The above video of Nazi Richard Spencer getting punched in the face has gone viral and it’s led to predictably uninteresting discussions online about whether it’s okay or problematic to punch a Nazi/Fascist in the face.
So that’s what I’m going to talk about, since I’m a pacifist and I suppose I have things to say about this.
Like anarchy, I think pacifism is largely misunderstood, and wilfully so. The same is true of the anti-war movement or any other cause in america that’s seen as being outside of the normal political discourse.
For example, someone in the anti-war movement may not be a pacifist. In fact, they may support all kinds of violent action, including punching a Nazi in the face. Anti-war means, quite simply, that they’re against war on principle.
Pacifism, like most ideologies, exists on a spectrum. Here’s the wikipedia entry on it for those looking to get a short overview. But, in general, a pacifist opposes all forms of violence, from systemic to personal.
Of course, not all pacifists feel this way. One of the most famous and renowned pacifists in history is Mohatma Gandhi, who has a less than absolute perspective on the role of violence.
Here’s what Gandhi had to say about violence:
I do believe that where there is only a choice between cowardice and violence I would advise violence. Thus when my eldest son asked me what he should have done, had he been present when I was almost fatally assaulted in 1908, whether he should have run away and seen me killed or whether he should have used his physical force which he could and wanted to use, and defended me, I told him that it was his duty to defend me even by using violence… Hence also do I advocate training in arms for those who believe in the method of violence. I would rather have India resort to arms in order to defend her honour than that she should in a cowardly manner become or remain a helpless witness to her own dishonour.
But I believe that non-violence is infinitely superior to violence, forgiveness is more manly than punishment…
He also had this to say:
Though violence is not lawful, when it is offered in self-defence or for the defense of the defenceless, it is an act of bravery far better than cowardly submission. The latter befits neither man nor woman. Under violence, there are many stages and varieties of bravery. Every man must judge this for himself. No other person can or has the right.
And also this:
Ever since my experience of the distortion of ahimsa (non-violence) in Bettiah in 1921, I have been repeating over and over again that he who cannot protect himself or his nearest and dearest or their honour by non-violently facing death, may and ought to do so by violently dealing with the oppressor. He who can do neither of the two is a burden. He has no business to be the head of a family. He must either hide himself, or must rest content to live for ever in helplessness and be prepared to crawl like a worm at the bidding of a bully.
When people think of pacifism and non-violent action, they often think of Gandhi. He didn’t invent either of these, but his actions were perhaps the most significant on the globe, and his influence is extremely widespread. But here he makes the case for violence.
Pacifism is not one thing, just as racism or sexuality or English is not just one thing. It generally means one thing to the person using the term, but so much of life and ideology is multifaceted that it’s silly to pretend that it’s not.
And so, when I talk about pacifism, I’m only speaking for myself. For there’s no one else I can speak for. I’m not a leader of some movement or even a member of any organization (not really a joiner, I guess), and so my views are only mine. Which can be said about anyone saying anything.
Also, it should go without saying, but I’ll say it anyway: Just because I’m a pacifist does not mean I expect everyone to be a pacifist. In the same manner, I don’t expect other pacifists to be pacifists in the same way that I am a pacifist.
I actually disagree with Gandhi. I don’t think there’s ever a case where violence is useful.
Which also means I happen to be against punching Nazis. Or, to put that a different way: I have no interest in inflicting violence (systemic or personal) on any other human. Regardless of the reprehensible nature of a person, I still reject violence done against them.
That being said, it’s not my place to judge someone else (and here I agree with Gandhi) for their choice to use violence in the face of extreme violence. So while I can say that violence is always incorrect action, I’m not going to say that someone in an abusive relationship or living under imperialism is doing something wrong by fighting back violently.
It’s why I have no trouble supporting Palestinians, for example.
But I have no intention of committing an act of violence, or even being associated with violent acts.
That doesn’t make me better or worse than you.
Just makes us different.
I often call this radical pacifism, and it’s something at the heart of who I am. I believe all violent action is incorrect, and I’ll talk about why.
When I say this, I often get extremely aggressive responses to it, which is sort of baffling to me. My pacifism becomes something that they want to disprove or reject utterly. It’s almost as if I’ve insulted them by rejecting violence!
And so the conversation, almost without deviation, goes into the realm of hypotheticals, where my interrogator tries to get me to admit that there is some instance where I would accept violence as the correct or necessary form of action. As if admitting one case is admission of all cases or some sign of personal hypocrisy.
What if someone breaks into your home with a gun and tries to kill you?
I imagine they’ll kill me whether I like it or not.
What if they threaten to kill your family?
Probably a lot of us will die.
So you would just let them die? Are you that much of a coward?
And it continues in this manner.
The point they’re trying to make is silly, especially when you throw out such random circumstances that seem to only have one course of action. And, weirdly, most people come to this same circumstance, of a stranger breaking into my house and threatening me or my family or both with a gun. Like, let’s say that I could fight this person. I don’t own a gun or even a weapon. If they have the will and desire to kill me and my family, they’ll probably kill me either way. So to me, the circumstance only ends with one result. My interrogator is only trying to force me to choose a path I disagree with.
To what purpose, I can’t even begin to imagine.
I find it profoundly strange when someone tries to insist that you must feel and think and behave as they do. But that plays into this. Because to try to force someone to be as you are is a form of violence. Small and inconsequential as the practice or method may be, it’s still inherently violent to force yourself upon another person.
Just as it would be a form of violence to demand that you also behave non-violently.
A minor infraction, certainly, but the principle is the same, I think.
It’s a cliche that violence only leads to more violence. Not only is it a cliche, it’s an ancient one.
But I think it’s also self-evident. Even the circumstance I outline above: if the only answer to violence is more violence, then what have we done? People expect me to want to kill my would be killer, and this, in some way, is a justification to them or to the world.
But to me, either way, we have dead humans killed by other humans.
While I certainly value my life more than yours (how could I not?), I don’t see my survival as being a prosocial moment if it means I had to kill you, or anyone else. Either way, violence was done here and a life was destroyed. Likely many more lives than just those present.
And so I reject the violence done against Richard Spencer, worthless Nazi that he is.
That being said, I’m not sad or even upset that someone punched him in the face live on television. Nazism is inherently a violent ideology. There’s no denying this. There’s not even a qualification possible for this. It’s an ideology that promotes genocide, and is therefore absolutely unacceptable.
This is also why it doesn’t bother me that someone punched him, or that anti-fascist movements often use violence. Every Nazi desires violence. Not just violence against one person, but against entire ethnic groups. The plural there is important. It’s not just Jewish people or people of African descent. It’s everyone who is not on their checklist of what constitutes white. This even includes people most would consider white, like Polish, Scandinavians, Russians, French, and on and on. It goes as deep and ridiculous as to be about specific kinds of white, defined by such backwards pseudoscience that I don’t even care to give a summary of it.
And so when fascists come to your home, I won’t and don’t blame those who react violently to that.
Nick Mamatas said something interesting about this:
One of the unfortunate aspects of school bullying is that school culture trains the victims of bullies to loudly perform their vulnerabilities in order to summon the authorities to deal with the bully.
This tactic doesn’t work at all when the bully IS the authority. See Trump, and the increasingly desperate political delusions around faithless electors, impeachment, a voided election result due to treason, etc. There is no higher power to appeal to, period.
When the authority is a bully, you simply have to outbully him. Thus appeals to civility, handwringing about what has been lost to our political culture, expressions of fear, daydreams about an Obama coup, and the like, are all rhetorical and tactical misfires.
It’s time to find your inner bully.
It’s an interesting thought. And, to go along with that:
Non-violence as a tactic for resistance is only effective if the other side considers you human. If they see you as subhuman or whatever else, they will have no problems with hurting and/or killing you.
Non-violence is predicated on the belief that everyone is human.If you and your antagonist can’t even agree on your own humanity, then it’s unlikely anything useful will come of it.
But let’s go back to punching Nazis.
Every time someone encounters the Other, there’s always the argument made that we should squash them out because they represent a threat to our lives and our way of life.
Just listen to Sam Harris or Richard Dawkins or any of their fans talk about Islam.
They’ll tell you that Islam is an inherently violent ideology that poses a threat to every non-Muslim on the planet. While this may sound absurd, it’s a pretty widely held belief in both conservatives and liberals in the western empires.
The same is said about Mexicans in the US or North Africans or Turkish in Europe. Or even Eastern European immigrants living in Western Europe. Or, weirdly, indigenous people in any country colonized by Europeans.
And so the definition of ‘dangerous ideology’ becomes a matter of preference and perspective. It may be Nazis today who deserve punches, but yesterday it was Muslims (even among many liberals–just ask them about Yemen), and tomorrow it may be activists (nothing new, there) or anarchists (again, always) or pick an ideology.
The general argument for violence is that it’s necessary because of extraordinary circumstances. And while I agree that Nazism is absolutely an extraordinary case, this logic gets thrown around way too often for me to be comfortable with it as a rubric.
I mean, I’m not going to try to argue that you shouldn’t beat up fascists and Nazis. I have no interest in defending such people, since they have no interest in doing anything beyond inflicting violence upon the world and its people. And not just your average run of the mill beatings, but actual genocide.
If there are people who are unfit for humanity, it’s the ones who utterly reject the humanity of others.
The danger with violence is that it doesn’t end. It spreads like a disease.
When you choose violence, you reinforce violent systems.
I don’t think it’s inconsequential that the US, who takes such pride in beating Nazi Germany, has essentially been at war with ‘dangerous’ ideologies and people since Hitler died. Like, ceaselessly. We have yet to find a war or people whose blood we don’t crave.
Further, we’ve gone on to create the kind of surveillance state Hitler, Stalin, and Mao would be endlessly jealous of. We’ve created a criminal justice system that is the envy of every dictator or totalitarian state. We routinely put inmates in solitary confinement, which has been identified as torture for a long time. And we do that as a casual disciplinary decision to thousands or maybe even as much as hundreds of thousands of inmates across the US. Our police routinely murder civilians. Our Intelligence Agencies routinely spy on citizens and assassinate foreigners (and sometimes citizens) and overthrow democratically elected governments and install vicious dictators.
The list goes on an on, and I don’t think it’s inconsequential that a nation who has fallen so deeply in love with violence is one whose ‘progressive’ citizens and politicians still have very little to say about ending war or even just pulling our troops out of warzones. They also have little to say about the surveillance state we live under.
We developed an atomic bomb because we needed a weapon to fight the Nazis, but then we dropped it on the Japanese (who were not super different, ideologically, from Nazis). And since then, we’ve been in a constant state of warfare with dozens of countries on nearly every continent humans inhabit.
Of course, this isn’t a result of fighting Nazi Germany, but I don’t think they’re as separate as some might like to believe.
Violence poisons us. It reduces us. It makes us less human. It makes us more violent. More willing to give into violence. More willing to reduce our enemies to the Other.
Violence is a choice that we make as a society. And, like personal choices, it becomes easier to make that choice every time we make it. So when we went to war with Germany and Japan, it seemed to make sense. When we went to war with Korea, it still felt that way. With Vietnam, we eventually rejected our own behavior. But then came the 70s and 80s when most of our military violence came in a way that is especially recognizable now. Most of it passed through the CIA and we used locals to wage our wars for us, whether it was fascists in Chile or Jihadists in Afghanistan, we stopped sending massive mobilized forces. The 90s were a mix of boots on the ground and covert assassinations and bombings, until we perfected the new state of world war.
After September 11th, 2001, we decided, once more, that there was no such thing as a bad war, and we declared an endless war. Sixteen years later, and we’ve only expanding our warfare in the Middle East, stretching it to seven different countries and thousands of new enemy ideologies who we all call the same thing: terrorists.
Most people I know are in favor of violence, whether explicitly or implicitly, whether vocally or not. I’ve seen the things you say online. I’ve heard you say it with your own mouth. I heard you say it every time you described a politician as ‘hawkish’ instead of ‘war criminal.’ You support violence, and that’s your choice, and that’s okay, I suppose.
I mean, obviously I disagree with you, but that’s okay, too.
But your support of violence is your own choice. And while I must be complicit in most of these choices, whether I like it or not, because we belong to the same nation, whether we like it or not, I can’t stop you, but I can try to resist the rising tide of violence that is all round us.
And so go ahead and punch a Nazi or ten. Beat up some fascists. Make it a party! An anthem!
But think of tomorrow and what our violence costs us, because there is a cost, and it’s not inconsequential.
For now (and always), I hope for peace.