Pacifism, Politics, and Punching Nazis

The debate around political violence has flared up again in the wake of the Nazi punch—either infamous or celebrated depending on who you ask. We must learn the lessons of the great pacifist movements of the 20th century, some noble-hearted commenters tell us on social media. Punching is always wrong. I could respond to this in a lot of ways.

I could question the priorities of those who have remained largely silent on Obama’s drone strikes or police brutality/killings, but are outraged by a punch aimed at a leading Nazi.

I could check that people who are defending his right to free speech actually know what that speech sounds like (hint: it includes actual Nazi slogans, thinly-veiled suggestions that Jews are not people, promotion of ‘Black genocide’, etc).

I could point out that the Nazis were only beaten by violence the first time around—not appeasement, non-intervention, diplomacy, ‘rational’ argument, etc—and that they would have been beaten faster, quite possibly saving millions of lives, if the world hadn’t been so intent on leaving Hitler to his own devices until they were personally threatened.

I could start a debate about the relative importance of pacifist and non-pacifist groups in the civil rights and colonial independence movements. In other words, I could argue that the advancement of Black rights and Black living standards to the (still pretty woeful) position they occupy today depended not only upon Martin Luther King and the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee, but also Malcolm X, Muhammad Ali, the Communist Party, the Black Panther Party for Self-Defence, various urban riots, and more.

I could point out that the ‘non-violent’ tactics of Martin Luther King are generally fundamentally misunderstood. They were in fact deeply premised on violence, it was just that the violence was one-directional: the intention was to provoke violence on the part of Whites, and by turning the other cheek to instil shame and sympathy in Whites. In a sense, MLK’s assassination was the ultimate expression of this tactic: he had purposefully made himself a target for years, and he know that one day that would make him a martyr.

I could point out that, as Stokely Carmichael said, this tactic only works when you are dealing with someone who has a conscience—something that Carmichael controversially questioned as an assumption about the United States, but which even the most patriotic American would surely admit cannot be assumed of a Nazi.

The crux of this article is something else, though. I want to write about the lessons I learnt from pacifism.

I was a teenage pacifist. Having generally been a pretty gentle, timid child who had never really been involved in a fight—and having got into politics and wanting the world to be a better place at a young age after naively believing the things my parents taught me, like ‘sharing is good’ and ‘hitting people is bad’—I grew into my teenage years a committed and public pacifist. Much as many liberals would like social movements to publicly avow and commit to pacifism, it was common knowledge around my age group in the school that I didn’t believe in fighting, and thought problems should be settled with words, not fists.

When I say I was a pacifist, I don’t just mean that I managed not to get into fights and played this off as a principled stance. I took the punches and rolled with them. On one occasion, an older kid decided he was going to ‘kill me’ (clearly overstating the case, as kids do). I figured that running was my best option, and when this didn’t work, I abruptly curled up into a ball; as luck would have it, he tripped over me, and I carried on running. Eventually he caught me and beat me up, and I didn’t fight back, though I could have done.

I was into the anti-war movement, too, and my privileged navel-gazing went so far as to occasionally (though not often, as I was also pretty staunchly left-wing and anti-fascist) cogitate about whether the holocaust couldn’t perhaps have been averted by diplomatic means, if a little more effort had been made. I grew out of that youthful naivety even while remaining wedded to pacifism on an inter-personal level.

One of the surprising lessons I learned as a pacifist was the casual cruelty of which perfectly normal people are capable when they know they will suffer no repercussions. On an almost daily basis, I would be punched in the lunch line or in the corridor—generally by people bigger and older than me. They often did this for no reason other than their own entertainment, and eventually perhaps just because it was a part of their routine. People would punch harder if they had had a bad day, or softer if they were feeling tired and couldn’t think of anything I’d done to irritate them recently—but they never stopped punching.

Yes, this happens to a lot of people at this age, but I got it worse than most people, and my experience of it was explicitly and tightly tied up with my pacifist principles. People would give me a dead arm and then smile and say “you can’t do anything about it, you’re a pacifist.” People would pass the knowledge around, and remind each other of the lack of consequences—“if you hit him, he won’t hit you back because he’s a pacifist.” I was specifically targeted (sometimes by people I didn’t even know, but often by people who I saw on a daily basis, who were friends of friends) due to my decision not to punch back.

I also learnt that as a pacifist, you are respected (at least, by the people who aren’t hitting you). People would commend me on my principles, sympathise with my plight, and speak in reverent tones about how I really believed in something and lived by those beliefs. The problem was that nobody respected me enough to step between me and the fist. Frankly, most of my friends didn’t even feel motivate to stand up for me verbally by doing something as simple as saying ‘Hey, you’re being a dick, stop it’ to their friend. If I wasn’t going to do anything to defend myself, nobody else was either—that was pretty clear.

Of course, I also learnt that authority structures are largely powerless to stop these petty cruelties, even when they are motivated to do so. Teachers turned a blind eye or shrugged off each individual incident as insufficiently grave to justify intervention. In so doing, they failed to see the pattern—the organised, systemic nature of the violence and my inability to defend myself against minor transgressions and grievances.

Eventually, as I got older and more frustrated with the way people treated me, and overactive hormones kicked in, and so on, it became harder to control violent impulses. Increasingly, for various reasons both connected and unconnected to my pacifism, I felt isolated and persecuted even among some of my chosen social circles.

Once, a friend was messing with me. Despite warning after warning that I wasn’t in the mood, he continued to ignore me and taunt me. Eventually after giving him the clearest verbal expression of my frustration I could, I saw red and went into a rage. I ended up beating on him a little (though not in a way that would cause any lasting damage). I felt bad about it afterwards, but then I realised that my fists had achieved what no quantity or quality of words had managed to: he had stopped fucking with me.

One of the things I had told myself to justify and bolster my pacifist inclinations, and to control the temptation to hit back, was that violence didn’t work. All the moralising in the world was not quite as compellingly final as the idea that violence simply wouldn’t achieve what I wanted, in any case—an eye for an eye would make the whole world blind, and I was willing to be the martyr who ended up one-eyed in the land of the sighted. The aftermath of that explosive outburst had exposed this convenient aphorism. It was only sometimes true that violence made the situation worse.

Slowly, I gave up on pacifism. That doesn’t mean I turned towards senseless violence, of course. Most people sit somewhere in the middle of the spectrum between complete non-violence and pointless violent rampage. A significant chunk of the public (though perhaps no longer a majority, if opinion polls are to be trusted) supports capital punishment, and almost everyone supports at least some wars (even those who are generally anti-war will concede the justice of fighting the Nazis, for instance). Most people will use violence in self-defence, or in defence of others (at least their own family, and maybe friends). The fact that I’m no longer a pacifist doesn’t imply that I’m a fan of drunken fights over spilt pints, or an apologist for domestic violence. It doesn’t mean that I would jump to violence as my preferred method of getting my way.

The point is that actually implementing pacifist principles in an environment where casual low-level violence was common taught me important lessons. It taught me that bullies do not get bored of harassing and hurting people just because they don’t fight back, that rational argument is not a defence against bullies, and that authority structures tasked with defending law and order are often ineffective, especially at tackling lower-level, systemic or subtle violations of someone’s safety or dignity. Losing my temper and my patience taught me that sometimes, violence is effective when other means have failed.

When you see someone punching a Nazi in the face, think about these lessons. Ask yourself some searching questions, and do so honestly—don’t glibly shrug them off because you have the comfort or privilege of not having to engage with them personally to defend your own rights, dignity and personal safety.

Ask yourself whether someone who approves of ‘Black genocide’ and questions the humanity of Jews is going to get bored and leave us alone just because we turn the other cheek. Ask yourself whether the Allies should have restricted themselves to rational argument in the 1940s, and whether there has been a shortage of rational critiques of Nazism since then.

Ask yourself whether you can rely on the ‘appropriate authorities’ to deal with Nazis, particularly authorities that have repeatedly refused to implement hate speech laws, and have historically played more of a role in subjugating minorities than defending or liberating them.

Ask yourself how your priorities seem to other people when you put condemning the anti-fascist punching a Nazi before condemning the Nazi advocating genocide. Ask yourself whether the cliché claim that if you had a time machine you would go back to 1932 and kill Hitler means anything coming from someone who is appalled by a single punch to the face of the man who is one of the leading Nazis in 2017. Ask yourself whether punching people might not sometimes be both justified and effective.

Ask yourself whether one of the world’s largest economies tailspinning into a new norm of governance driven by a political coalition that includes actual Nazis might not be a cause for serious concern. Ask yourself whether violence might not be part of the solution—nobody is pretending it is the only tactic needed—to preventing a global resurgence of fascism. Ask yourself whether a few more ordinary Germans shouldn’t have punched a few more Nazis in the years before Hitler rose to power and consolidated his grip on the country.

Ask yourself—because I know that some of you will be thinking this—whether comparing Nazis to bullying teenagers is really unfair or inaccurate. Do you think Nazis are fairer, more rational, more morally upstanding or more easily persuaded of a different point of view than the average teenager?

And you might find that personally, your answer to some of these questions leaves you siding against punching any Nazis. That’s fine. But hopefully, in the process of considering these questions, you’ll come to the conclusion that punching Nazis is not always or obviously wrong, either morally or tactically. That even if other people have a different assessment of the tactic from you, they are not bad people, but in fact very well-meaning people who happen to have different beliefs about the outcome of a certain course of action. That you probably agree a great deal more than you disagree when it comes to Nazism.

By all means, debate it, but don’t be ‘that guy’. Don’t say that you’ll defend the rights of Nazis until your dying breath—if we all did that, there would be a lot more dying breaths involved. Don’t call people who feel the need to physically stand up to fascism ‘thugs’ and ‘criminals’ and ride around on a high horse. Don’t say that punching a Nazi in the face is basically the same as being a Nazi, or that we lose the argument by stooping to their level—by that logic the Nazis won WWII and we may as well give up now because fascism wins either way.