UPDATE: I wrote the article below before I read this. Now I can say more specifically that ‘Peter’ is pretty much who I’m imagining in this article, who we need to gain the trust of, and not let slip further away to white nationalism.
Yes this is another think piece about #punching nazis. However, it’s not about whether it’s ok to punch a nazi or not. It’s not about tolerating the intolerable, staying silent and normalising fascism, or the boundaries of free speech. It’s about strategy.
In fact this post isn’t about the punch itself at all. It’s more about the glorification of it, and the potential impact of this glorification. It’s a response to seeing my friends, my peers, and the (liberal corners of the) web get flooded with celebrations of a guy getting punched in the head— set to countless hip hop tracks, of all things.
Yes I know Richard Spencer is a nazi, as people are quick to point out. Of course I find his views revolting, and dangerous, and I’m absolutely not going to defend him in any way.
But like I said, I just want to talk about strategy.
Richard Spencer’s sole mission right now is to recruit young (and old) blood into the alt-right.
Please take the time to watch his responses to the ‘assault’ on youtube and periscope — they’re a bit long-winded and babble on, but try and watch through to the end. I know it’s painful, but I think it’s important to understand what’s going on. Try not to get caught up in the crap that he says, try to look past that, and try to see what an angry, disillusioned, white, right wing youth might see. Look at his tweets. I’d even recommend you read the responses. What matters are not the responses that you agree with (e.g. “Spencer, you’re a racist idiot and I hope you die”), but the responses you don’t agree with (e.g. “Spencer, you’re a hero, I’m with you”).
I know it’s tempting and too easy to dismiss all of these people as “stupid, racist, idiots (and they deserve to get punched)”, which is what we might have done in the past, but look where that got us today. It’s important to understand who you share your country with, and more importantly, what they’re doing, right now.
It’s very difficult to see the world through other people’s eyes, especially those we strongly disagree with. The first challenge to overcome, is why we should want to in the first place. But I think that it is very important — especially now — if we don’t want to re-experience the shock and horror of a Trump victory (or Brexit, or Erdogan). I’m not suggesting that we have to sympathise with these people, but I think we should at least try to understand and acknowledge what’s going on, and our role in it, so hopefully we can minimise it in the future.
It’s also important to understand ‘alternative facts’. Yes I know right now there’s a lot of talk about ‘post-truth politics’. I’m no historian, but I’m pretty sure politics has always been full of bullshit — at least in the 40+ years that I’ve been on this planet. I’m definitely not going to attempt a historical survey of dishonesty and fact-bending in politics, but I guess round about the time that organised religion was born, and the laws of the heavens started to govern the land (and business), is when post-truth politics started to take root — if not before. So I’m not sure it’s reasonable to use Mark Zuckerberg as a scape-goat for our failure to see the polarisation that we are causing in our societies.
When judging an opponent’s arguments, and its effectiveness, it’s useful to judge it not based on the facts that you have available to you, but based on the facts that your opponent’s target audience has available to them. In other words, your opponent’s argument might even be a perfectly valid argument, even though one or more of its premises might be false. Then all that your opponent has to do, is convince his target audience of those premises. And if those premises are built on other valid arguments with faulty premises, it’s turtles all the way down. Even subtle truth-bending can accumulate to eventually support incredible claims.
In other words, we may think of Spencer as a racist, ultra-nationalist, white supremacist, neo-nazi. And he’s quite open about that himself (except for the label of ‘neo-nazi’, which is a cunning truth-bending tactic on his side). But I have no doubt that he will find ways of sugar-coating his ‘non-violent’ position to attract ‘softer’ potential alt-right targets (e.g. Peter?).
Like I said, Spencer’s goal is to recruit. He’s openly said this in many talks. It is of no importance what you or I think of him. What is of importance is the image that he presents, the premises that he lays out, to his target audience.
And I know we live in times where the current trend (especially on the left) is to treat everything (except gender) as binary — racism is racism, sexism is sexism, facts are facts, lies are lies, right is right, wrong is wrong etc. and there is no in-between. I can’t bring myself to accept that. In fact I think it’s destroying discourse, and it’s very counter-productive. I think people are a lot more complex and nuanced than that, yes even fascists, and ‘potential fascists’ (I can already hear people screaming “there’s no such thing as a ‘potential fascist’, you’re either a fascist, or you’re not”, *sigh*).
I don’t care about Spencer’s or his followers’ ‘feelings’. What I do care about is minimising the number of people who share his views. In my home country of Turkey, just over half the (voting) population identify with, share the views of, and voted for a despotic, Islamic leader which I despise. In the UK, where I live, just over half the (voting) population voted to leave the EU, and while I don’t think half the population voted out of racist intent, the leave campaign was racist and frankly, full of shit. In the US, just about half the population chose a leader that has clearly expressed racist, sexist, ableist, and all other kinds of hateful views, and perhaps even worse, I can’t help but feel that beneath all of those isms lies a psychopath.
When your ‘opposition’ is half of the country’s population, I’m not sure if taking the moral high ground, or not caring about the opposition is a fruitful approach. It might feel good, but a longer term strategy seems crucial.
In short, I’m just wondering, what are the possible outcomes of this ‘nazi punching meme’? — not necessarily the punch itself, but the celebrations and media hoo-ha that’s followed and glorified it.
For sure it’s entertained lots of anti-Trump / anti-alt-right folks, and it’s brought a smile to our otherwise dreary, disappointed faces. But I’m wondering, how will this have affected the headcounts on either side of the political opinion fence? I’m sure we all agree that no nazi is going to look at all of this and realise their misguided ways and decide to not become a nazi. But changing the mind of a radical is not our goal is it, we know that that’s not achievable. But surely it’s those on the fence that we have to fight for? What percentage of the 50% are radical?, What percentage can be swayed back to the left, or at least away from the alt-right? After all, we have to try and sway some of that 50% back, don’t we? Otherwise what is our goal?
And those are the ones Spencer is fighting to win as well.
I’m trying to imagine if the following scenario could happen. I’m trying to imagine somebody (e.g. Peter?) who did not subscribe to Spencer’s views a few days ago, but was perhaps showing just a little bit of interest or curiosity or tendency towards the alt-right — perhaps not even out of deeply seated racist, sexist views, but just out of a frustration with politics and life in general; reinforced by various socio-economic factors and the environment they’re immersed in. Is it possible, that now as a result of these incidents, this person might feel closer to Spencer’s cause? Especially when Spencer weaponises these tweets, videos, articles, mocking him and condoning the violence against him? What is the impact when Spencer spews his propaganda about the ‘changing times’, and us — as ‘violent, dangerous, cowardly, antifa liberals’, and upon a backdrop of videos showing himself ‘defenceless’, ‘doing journalism’, ‘just engaging in conversation’, sucker-punched in the ear; set to countless hip-hop tracks, glorifying the violence. We may laugh about the nazi punching meme today and forget about it tomorrow, but I wonder how long it will be in the arsenal of the alt-right recruiters, accumulating with countless other examples.
Your answer to the above question might be that Spencer is just a nazi talking bullshit, and that he’s wrong. But the fact that he’s wrong doesn’t matter, because he’s wrong based on your truths — which you may think are the real truths, but what matters are the truths that Spencer presents to his (potentially new) followers, these are the premises upon which he builds his arguments and preaches.
You answer might be that you just don’t care, because he’s a fucking nazi and deserves to get punched. But then what is the long-term goal? And I guess this is underlying point of my article:
If Richard Spencer, or the alt-right, has gained a single follower as a result of this punch, the glorification of it, the liberal media and public’s reaction to it, and the subsequent and inevitable weaponisation of it by the alt-right; and if our aim is to minimise the number of people who identify with the alt-right; then surely we can only conclude that apart from providing us with temporary entertainments, it was perhaps a move in the wrong direction?
If we take actions that only strengthen our own bonds within our in-group (of the anti-Trump / anti-alt-right / anti-fascists); and then the alt-right strengthen their own bonds within their in-group; then what happens? What does the future hold?
I don’t know what the right course of action is. I obviously agree that Spencer’s views, and the alt-right should not be normalised. The paradox of tolerance is a complicated issue, and it’s not the issue that I’m trying to tackle here. People far smarter and knowledgeable than myself have spent centuries thinking about this. I’m just trying to raise what I think is a rather simple, pragmatic point: considering the opposition’s strategy when taking actions, and thinking about the consequences of our actions — other than a temporary dopamine hit.
I don’t even know if the arguments I make above are sound in any way. Maybe I’m talking bullshit and living in a fictional world. But they do seem plausible to me. Had the UK voted remain, Erdogan kicked out years ago, and the US voted against a psychopath, then maybe I would be more sceptical about my own intuitions. But it seems to me that the world we are living in today does support some of what I’m trying to say.
And to be clear, I’m not advocating an airy-fairy Jesus / Gandhi / hippy-style non-violent ‘love thy enemy, turn the other cheek’ ideology, which may appear as fantasy to some. On the contrary I’m trying to be pragmatic and realistic about the outcomes of our actions.
I don’t even know if there is any alternative. Maybe all that we can do is strengthen the bonds within our own in-group, while the opposition strengthens the bonds within their own in-group. I’d like to think that we can do more somehow to bridge that gap. But even if we can’t, at least we should explicitly acknowledge that that’s what we’re doing — creating a bigger divide — and we should prepare for the future that that brings, however horrifying that might be; instead of pretending that we’re doing something ‘for the benefit of the cause’.
In retrospect, this article ended up being almost identical to the one I wrote about the Charlie Hebdo shooting almost exactly two years ago. Times change, ideologies change, people don’t :(
For the record, I’m not American, and I don’t even live in the U.S. I live in the UK and I’m from Turkey. The U.S. is quite far away. There are many countries, much closer to home, full of people suffering far worse than in the U.S. There’s only so much suffering that one’s heart can share. I wish I could just not care about what happens in the U.S., and dismiss the country’s internal affairs is it’s own business. But of course that’s not possible with the U.S.A. What happens to the big bully of the world affects the whole world. Arguably the rise of a hawk right in the US might have a greater negative impact on my friends and family in Turkey (bordering with Syria, Iraq, Iran), than on my friends in the U.S.