclaim or defend known boundaries.

It’s debatable, however, what SPLC’s hate maps actually show. They’re not doxxing projects; they don’t give street addresses for the groups they list. And unlike most counter-mapping initiatives, they show the activities of marginal groups in order to delegitimize them. To take hate maps in the way they are intended, the percipient first has to agree that these groups are doing something wrong. The white supremacists who attended the Charlottesville rallies wanted to project their beliefs into physical space as a way of asserting their power. For a percipient who sympathizes with extremist ideas, the SPLC’s map is a signal boost, and maybe even a handy way to locate other like-minded groups. Hate maps assume that governments, law enforcement, and other stakeholders are interested in rooting out hate groups. But rallies like Charlottesville’s are granted permits; it is far from clear that those in positions of authority will seek to limit extremist activity.

These “hate maps” warn the percipient that groups they don’t identify with are creeping into their territory; they are calls to reclaim or defend known boundaries. But the SPLC’s map can also be a signal boost

Part of the problem with counter-mapping the activities of hate groups is that it is unclear whether hatred should be considered a distinct spot on the landscape — an aberration from the norm — or the landscape itself. The official map of North America is built on erasure of indigenous communities, and on legitimizing land seizures. A map pinpointing injustice would be all pin and no paper. Showing the location of groups with extremist ideologies is a record of a geographic reality; the borders that such a map erects are less easily perceptible. Hate maps can perhaps only demarcate expressions of hatred that American society does not currently accept from ones that it does.

“Hate group” is another exonym; few of the organizations on the Southern Poverty Law Center’s list would identify themselves that way. In fact, in late August the Christian organization D. James Kennedy Ministries filed a lawsuit against the SPLC, claiming that applying the hate group label to the ministry was defamation. Matthew Krepcho, the ministry’s director of partner relations, told Florida’s Sun Sentinel, “We don’t hate anybody … What we know is that you hate the sin. And we hate all sin — whether it’s homosexual or heterosexual — all sin. But we don’t hate the sinner. We are praying that homosexuals will repent and be saved.” Krepcho is attempting to draw a border between campaigning to deny a group of people their rights and hating them. Hate groups that don’t believe themselves to be hate groups are standing at a vantage point from which “extremist” views seem not marginal but central.

Identifying extremism relies upon another form of spatial thinking that finds expression in our cognitive maps of the political landscape. On the SPLC’s hate-watch blog, the organization identifies itself as monitoring the activities of “the American radical right.” The entire notion of a “left” to “right” political spectrum sets up a simplistic spatial rubric for a diverse set of ideas. The terms originated during the French Revolution when supporters of the monarchy sat on the president’s right in parliament, and supporters of the revolution sat on his left. The terms “left-wing” and “right-wing” didn’t enter general political discourse until the 20th century, and are now conventionally understood to indicate how active a role a voter or politician believes the state should play in people’s lives. But as philosophy professor Crispin Sartwell points out in a 2014 article in the Atlantic, groups that support monarchism, fascism, fundamentalism, and libertarianism are all classified as right-wing even though they have little in common beyond their opposition to communism. He suggests that the American understanding of right- and left-wing beliefs is a misreading of history, and that right and left in American politics are essentially one ideology. “Instead of left and right,” Sartwell writes, “we should be thinking about vertical versus horizontal arrangements of power and wealth.”

In public discussion of hate groups, the spatial metaphor of left and right invites the perception that any extremist group on the far right must have an equivalent on the far left — hence Trump’s “many sides” comment. The false equivalency between Nazis and Black Lives Matter protesters suggests that a reasonable position would fall in between these two ideas, balancing them out. Opposing the right makes protesters a mirror image of the right. Just as the Mercator map shows Europe in the center, so this spatial organization of political movements is distorted to center a primarily white experience of the world.

In Mohsin Hamid’s brilliant novel Exit West, the sudden appearance of doorways that lead from one part of the world into another is half magical realism, half metaphor for the dislocating journeys of refugees and migrants. As the doorways proliferate, geographical boundaries disintegrate; everyone is on the move, and no place can be separated from any other place. With the meaninglessness of borders comes the meaninglessness of nations. Hamid writes:

Reading the news at that time one was tempted to conclude that the nation was like a person with multiple personalities, some insisting on union and some on disintegration, and that this person with multiple personalities was furthermore a person whose skin appeared to be dissolving as they swam in a soup full of other people whose skins were likewise dissolving.

Maps are records of barriers, limits, and edges. As the movement of people and the reach of communications technology unmake these limits, the dissolution of identifiable units of geography — and hence, units of meaning — requires more porous definitions of who and where we are. At Charlottesville, counter-protesters chanted “Nazis go home.” But surely the point is that there should be no place that Nazis are accepted, no place that violent extremists can comfortably call home. In a world with fewer and freer borders, the problem can never be located elsewhere.

Linda Besner’s most recent book is Feel Happier in Nine Seconds. Her poetry and nonfiction have appeared in the New York Times Magazine, the Boston Review, the Globe & Mail, and Enroute, and aired on CBC Radio. She lives in Montreal.