On violence and punching Nazis

So yesterday, with reference (one assumes) to the antifa vs neo-Nazis in Charlottesville and the antifa vs alt-Right in Boston confrontations over the last few days, someone posted on twitter a text/postcard image of Dr Martin Luther King Jr. and a quotation attributed to him (I’m not saying I doubt it’s by him; I just don’t recognise it so hedging my bets!):

Violence never brings permanent peace. It solves no social problem: it merely creates new and more complicated ones. Violence is impractical because it is a descending spiral ending in destruction for all. It is immoral because it seeks to humiliate the opponent rather than win his understanding: it seeks to annihilate rather than convert. Violence is immoral because it thrives on hatred rather than love. It destroys community and makes brotherhood impossible. It leaves society in monologue rather than dialogue. Violence ends up defeating itself. It creates bitterness in the survivors and brutality in the destroyers.

There is no particular statement in the passage with which I directly disagree, and yet the apparent or implied conclusion is at odds with my own instincts and feelings. There was a time when I believed that violent resistance was wrong, and only non-violent, pacifist, protest was legitimate. But over the last 15 years or so, life and learning have shown me that sometimes a pacifist approach is not sufficient.

I have also been troubled recently that the methods used to threaten or silence trans folk, sexworkers, and other marginalised groups (including vocal women) such as doxxing are also being used against the neo-Nazis and White Supremacists and the same old question arises: if these methods are unequivocally evil, and should never be used, why are we making an exception when it comes to certain opponents? And if we use them, are we not admitting that they are tools that can be used against us in the same way?

I gave an answer (though it feels incomplete to me) in a twitter message: When you doxx a White Supremacist or Nazi, that person fears for their lifestyle. When you doxx a trans person or a sex worker or a woman, that person is in fear for their life.

As I say, it feels incomplete, and doxxing in general still makes me feel uncomfortable as a tool or weapon. But it is enough of an argument for me to not automatically oppose those who are doing it to the neo-Nazis.

To try to address these qualms and quandaries, I’m going to see if I can pick apart that MLK quotation to find where the dissonance lies and resolve it.

In the following, by “Nazi” I mean the regime that ruled Germany in the 1930s and 40s. By neo-Nazi, I mean the entire complex that would prefer to be known as “alt-Right”, which includes White supremacists & racists, transphobes, homophobes, MRAs & male supremacists, “g*m*rg*t*rs”, and so on.

Violence never brings permanent peace.

It’s hard to argue with this statement as it stands. But there is one way that violence can lead to permanent peace, which is if one side completely wipes out the other in an act of genocide. The peace of the grave is not much of a peace for the side that gets wiped out!

Leaving genocide to one side, however, it is reasonable to accept that violence does not bring “permanent peace”. As the Fallout games are fond of reminding us, “War never changes.”

But violence might be the first step, and necessary to give you the chance to do the things that can build a more lasting peace. Which leads me on to the next point:

It solves no social problem: it merely creates new and more complicated ones.

World War 2 lasted 6 years and saw new and greater methods of doing violence than ever before. In Britain, it became a struggle first for survival and then to tear down the Nazi regime so that the fascist ideology could be replaced by something more constructive.

I am not well versed in the history of the post-1945 reconstruction of Germany, or the partition into East and West, or any of the problems that have arisen from that. Neo-Nazi groups have emerged post-reunification, and there have been other economic and social issues arising. Perhaps in this case you can argue that the violence of WW2 did indeed only create “new and more complicated” social problems.

But in Britain, there is a different perspective. In Britain, though Winston Churchill is credited with having won the war through his charismatic leadership, the people rejected him as leader as soon as the war was won. Instead, they elected a huge majority for the Labour Party, led by Clement Attlee with a vast mandate for social reform including nationalisation of key industries, a full welfare state including a National Health Service, public housing projects, and education.

Violence didn’t produce these things, but the violence of WW2 was a necessary step to make these things possible. While violence did not solve these social problems, it cleared away the obstacles that would prevent their solution. And let’s be clear: the British fascist groups of the 1930s had to be opposed by force, even if there had been no imminent threat from Nazi Germany, if we wanted to achieve these things.

So it is possible, even reasonable, to suggest that violence can produce a situation where social problems can be solved, while not directly solving them itself. If you have a violent group determined to maintain the status quo and perpetuate social problems (either as a consequence of, or a means to, achieving that goal) then perhaps violent opposition is sometimes necessary to make solving those problems possible.

Violence is impractical because it is a descending spiral ending in destruction for all.

Retaliatory or retributive violence is certainly a descending spiral: as the saying goes, “An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth, and soon the whole world will be blind and gumsy.” Feuds have a way of escalating (USAian readers will probably think of the example of the Hatfield-McCoy feud to illustrate this).

But not all violence is of this nature. There is a classic list of four “theories of punishment”, which is a classification of the reasons for punishing a criminal: retribution, reform, protection (of society) and deterrent. We can look reasonably at violence through this lens (although, as the next part of MLK’s statement indicates, there is no reform element to violence). A show of force or violence might be expected to deter an enemy from attacking or using violence against us. It might also be used as a defensive measure, to prevent a hostile enemy doing harm or being able to do harm to us.

And a hostile force might attempt to use violence to: take things away from us; force us to obey their instructions or conform to their ideals; destroy us entirely if we resist either of these aims or are completely against their worldview.

Not to oppose such a violent intent is surely even more impractical. The fabled pacifist campaigners of the 20th Century, Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King, had the benefit in both cases of media coverage and of other organisations who were less pacifist operating at the same time and for the same causes. Compare them with the campaign by the ANC in South Africa, where non-violent protest only increased the violence use against them and eventually the ANC felt that peaceful protest offered no hope of success and switched to sabotage, escalating to guerilla warfare and terrorism (source: Nelson Mandela’s autobiography “Long Walk To Freedom”).

If the alternative to violent resistance is to allow the perpetual oppression or destruction of your community and group then to say that violence is a “spiral ending in destruction for all” is to say that one should prefer to see one’s people destroyed and allow the aggressor to persist in their aggression.

It is immoral because it seeks to humiliate the opponent rather than win his understanding: it seeks to annihilate rather than convert.

When I oppose a neo-Nazi, in the immediate term my concern is less about his “understanding” and more about making sure he doesn’t destroy me, or people like me, or indeed, anyone. But I am not in any way seeking to humiliate him.

Equally, I am not trying to convert him in that moment. However, I am not trying to annihilate, but rather prevent him annihilating others.

Converting, persuading, and helping to understand can happen and Lord knows there are some amazing people out there who set out to befriend or reach out to people who are ideologically committed to their destruction so as to convince those detructive people to change. I myself believe that no one is beyond redemption and that it is possible to change and become a better person. A neo-Nazi need not forever be a neo-Nazi but can see the error of such a position.

(That can work the other way as well, however: in Jon Ronson’s book “Them: Conversations With Extremists” he talks about how he made friends with a radical Islamist, until it became clear that the Islamist was only trying to get Jewish Jon Ronson to convert to Islam and join the violent struggle against the West. As an aside, in the same book Ronson also outlines how the KKK was starting to build its base in 2000 and laying the foundations back then for the alt-Right rebranding and the neo-Nazi rallies we’re seeing today)

Violence cannot provide that redemption or transformation, of course it can’t. But it is not possible in all cases to reach out. When a man attacks you with his own violence, it isn’t possible to offer dialogue: before dialogue must come survival.

This part does touch on my unease with doxxing, even when used against neo-Nazis. Doxxing is a tactic that can have various outcomes, and I outlined how the fear for those doxxed by neo-Nazis is physical violence against the person (assault, rape or murder), while neo-Nazis when doxxed tend to face less direct harms such as loss of employment, or of social standing/connections. But a big aim of doxxing seems to be to humiliate the opponent, and when I see people talking about doxxing neo-Nazis, the glee that seems to come across feels related to that. While there is a practical argument to making it unsafe to perpetuate and propagate the hatred that neo-Nazis rely on for their praxis and ideology, and by making it explicit that these views and methods are unacceptable, I worry about the humiliation aspect.

Violence is immoral because it thrives on hatred rather than love.

This is where my unease with MLK’s statement becomes most acute. In this, and the next, sentence, the statement appears to paint an equivalence between the aggressor and the defender that I just don’t accept. A neo-Nazi turns to violence because he is driven by hatred, and thrives on it. But antifa people resort to violence in response to the violence directed at them, and not out of any particular hatred for the one they oppose. Indeed, many stand up to neo-Nazis purely out of love for those who are the targets of neo-Nazi violence.

My hatred is not towards the individuals, nor even particularly towards their general group, but towards an ideology that says certain people should not be allowed to exist or be free because of their skin colour, ethnic grouping, sexuality, gender or gender nonconformity, or any other axis of oppression that motivates the neo-Nazi tendencies. Inasmuch as a group of neo-Nazis is an implacable embodiment and instrument of that ideology and directly seeking to bring about the destruction or subjugation through violent means then my hatred has to be channelled against them, but I have no particular animosity.

It is possible to accept that violent resistance to neo-Nazis is necessary without feeling any emotional engagement towards them; but rather, as a result of my deep and abiding love for others I say: “They have to be stopped, and violence is necessary to stop them, so that those who wish to live peacefully in acceptance of others’ differences can do so.”

I feel passionately about protecting others and opposing hate-based ideology; and sometimes that can feel like anger towards those who perpetrate violence against those I care about (including those who pass laws that do harm) but when it comes to the actual application of violence to oppose oppression, it is mostly a calm, balanced, decision about necessary measures to prevent greater harm. Yes, occasionally, I might punch a neo-Nazi in a flash of anger (cf. the Doctor in Doctor Who episode “Thin Ice”) and that can be justified because if he’s made me that angry then it’s likely that he won’t shut up and is doing significant harm with his words.

The point being, that a neo-Nazi starts from hatred and a violent ideology built on that hatred, as the reason for violence. But an antifa needs no hatred to motivate opposing neo-Nazis, and to provide a cause for violent resistance to them.

So it’s true that “violence thrives on hatred” in that without the hatred that fuels the violence of neo-Nazis there would be no need to violently oppose neo-Nazis, but given that neo-Nazis exist and are motivated by hatred and violence, then the violence needed to oppose them is not formed from hatred, or at least, not the same vicious will to exterminate the Other.

It destroys community and makes brotherhood impossible.

Neo-Nazis destroy communities and seek to break apart all solidarity and brotherhood other than their own hate-filled group.

The aim of those opposing such aggression is first to survive it, and then to rebuild.

Again, while violence itself cannot make brotherhood, and while brotherhood cannot be made while the fight continues, the fight is necessary to create a space in the aftermath where brotherhood can be rebuilt.

Again, there is no equivalence between those who turn to violence and those who are pushed to it. The former tear apart communities regardless of what anyone else does, but the only chance of rebuilding the community is to oppose and drive out those who bring the violence. That can require turning to violence oneself.

It leaves society in monologue rather than dialogue.

Again, there are those who actively reach out and seek dialogue with individual neo-Nazis and try to rehabilitate them away from the hate-based ideas they espouse. But as a general rule, neo-Nazis are not interested in dialogue. If you know a vocal woman with a blog then you know someone who has faced the sort of “dialogue” that neo-Nazis are interested in, if any: dismissal, browbeating and assertions designed to wear down the other, and reinforce their own sense of superiority rather than any actual back-and-forth or exchange of views.

In such a case, a dialogue is not possible and may even be counterproductive if attempted.

How can one have a dialogue with a person who believes that you and all people like you, should be destroyed? There is no dialogue to be had between “I have the right to exist” and “No you don’t.”

Violence ends up defeating itself. It creates bitterness in the survivors and brutality in the destroyers.

I’m going to put it out there: neo-Nazis, without ever being actually the victims of any form of violence, nevertheless have a HUGE amount of bitterness already, and exhibit plenty of brutality even before they destroyed anyone.

On the other hand, antifa really is not about either. The people hated and targeted by neo-Nazis are survivors already but is any of the fight about bitterness? No. It’s about surviving again. While there are some brutal measures (again, doxxing springs to mind), the urge is just to find an equilibrium where there is no need for brutality, but the chance to rebuild afterwards.

* * *

After picking the statement apart, and looking again at the role and methods of fascists, I haven’t really addressed “punch a Nazi” (here meaning neo-Nazi) but I have made clear to my own satisfaction just why I feel that violent opposition is sometimes a necessary evil even when my instincts are to resist turning to violent measures.

The other point I feel I haven’t addressed is the methodology of neo-Nazis, and indeed, all fascist and racist groups in the last 100 years or so.

Neo-Nazis occupy space until they are opposed directly. Their presence and possession of spaces, social and geographic, grows and, as long as no one directly stands and forces them to stop, they continue to grow until they control that space by assent or by oppression, threats and violence. This is why it was important in Charlottesville that there was not only the verbal opposition offered by the politicians, but a direct, physical, on-the-ground confrontation as well.

It’s also why it’s important to punch a neo-Nazi when he imposes his ideology into your space whether by word or by deed. The opposition has to be direct, forceful, and unequivocal. Mere words and “dialogue” allows him to believe he can not only get away with what he did and said, but that he can get away with more, and more violent, imposition upon you and those you care about.

In this instance, violence is the opposite of what MLK described.


About ValeryNorth

I overthink everything.
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