Saturday, January 21, 2017

Why I’m not going to start punching Nazis

In case you missed it, a short video is doing the rounds of the internet of Richard Spencer, the leader of the alt-right movement whose meetings tend to feature cries of “Heil Trump”, being punched. And all of a sudden, my Twitter feed is full of different versions of this video and a whole slew of likes and retweets featuring people seeking to justify the act.

It will, of course, depend on who you actually choose to follow, but I appear to be getting one half of the argument. In essence, it boils down to this: Richard Spencer is a Nazi, and it is the duty of everyone who values democracy to punch any Nazi they see. From what I can gather, the other side of the argument is that violence is wrong, and those using violence to combat violence are guilty of double standards.

Let me begin by saying that I think Richard Spencer’s policies, so far as I understand them, are repulsive and dangerous. At least, that’s my opinion. I also can’t bring myself to feel sorry for him, if I’m honest: if you are going to adopt the rhetoric of a hated and hateful tyrannical regime, you’re not going to be universally loved. Those who live by the sword die by the sword: you reap what you sow. Call it “karma” if you must.

But I must confess I do start to feel uncomfortable when people start using excuses for violence and vigilantism, because I begin to wonder where it ends. One Tweet I saw took the position that violence is only justified when used in self-defence, and punching a Nazi is always self-defence.

Is it, though? If I punch a Nazi who just happens to cross my path, what am I defending myself from? The theoretical possibility that one day he may come to power and enact policies which will be disadvantageous to me? I mean, he might; but there’s a theoretical possibility that anyone I meet might stab me in the back. It’s not a particularly good argument.

And who decides who is a Nazi and who isn’t? In the case of Richard Spencer it seems clear, despite the fact that since the word “Nazi” means “member of the National Socialist German Workers’ Party” we’re already using it inaccurately. Spencer clearly draws much inspiration from that movement, that’s good enough for me.

But how about somebody who thinks there’s something in what Spencer says? How about somebody who voted Trump? Somebody who once shared a Breitbart article on Facebook?

More importantly, though: exactly what does punching a Nazi achieve? It might give the puncher the satisfaction of a job well done, but beyond that? If we’re defending ourselves from a theoretical future Nazi dictatorship, how does raining blows on somebody prevent that? Do we think that the likes of Spencer would go home, holding a blooded hankerchief to the nose, and think: “Goodness, some people don’t like me. I should turn over a new leaf.”

The issue here is actually quite a simple one, because it’s a basic human tendency. I am certain every single human does it. You do it, I do it, we all do it, even if we don’t want to admit it even to ourselves. I’m trying my hardest not to do it right now, but I have no way of knowing how successful I am.

We discriminate.

We can’t help it, because it’s pretty much hard-wired into our brains. We need to have some way of distinguishing between things that threaten us and things that don’t. But we modern humans, thanks to our innate ability to use language, have developed some very highly sophisticated and incredibly subtles ways of discrimination.

Basically, we divide humanity into two parts: one good, and one bad. But we carefully do it so that we’re always in the “good” part. No matter how many different ways we divide humanity, we always draw the line so that we ourselves are on the “good” side.

We can be phenomenally clever with this. We are even able to put ourselves on the “good” side while pretending to put ourselves on the “bad” side: if I say, for example, that I’m a racist, I’m not dividing humanity into “racist” and “non-racist”; I’m dividing it into “deluded” and “self-aware”, and putting myself on the “self-aware” side.

Following this line of argument much further, of course, we have to conclude that my simply saying “We all discriminate” is making exactly that distinction in exactly that way, as is this paragraph I am typing now, and we disappear into a pretty nasty paradox. I’ll simply have to ask you to bear with me and consider whether or not my basic point here makes sense to you.

This is the same phenomenon behind all those competing theories about how Donald Trump got elected, or how Brexit happened. Every time you see one of those essays, always imagine the author carefully constructing the argument in order to be innocent. The simpler the argument, the more likely it is to be self-serving. “People voted Trump because they’re all racist” means “I didn’t vote Trump, therefore I am not racist.” Conversely, “People voted Trump because they wanted to get rid of the political establishment” means “I voted Trump because I believe mainstream politicians are trying to destroy me.”

And this is why I’m not going to start punching Nazis. The sequence of events thus far is:
  1. Spencer divides humanity into “good” white people of European stock — people who look like him — and everyone else, who are “bad”.
  2. Somebody else divides humanity into “bad” Nazis, and the “good” people who actively resists them, and so justifies landing a punch.
  3. Countless other people divide humanity into “bad” people who attack, and “good” people who merely defend themselves. Some put Spencer into the “bad” group, some put him into the “good” group. They all put themselves into the “good” group, of course.
But this is a lazy, and ultimately counter-productive, way to go about it. Quite simply, humanity doesn’t divide up so neatly, and all of these divisions are arbitrary. But the more we do this, and the more importance we attach to these divisions, the more polarized society becomes, and before you know it, we’re drawing up the battle lines.

There are better ways of resisting and counteracting extremism. Forcing people to decide between one of two extremes is not at all helpful.

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