Earlier this week, the father of a man who marched in the Neo Nazi rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, wrote an open letter denouncing his son, Peter Tefft. The father, Pearce Tefft, had his letter published in his local town’s newspaper website, Inforum.
“I, along with all of his siblings and his entire family, wish to loudly repudiate my son’s vile, hateful and racist rhetoric and actions.
“We do not know specifically where he learned these beliefs. He did not learn them at home.”
The letter has since been shared on Facebook over 89,000 times. It was, briefly, the most tweeted story on Twitter on Tuesday, and garnered so much support it was picked up by major news outlets.
This makes sense; people all over the world have been left feeling sickened and helpless in the face of such bald racism and terror. The march, which resulted in the injury of several people, and the murder of a young woman, was not immediately condemned by President Trump, and when he finally did speak out, his speech appeared harried and hollow. This is not an easy time to be an American.
Pearce Tefft claims in the letter that his reason for writing is to speak out against Nazism, so that it can be stopped. It’s a noble sentiment.
Tefft’s entire family has been subjected to death threats so it’s understandable that he would want to speak out to distance himself from his son’s actions. However, phrases such as,”I pray my prodigal son will renounce his hateful beliefs and return home. Then and only then will I lay out the feast,” are, frankly, a little weird.
For starters, the language makes it sound like he’s on a power trip. Here’s another thing he might want to remember: the message of the Prodigal son – a parable told by Jesus to illustrate what unmerited love and grace looks like – featured a father in it who freely forgave his son, no conditions attached. The father in the story was not holding a “feast” over his son’s head, and certainly not publicly.
Pearce writes three times, in three different ways that his son did not learn such racism at home. But when a father writes a public denouncement of his son that is devoid of any sort of genuine grief for who his son used to be, or the victims of such hateful actions, and is instead an exercise in how to gracelessly distance yourself from your own flesh and blood, we must ask, what kind of home is it that his son is being turned out of?
The link between mass violence, such as terrorism and shootings and violence in the home, has been widely documented.
The man charged with the murder of Heather Heyer at the rally, James Fields, is a perfect example, having physically abused his own mother when he was a teenager.
The point is that whatever drives these men to commit such hateful acts is motivated first by psychology. Whatever their ideology is, it comes after the fact. These men, to paraphrase Nelson Mandela, aren’t born hating women or different races, but they might quickly learn what intolerance feels like. Martin Luther King said that hate cannot drive out hate and yet, this is precisely what this man is doing to his son.
Sue Klebold, the mother of Columbine shooter Dylan Klebold, did not immediately speak out about her son’s actions (that were partly motivated by racism), but when she did, it was with a grieving heart for the people he killed. Klebold did not denounce her son, she was facing death threats, but she did not point fingers, instead she looked at what she might have missed.
And then she went to work, and is now a mental health advocate who has written open letters calling for stricter gun control. She spoke out after she began doing those things.
This dad did not do that.
Last month, Clementine Ford wrote that rape culture flourishes because it perpetuates the myth that rapists are monsters, not sons or fathers or brothers. The same may be said of racism. By othering his own son, Tefft does little to halt white supremacy.
Radicalisation tends to occur when perceived victimhood and isolation blend with toxic masculinity. Pearce Tefft does not have to condone his son’s actions, but he can take isolation out of the equation.
It’s not unlike the hashtag #ThisIsNotUs that went viral among white people in the aftermath of the rally. Reporter and podcast host Sam Sanders called it a cop-out, saying “even if we don’t think we’re part of the problem, we’re part of the system that has a problem.”
I have no doubt Pearce’s relationship with his youngest son is problematic, and painful. But penning a letter saying ‘Don’t shame us! We hate him too!’ is an unhelpful choice to make because it seems like the very person who is responsible for guiding his child is passing the buck.