Ethical Street Violence

Ever since the “Nazi punching” incident last year, I’ve been wondering just how far I could stretch my mind to accept the idea that vigilante violence is a good thing for the left to do.  My gut always told me no.  It just seems so obvious to me that the precedent is a double edged sword that can and will swing both ways while failing to accomplish social progress.  But since I’ve been able to learn so much, and open both my mind and heart to other messages from the left, I thought I ought to spend the same amount of serious consideration on this issue.

Before I go any further, I think I’d better lay out my liberal credentials.  I don’t want anyone who doesn’t know me to construe my thoughts as pro-fascist, and I don’t want to make oppressed people think they have one fewer ally because of my stance on this issue.  But from what I’ve seen on social media, anything but strict allegiance to the very most outraged and radical bleeding-edge of liberalism will result in a fair number of accusations of that sort.  So I’m not going to pretend I can publically express this opinion without a social cost.  I’ll have friends and co-workers respect me less, if not outright de-friend and distrust me.  On the other hand, I’d like people to actually have an accurate perception of my heart and motives with which to judge my character.

So here’s some of the liberal stuff I’m convinced of.  There IS systemic inequity that we as a culture are ethically obligated to search for ways to address, both socially and politically.  I’ve got almost every single privilege that exists, as as a result, my perspective of the world is VERY skewed, so it’s super important for me to talk less, and listen more.  I should take what people with less privilege than I have to say very seriously and in good faith.  I should proactively advocate for a better distribution of privileges including financial, career, platform, and all the other ways people have of expression and opportunities.  Ok.  Hopefully this helps contextualize the rest of what I have to say.  

In my investigations I’ve come across the the following arguments for why people ought to violently respond to those who practice public expression of fascistic/racist ideology.

  1. As a white male, I have the privilege of being silent/neutral when it comes to the rise of right wing racist fascist groups.  An ethical person would put themselves on the line as though they have the same potential loss as the least privileged person.  To do otherwise is tantamount to accepting gain at the expense of the lives of those who are harmed by racists/fascists.  

2.  As a white male, voicing my opinion on a topic like this is drowning out the more important voices of those who are the most affected by racial hate groups.

3.  Why are you even bothering to question the violence in situations like this when there is so much more real violence being done against those with less privilege?  It seems suspicious that a white guy would scrutinize and quibble over Nazi’s getting a few bruises.

4.  Legitimate right wing parties get the benefits of the fear that far-right fascist groups instill.  Their lack of directly attacking these groups is tantamount to accepting terrorist tactics to advance oppressive agendas. Therefore violent reaction is warranted.   

5. Calling for eventual violence towards minorities requires a violent response before it gets to that.  Related to:

6. The Germans didn’t stop Nazis from taking over and look what happened.  Let’s not be them.

I’d love to hear any others I’ve missed.  I’ve spent time floating a variety of these ideas on my social media to see how well I can argue in favor of them, and every time came away unconvinced.  If you know me, you know that doesn’t mean much to me when it comes to the veracity of any given claim.  I figure I’m wrong about most things.  And I’m wanting to learn and understand.  In the meantime, here’s my thoughts after about 6 months ruminating on and off about it.  The argument that hits me in the feels the most is number one.  The one that hits me in my brains the most is number 6.  But I can wrap up 1-3 into one conceptual bucket with the same response.  And 4-6 in another.

So 1-3 (The Shut-Up-White-Dude arguments) “I’m a white dude who feel unheard because of political correctness.” Is not something I’d ever say.   As I said earlier, I want to listen and learn.  My problem with those arguments comes when I abstract them to universals.  There are logistics that seem unsustainable that are necessarily intrinsic to them.  I can totally sign on to the idea that the more oppressed a person is, the more those with privilege ought to listen.  What I can’t sign onto is an automatic reaction to follow policy prescriptions put forth by an oppressed person.  Not because I think I know better than them, but because it’s literally impossible to do so because there are multiple oppressed people with multiple policy prescriptions.  Some oppressed people would like me to go beat up other white dudes if they aren’t liberal enough.  Some want me to be at peace will all people no matter the cost.  

There’s a whole ‘nother problem of a race-to-the-bottom for people claiming to be the most oppressed so that they have more power to prescribe policy, but I don’t know how relevant it is to this issue.  My point is that I can’t listen to millions of people with conflicting policies and act on all them.  So the idea that my opinion on a matter like this shouldn’t matter is simply logically impossible.  It’s necessary for me to exercise my own moral intuitions on the matter.  There’s just no way around it.  >>>The best I can do is hope that I’ve LISTENED to enough people who lack my privileges so that my moral intuitions are shaped by their lives and needs, rather than simply being a reflexive action of justifying my own proclivities and privilege.<<<  

But the idea that my voice on a topic like this (due to my privileged platform) is immoral because it’s taking up realestate that more oppressed voices should have needs its own response.  I actually think it’s a legitimate argument that carries moral weight.  If I’m in a meeting with a variety of people and I find myself talking over a female person of color I will repremand myself and try not to do that again.  I think that’s a good moral growth step.  But my perception of all truths are that they can seldom be applied in binary ways.  They reside on a spectrum and are almost always woven into competing truths that have to be weighted carefully and thoughtfully, and with as much research and compassion as possible. So, related to the last logical problem, if taken in the most binary form, only the most oppressed person in the world has the moral authority to publicly state opinions.  Then after they have their chance, the second-most, and so on.  I actually wouldn’t have a problem with a system like this if there was a scientific way to both ascertain oppression/lack of privilege, and a way of getting their voices heard.  But the logistics of reality right now make that impossible as far as I can tell.  And in the meantime, I think it’s better to have more people who actually care about those folks talking, (Even if they disagree with some policy) than to have only the most radical liberals vs. only the most radical conservatives being heard.  I think the polarization the world is experiencing now is a massive moral evil that is more dangerous to the future of our species than nuclear weapons.   Because of that conviction I feel compelled to overrule the shut-up-white-dude rule that I’ve observing on issues like this for the past couple years.  (With some more, and some less succes.)  

Ok.  Now arguments 4-6, as far as I can tell, boil down to: “Those guys are super evil and deserve physical pain or death.  And if you don’t apply that violence they may get out of hand and we’ll have another Hitler.

While I agree that racist fascists are evil people I don’t think that physical violence is necessary to act according to the heart of these arguments.  While I believe that those who ally themselves with, and belong to fascist/racist groups deserve a beat down, I think such action comes at too high a price.  Not a price I’m worried about paying myself.  A price I think those with less privilege will pay in the future.  And, if I’m not wrong, protecting them IS the point of this whole issue to begin with.  So this is not a disagreement with the heart of the violent antifa or anyone else who wants to punch a Nazi.  (I’ve never punched anyone, but I’d love to give it a try on one of those people.)  My disagreement comes from a difference in strategy.  Here’s the specific problems with anti-fascist violence that I believe are intractable.  (Again, I’m happy to hear new arguments anyone would like to provide.)  

  1. Who defines the boundaries of who is open-season for anti-fascist violence?  The easy answer is: Duh, just attack the fascists!  The problem is that -and as far as I know this is not a controversial statement: political beliefs and actions reside on a spectrum.  It’s not binary.  On top of that, the boundaries are constantly shifting and evolving.  I don’t think it’s healthy for anyone to have an angry mob of people on the street deciding who is and is not open-game for violence.  This isn’t a simple matter of “Well if they march with fascists…”  There are many instances where the lines are clear.  There are many more where they are not.  Especially in crowded situations where police are creating barricades and ordering people around.  Especially when you never know who could be false flags.  Especially when often random passersby get mingled into crowds with no clue what the hell is going on.    
  2. A mob of activists deciding who should be physically assaulted is bad.  Is it better or worse if there’s a single leader who’s making these calls?  Is that an organization you’re comfortable supporting?  I’m not.
  3. What level of street violence is the left comfortable with?  Punching, pepper spray, rocks?  How about bats?  Bricks?  Guns?  Lynchings?  I’m not trying to be hyperbolic here.  I honestly don’t see any ground-rules being articulated by anyone.  I don’t see a high-level strategy emerging.  
  4. We have no idea how big the problem of emerging racist/fascist organizations are.  How many people in the U.S. are ready to jump on board the necessary overthrow of the current government to back a genocidal tyrant?  Hundreds?  Thousands?  Does anyone actually think it’s millions?  John McWhorter makes a comparison I think could be apt.  Here he compares the newly inflamed racist/fascists with silent film aficionados. (There are more of them than there were 20 years ago; that doesn’t mean there’s a lot or that silent films will make a comeback) (3:22-5:55) But I think a LARGE part of this issue really comes down to data.  Data that I haven’t seen.  The perception I see is that this is some massive groundswell threatening to burst into some kind of mass carnage if it goes unchecked.  I’ve seen no evidence of that.  
  5. How should an anti fascist group act with police who try to stop violence?  Is it OK to do violence to the police?  If an official group makes an official statement to the affirmative, is there any way to not label that a terrorist organization?  

Because I believe these issues are intractable, I believe it’s in the best interest of everyone, which obviously includes those with and without privileges, to resist racist/fascists in every legal way that is not violent.  I think racist/fascists should be shunned, shamed, ridiculed and shouted down.  Though I think, honestly, if simply no one showed up to “resist” their marches, they’d be out of steam within the year.  Like a toddler throwing a tantrum.  Just ignore them and eventually they realize the futility.  THAT, determination however, I’m not willing to advocate for specifically because I’m a white dude and I have no problem shutting up about anyone’s right to counter-protest.  

So what if these racist/fascists start actually murdering people on a regular basis in an organized way?  Well if law enforcement fails, or can’t be there fast enough, hell yeah I’m for physically, violently stopping them by any means necessary.  But I think fantasizing that this is a next natural step for them is only giving them more power than they’ve earned and more attention than they deserve.  

Ultimately, I think the human dimension this comes down to is pragmatism vs. passion.  Revenge and righteous indignation are incredibly powerful chemical concoctions our brains serve us, and when things feel THAT right, it’s a super buzzkill to have an annoying white dude like me advocating that we slow our roll.  So much so that it’s easy to assume anyone not on board with that passion must have hidden motives, and maybe even sympathies for Nazis.  

I just know from my own experience that when I’m whipped up in a frenzy and act on that, I usually regret it.  I fear that the intoxication of just how blatantly evil a torch-wielding-mob-of-chanting-saluting-dudes is, has got so much of the left to completely abandon the pragmatism of social order.  Social order isn’t a given.  It’s not something that will always exist if significant amounts of people decide it’s up to them to violently stop a group of assholes from saying terrible things.  The social order we have is far from perfect.  Police often use their authority inappropriately, most of our government policy is fueled by special interests with the deepest pockets.  Racism and other prejudices are still a thing.  But our current social order is ALSO the mechanism by which we’ve gained SO much moral ground over the past hundred years.  The reason so many fewer minorities are abused or killed.  The reason so many fewer children starve.  I think it would be a shameful blunder to let a tiny group of assholes provoke us into burning it all away because they deserve a good punch in the throat.  

Halfway through writing this blog I came across this podcast that beautifully sums up what I said above.  And it’s not coming from a White Dude.
If you TL:DRd this, please just listen to a minute and a half of Glenn Lowry speaking about the fragile nature of social order.   (44:00-45:30)

Addendum:  This blog was not meant as condemnation of any individual on the ground who was swept up in the passion of the moment and punched a racist/fascist. I put that sort of thing in the same category as if I were walking down the street with my wife or mom and some guy comes up and starts sexually harrasing them.  I would totally break the law and punch that guy in the face and I would feel morally justified, though I’d also accept the legal responsibility.  So I hope my thoughts are not about condemnation of any individual or their acts.  It's about trying to think through the ramifications for everyone if people in general adopt a policy of street violence to silence assholes.  


Anonymous said…
Thank you for putting more or less exactly what I've been thinking but couldn't articulate so eloquently.
RevOxley said…
I think you have a valid set of questions and I think it's reasonable to not want to mete fascism with disproportionate tyranny. I absolutely don't trust anyone on the middle left to make the decisions as to who we do harm to, and I'm not sure if there are any people on the far left I'd trust with that either - aside from perhaps myself.

I do view this a little differently than you though, and perhaps I've been caught up in some of the hyperbolic frenzy that tends to cause so much trouble in the world, but I suspect that we are near or at the beginning of what might be a disruptive movement away from our Republic as we know it and the transition into that will be difficult. I suspect that, as the Neo-nazi and KKK have anticipated for many years - that there will be a fight between white supremacists and all who are not. They talk as if this is true, they are armed as if this is true - but I don't know if it is true. I truly hope not. The trouble with these people is that it's hard to count them and it's hard to know just how much sympathy they have in this country. It's hard to know how many of them are willing to die to establish a new reich, but we do know that they echo of something familiar and that's too frightening to ignore.

The answer, I think, for all who oppose this oppressive force: is to use one's privilege in all ways that are possible to dismantle white supremacy in the places where it is most held up - schools and workplaces and in your communities. And, to be ever vigilant in preparation for the chance to lay down your life fighting fascist if ever they get their wish.

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