Non-violence is just one tactic in affecting change. Where and when to apply nonviolent tactics and where and when to apply potentially violent ones depends on the context of the situation. While causing harm is morally wrong, it is understood that morally justified harm can often be done to prevent a potential greater harm in the future.
This is truer now than other social conflicts when one side celebrates a narrative of power and violence as a means to an end.
Let’s talk about two kinds of ‘violent’ protest – ‘defensive violence’ and ‘offensive violence’. Defensive violence is primarily what this argument covers – that is to say, they may hit first, but we hit back.
Offensive violence is covered to a lesser extent by the thought process below. I don’t think we’re in a situation where we need folks pre-emptively seeking out racists and punching them.
My main argument is in the defensive use of violence, that is, willingness to punch when punched.
I’ll admit there’s a huge gray area in between – it’s silly to argue that you have to wait to be punched to punch them. But at the same time, a defensive use of ‘first strike’ violence often implies a very well founded belief violence is about to be done to you, so you have the right to strike first. I think if you’re at a rally with Nazis and they have clubs, helmets, and guns, you should believe they intend to use them against you.
What’s with the Mainstream Left’s Struggle with Violence?
Can I Punch a Nazi?
Nearly a decade ago… Wait, no, only a few months. Sorry, it seems like it’s been that long. Anyway, a few months ago, we saw a well-known fascist punched on camera.
Some on the left celebrated this as a bit of a catharsis for all the rage brewing, whereas others got out their scolding scowls and decided that while racism, fascism, and authoritarianism is wrong, it’s more important to ensure other lesser leftists know it is morally inferior to take joy in someone else being hurt.
Oh, I won’t get into it too much, but this sanctimonious infighting over who’s the most enlightened probably had a lot to do with why we lost the election, BUT I DIGRESS…
The point is that for some reason, a complete asshole having a sore jaw was a cause of moral concern between folks on the left. This faded a bit as the gravity of the national situation sunk in – even the most enlightened pacifist liberal now thinks there are bigger fish to fry than whether or not a nazi gets punched.
The nation also turned its lonely eyes to Bob Mueller.
Sheet Cake and Clowning Around
An otherwise “lone wolf, mentally disturbed” young white man tried to kill a whole bunch of people using the most recent terrorist tactic de jour – ramming his car into a group of them. Only for once, the right didn’t go for the “lone wolf, mentally disturbed” narrative. This guy was a racist asshole and he was trying to kill innocent bystanders.
For the first week, there was some righteous worship of those who counter protested the white supremacists in Charlottesville, and the left was united in its message that anything is justified to interrupt the ascension of authoritarian, racist power.
Unfortunately, some leftists were only able to maintain their boner/ladyboners for justice for about a week before they remembered how much pleasure they derive from telling the rest of us what to do.
Tina Fey actually encouraged people to not show up, and eat cake instead.
She’s going for a laugh so I wouldn’t take it too seriously. But still, I can already hear murmurs of folks around me asking themselves “If someone gets hurt, is it worth it? Doesn’t showing up to counter protest just get more media coverage for the alt-right?”
Or take the New York Times opinion piece – using the tired condescenion of “you’re doing it wrong”. Instead of violence, we should be making fun of Nazis so that they’re ashamed and go home.
Both of these arguments are countered at the bottom because I don’t want to interrupt my flow. But suffice to say, we’re having a debate over whether it’s okay to punch a Nazi again.
The Thoughtful Left
I want to take a moment to point out that at its heart, the debate over violence is a good thing, and is one of the strengths of the left. The left tends not to rush headlong into anything. While my arguments are mostly aimed at the correct use of certain kinds of violence depending on the context, they’re not aimed at the careful deliberation of such.
That should be celebrated. That the idea of causing harm makes us uncomfortable is a good thing – but it should not make us so uncomfortable that we put prevention of harm above all other social goods.
Non-Violence Is Better Than Violence?
Let’s talk about why it is we think nonviolent protests are better than violent protests.
What Makes Non-Violence Powerful?
The most obvious reasons are that MLK and Gandhi are heroes, and we want to duplicate their tactics. We feel as if practicing any form of violence would betray their message.
Similarly, when we see those practicing nonviolence on TV being brutalized, our heart goes out to them. We’re convinced that the non-violent protester is on the right side. Similar to Christian Martrys convincing others to jump into the colosseum with the lions, the act of refusing to ‘stoop to their level’ hits us at an emotional core.
Let’s respond to these thoughts.
First, let’s put MLK and Gandhi in context. MLK was a gun owner. Both had more violent synergistic movements to their flanks. Neither Gandhi nor King employed non-violence as simply a means to ‘be above it all’. Rather, they cunningly employed the tactic because of the context of their situation.
In both cases, you had a large state actor who’s oppression of a minority was relatively obscure. Similar to how there appears to be a ‘spate’ of cops shooting black men even though it’s actually been going on forever (smart phone cameras brought it out of obscurity), in King’s case particularly, he knew that television cameras would elevate his message of white, state sponsored oppression to everyone in the country.
Gun toting blacks reinforced the image of a violent underclass with mysterious aims, even though all those who carried arms were entirely within their rights to do so. Instead, to portray the black struggle as the struggle of innocence against an oppressor – broadcast around the world – was the way to bring attention to their plight and get the white American voter so disgusted with her government that she would in turn demand change.
This is key – nonviolent protest works best against state sponsored oppression when the oppression is not well known. And it works because it makes the oppression well known.
How is that different from our situation?
Well, first, the police in Charlottesville were out gunned. They stayed on the sidelines and performed surgical operations the best they could. They were not the oppressor. Second, more than two-thirds of the country is squarely against the protests in Charlottesville. They are already sending their time, prayers and money towards that cause. There’s no silent majority left to convince.
Even if it’s the case that non-violence is a contextual tactic without a perfect fit for the context in Charlottesville, we still have not established why violence may also be a contextual tactic as well, and what its effective context is.
First, let’s get into who we’re up against, as it will make the context for violence more clear.
A Short History of Fascism
Fascism Means Power
There’s a bit of an argument over what exactly “fascism” means. I think the easiest way to boil down fascism is to look at the symbols.
To fascists, power is everything. Power is all there is in life. This explains the interrelationship between social Darwinists and fascism, and the fascination with eugenics. The strongest shall survive. Anyone who believes otherwise is dreaming.
You can see this in their language and symbols today – the alt-right’s favorite insults are “cuck” and “snowflake”. Cuck they use on someone who’s been duped to betray the truth (as they see it), and they use it to make an analogy to a man who’s been tricked into raising another man’s child. Snowflake is used for much of the left – a tragically delicate and elegant natural phenomenon whose existence is ultimately temporary and whose structure is horrifically fragile.
Snowflakes shatter or melt. Fascists stay strong.
The symbol of the “red pill”, unfortunately, borrowed from The Matrix is another great example – some people are “red pillers” or alphas – those who swallow the bitter truth that all that there is is power and dominance. Everyone else is a “blue piller”, or beta – those who will be dominated and subjugated.
Power means Racism, Sexism, and Classism
The fascination with power explains the complementarity of racism, sexism and classism with their political philosophy.
Whites currently have the highest political stature in the United States. A fascist looks at that and says “it must be because Whites are the most powerful”.
They’d be disgusted to see any efforts to change that – letting the weak have stature is the opposite of what fascists believe. The powerful are powerful for a reason.
Likewise, a man’s ability to dominate a woman is all a fascist needs to understand that society itself should be organized with men routinely excercising power over women.
You can especially see the ties to sexism in the ‘red pill’ subculture. There, all other men are divided into alphas and betas. Alphas will routinely bed dozens of women because they know how to show dominance over them. Betas may or may not have significant others, but if they do, its only because they’ve allowed the woman to have control over them.
Gamergate was another great example of this in action. Many men wishing to show themselves as ‘true alphas’ felt offended that … well, honestly nothing really actually happened. Suffice it to say, these men all believed that their games were being taken over by feminists. Since they already felt like their lack of sex lives was proof that what was theirs was taken from them, their games being infiltrated by feminists was too far.
A fascist believes that when things go against the ‘natural order’, force and violence are entirely justified in re-establishing this natural order. After all, their belief is that the only natural order is the one which force and violence establish in the first place.
This Goes Back for Ages – Plato’s Republic
Early in Plato’s Republic there’s an argument over “might makes right” versus other forms of government.
Fascism may be the most recent embodiment of this philosophy – might makes right – but it has been with us since the beginning.
It’s in fact in these terms that I will make my main counter argument against a solely non-violent means of protest.
This is because while the actual contradiction to ‘might makes right’ is that ‘might does not make right’, there’s a strong counter argument that must be dealt with.
If ‘might does not make right’, why do we see so many instances of the mighty committing wrongs and getting away with it?
In other words, to truly defeat the argument that ‘might makes right’, we have to establish that right makes might. That is a society organized as justly as possible will be more mighty than a society less justly organized.
What Fascism Is Not: The Use of Force
Nowhere to be found in fascism is the idea that only they may use force. Instead, an important distinction should be made – a fascist believes “there is only force”.
A non-fascist believes “there are other things than force”. Pacifism is not the opposite of fascism!
To sum up, facism is at its root, the social darwinist belief that the powerful are powerful for a reason, that power is all there is, and that violence and force are the only legitimate means to distribute power.
They believe “might makes right”.
To counter act them, counter protestors must establish “right makes might“.
To spell this out – counter protestors must show that by having a society in which racism, sexism and classism are increasingly stampped out, society will be more powerful. They can demonstrate this by showing that their own groups, who disavow racism, sexism and classism, can organize more effectively and if required, do more harm to the fascists than the fascists can do to them (i.e., the counter protestors must demonstrate they are more powerful).
This is the only way to convince a fascist. You must show them that their methods will lead to weakness.
Theory and Practice
A great example of this in practice is shaming, which probably needs to be used very carfully since you’re going to get a whole lot of innocents caught up in it. But cameras on the ‘front lines’ of these protests and a lack of fear in capturing folks faces and getting them on the internet so that they can lose their jobs and friends has been devastating to the alt-right.
This isn’t necessarily ‘punch a nazi’ sort of violence, but it is pretty close to an electronic vigilantism, and it works.
It, along with other intimidation tools, keep white supremacists’ turnout low. If they fear the counter protestors, they won’t show up. If they don’t show up, they can’t get news coverage. If they can’t get news coverage, they can’t up recruitment.
While taking pictures and shaming people online isn’t exactly the ‘punching’ kind of violence, it does require that folks show up to rallys, it requires people get close enough to get good pictures, and both of these things are going to risk getting hit with a beer bottle.
If you have to punch a nazi to get a good picture of him, then it’s probably justified.
Speaking of which, that leads to the second role defensive violence can play – punching a nazi gets great ratings.
Turnout on the counter protest side must be large and we must not get fatigued. Keeping people moralized gets harder and harder as this struggle goes on. While many things inspire people, to a certain degree we must acknowledge our lesser tendencies and admit that – you know what, seeing that nazi punched felt good, and it makes me have more energy to keep doing this shit day in and day out.
We all know in our hearts this is a struggle over what power means and how its used. And when someone who advocates for the use of force to subjugate people of color, women and anyone who isn’t a particular kind of Christian has force used to subjugate him, well, that’s the best kind of satire.
To spell it out – nothing proves the powerlessness of a Nazi quite like punching him.
Finally and very practically, violent and non-violent protest intermingle and compliment each other. MLK would have a harder time without Malcolm X. Likewise, there are already plenty of examples in Charlottesville where antifa were able to run security where the police couldn’t.
Protecting clergy, running a perimeter, and meeting violence with violence when nazis push through nonviolent clergy are all ways that boost the non-violent protestors means of getting things done. Security boosts turnout as people feel more safe, and the knowledge that a group of antifascists is only a few yards away might help you keep up the courage to keep your non-violent human chain up a little longer against fascists who are very willing to punch, mace and kick you.
What about the future?
Naturally we might think Charllotesville is a one off. I’d like to think that in future events, the national gaurd may show up and provide the security the counter protestors need.
But I also know that the fascists are working just as hard to identify cities with small police forces that may lean more friendly to their cause. They’ve proven they can show up en masse in Charllotesville without too much notice. There’s a very real possibility that the police will be outgunned again and the only ones willing to confront white supremacists will be clergy, clowns and antifa.
Police and the national guard are great if you can get them. But Charlottesville, if anything, shows that we’re up against a movement who’s intentionally trying to target places where the police turnout may not be high enough to stop them.
“If someone gets hurt, is it worth it?”
Don’t be a wiener. Heather Heyer does not want you to stay home.
“Doesn’t showing up to counter-protest just get more media coverage for the alt-right?”
First, the media is your friend in this. While I think they could do a better job of not covering the alt-right so much, remember that 99.9% of journalists are on the counter protestors side.
Second, remember that counter protestors get plenty of coverage too, and this increases turnout and donations to places like the ACLU and ADL.
“Instead of violence shouldn’t we just…”
This isn’t an either or. Except in the rare case of someone having too little room in their car to bring a baseball bat or a clown wig, both tactics such as satire as well as defensive violence can be used and we should be willing to use them.
Antifa can and has run security for nonviolent groups, whether they be clergy using traditional non-violent means or satirists.
If you show up with the funniest and most biting satircal sign, you’re probably just going to get maced. If there’s a bunch of folks in gas masks who are willing to go get maced in your stead, then you can hold your sign up for the whole protest and photographers can get some hilarious shots.
You’ll have both done your parts.
“Doesn’t harming them just play into their narrative?”
Their narrative is on storm front and info wars. Their narrative is fake news and propaganda. Whether you show up or not, they’ll photoshop pics of Antifa being there and causing a ruckus. Might as well actually cause a ruckus if that’s what they’re going to believe either way.
They aren’t listening to CNN or the NYT. They’re listening to people who are saying you’re all controlled by jewish masterminds and helping black men steal their women. These guys are nuts. Thinking that you can hurt their propaganda machine by your actions is giving them too much intellectual credit, as what you do or don’t do is in the real world, whereas their propaganda has no ties to the real world.
Eventually, you have to serve some pizza, even if a bunch of nuts think you keep a pedophile cage down in your pizza parlor’s basement.