Dialogue and persuasion is all well and good in civilized society, but what about Nazis?
This question is less hypothetical and less Godwin-y by the day. By “Nazi,” I do not mean cackling cartoon supervillains, but someone who believes that different racial groups cannot live together and that race conflict is both inevitable and desirable. Nazis consider other racial groups both subhuman and threatening. They are not opposed to the mass murder of other races, even if they are currently proposing alternate “solutions” (such as mass expulsion).
Groups like Antifa argue that, when there are Nazis, the time for talking has passed and the time for punching has begun. Yes. Quite right. People committed to and acting on this worldview must be fought. If the Nazi party takes over in this country, I am grabbing my gun.
As of now, however, the Nazis are not in power. Trump is, in my opinion, a sympathizer, and his administration holds extraordinarily disturbing views on the subject of racial and cultural purity. Mass deportation efforts and bans on immigration are very, very bad signs for where we are headed. This is not yet Naziism, however. Things can be awful, immoral, and simultaneously not Nazi.
Similarly, most people are not Nazis. A disturbingly large swath of people is drifting in that direction and I am on the upper end of the “worried about it” scale, but we aren’t there yet.
It is crucial that we spend time now, while most people are NOT Nazis, trying to prevent more people from becoming Nazis, since once they become Nazis it is indeed too late to talk. The only way to prevent someone from becoming a racist, fascist piece of shit is to convince them that racial fascism is a terrible, awful, evil thing.
You cannot do this through fear. You cannot do this through intimidation. Physical threats can change actions but they cannot change minds.
Only ideas can do that.
The horror of fascism is that it reduces humans to animals by stripping them of agency. A person who acts out of fear of harm is deciding between pain and obedience; a hideously impoverished set of alternatives. This person can’t choose to be good or to be happy. It doesn’t matter what would make them happy; their thoughts and feelings and self no longer matter to anyone, not even to themselves. The idea is to avoid this kind of existence, not perpetuate it. The idea is to destroy this kind of fear, not create it.
Even if you don’t particularly care for this sentimental talk of morality and freedom of choice and agency and happiness, consider that Nazis are, traditionally, excellent at intimidation. They are terrible at ideas, but great at murder and violence. If you think your best shot at beating the Nazis is on their home turf of murder and violence, not only do I think you’re wrong but I suspect your own ideas are a pathetic and uncompelling conglomeration that no one would choose on their own.
Or maybe you’ve just chosen a bad strategy. Please rethink it. Look around. Antifa has been doing their thing for a while now. Has it helped? Have alt-right rallies and Nazi rallies* decreased? Or are they on the rise? Are there fewer out Nazis now than there used to be, or is that particular poison spreading like kudzu?
True story: I was at a Portland protest a few weeks ago. There had already been an arrest for brawling. An Antifa member shouted “Why are you even here?!” Quietly, not to the Antifa but to his friend, one of the conservative ralliers replied “if you weren’t here, we wouldn’t be here.” His friend laughed and agreed.
If intimidation does not work, we are left with dialogue. Because Nazis are not in power, dialogue with Nazis is the best strategy at this stage. Not because you can convince a committed Nazi–you’ll never convince Richard Spencer–but because you can convince someone who’s listening to the debate. The bystanders are the ones we’re after. They’re the ones who vote. They’re the ones who fight. They’re the ones who can and must be reached.
Humans are messy, complicated, ornery creatures. You can’t force them to change their minds. I understand the appeal of a shortcut, of the instant and visible results that violence seems to yield. I understand the panic and desperation that screams “We don’t have time to wait, and we don’t have the luxury of hoping people will do the right thing.” I understand the glorious feeling of power that comes from making someone do something, from seeing and feeling so viscerally your impact on the world. God, I wish it worked that way.
It doesn’t work that way.
*Not everyone who attends an alt-right rally is a Nazi. Nazis do attend alt-right rallies. You don’t have to like the people who attend these rallies, but the difference is of extreme strategic importance. Back to article