I want to weigh in on the “to punch or not to punch Nazis” argument. Not because I’m some social justice expert with something new to say, but because I hate to see well-intentioned white folks claiming to be “on a spiritual path” regurgitating privileged nonsense and simplistic answers that functionally uphold white supremacy.
None of us hold that as a goal, right? If you’re in my life, you want to dismantle white supremacy, right? So let’s stop for a moment and really think about the impact of promoting non-violent approaches as the only acceptable form of moving forward together in this mixed-up world.
Although you may not intend it, what you are actually doing when you say “non-violence is the way” has the impact of upholding white supremacy.
Follow me for a moment. Let’s take a walk down what philosophers call the “consequentialist” end of the spectrum and travel this argument.
For context: I have never punched a Nazi. But I did punch a loudmouth in the nose at Denny’s Restaurant once. Three in the morning. From a few tables over he was harassing me and my date. I calmly walked over in my hot pink stilettos, sat down on the bench beside him, and sucker punched him with a right hook.
Blood everywhere. Mayhem ensued.
There was not a second date but I remain resolute: that guy was a misogynist and a bully. No one in that restaurant thought what he was doing was cool as evidenced by their complete and utter silence. Everybody wanted it to stop. He wouldn’t stop. Until I made him.
So yes, I speak as a privileged white woman, but also as someone who knows that punching a person is a violent physical act that hurts both parties, emotionally, psychologically and bodily.
ANYWAY. Back to our argument.
For the sake of clarity, let’s name the two sides of this argument. Let’s call the people in the two camps the Non-Violent Resisters (NVRs) and the Nazi Punchers (NPs).
I am a member of the Nazi Punchers. Across the aisle are the NVRs. They are pleading with those of us on the NP side. They say things like,
“Punching Nazis doesn’t work.”
This is a clear indication of NVRs’ misapprehension of the goal. They think that the goal is to stop Nazism. But we aren’t fools. We know that punching a Nazi won’t stop white supremacy. That isn’t the point, though.
The point of punching Nazis is twofold: social proof and commitment.
Social proof and Commitment are terms taken from Robert Cialdini’s theory of influence. Cialdini is a social psychologist and author of Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion. (BTW, my husband is a behaviour change researcher and he also recommends the book, I’ll Have What She’s Having: Mapping Social Behaviour, for excellent insight on herding behaviour, social proof and shaping collective behaviour.)
Simply put, social proof signals to others what is and is not acceptable behaviour in our group.
If there is a lot of litter on the street, it signals that the neighbourhood does not care about the street, and so it is okay to litter on it.
So, the Women’s March provides the social proof that millions of women care. Conversely, when ten picketers gather to rail at the latest government betrayal, they are proving almost no one cares. And therefore it is okay for you to keep on not caring.
So let’s look at the current state of social proof.
It is okay to kill people of colour.
It is okay to discriminate against them in work and education.
It is okay to ghettoize people of colour in terribly polluted neighbourhoods.
You might point out our laws proscribe those things, but the fact on the ground—the social proof—is that this happens every single day without censure. The impunity shows the reality.
And from the well-meaning side? The social proof is that it is okay to write news stories or letters to the editor. It is okay to write your politician. It is okay to shake your head sadly.
But the social proof is that physically defending the oppressed is not okay.
I believe there are times we need to call people out, less because we think we can change them and more because it sends an important message to the collective about what will not be tolerated in our culture. As Kelly Diels has written, not everybody can be called in. Not everyone is moveable. So, we can’t persuade Nazis to not be shitheels. But when you punch them in the face, you provide social proof that a Nazi cannot expect impunity.
We mustn’t allow the bad apples to set the tone. Because as Jennifer Jacquet writes in her book, Is Shame Necessary: New Uses For An Old Tool,
The degree of “bad” relative to the group matters when it comes to bad apples.
Jacquet’s research into cooperative dilemmas shows that bad apple behaviour is contagious. The presence of a bad apple incites other group members to stop cooperating, too, even if that results in fewer positive gains for themselves individually.
Some collective dilemmas, (such as racism and white supremacy), can tolerate very few bad apples. Very quickly, the entire collective suffers. And more often than not, certain individuals and groups bear the brunt.
In other words, we ought to have zero fucking tolerance for Nazi bullshit and use all tools available to us to communicate that social norm. All the tools. Like, yesterday.
Commitment as a notion of influence goes a bit like this: if I demonstrate commitment to an idea, I’m more likely to uphold that idea in order to stay congruent with my self-image.
If I punch a Nazi in the face, signalling to marginalized friends and strangers that I’ve got their backs and am willing to put my body on the line for it, I am more likely to keep behaving in solidarity in other areas of my life.
If I commit to an idea of non-violence in the face of “other” people and strangers being killed, I am less likely to change my mind and act differently even when the circle starts closing in and people closer to me are targeted. Because I’m committed and my self-identity depends on congruence.
When you argue loudly that “violence doesn’t work”, you again demonstrate misapprehension of the problem and the goal. Obviously even the threat of violence does work since it suppresses our resistance.
People walking around with guns is silencing, no?
“Violence doesn’t work” over-simplifies the argument and uses black and brown bodies as fodder for “finding another way”. Ergo, white supremacy.
Let’s recap the “it doesn’t work” argument so far:
What do you mean by “work”?
Is your goal that marginalized people feel safe?
Punch a Nazi in the face and let marginalized folks know you want them to feel safe. Demonstrate your commitment. At the very least, don’t oppose people who are NPs.
Across the aisle, the NVRs are still up in arms.
“But!” they yell.
“But using violence is morally wrong. What would MLK do?”
Confession: I am a bad Quaker. As a Quaker, I am supposed to be with the NVRs. And in many ways I am. But I also understand that non-violence effectively occurs within a context and has a creative, dynamic relationship with the Threat Of Violence and everything on its spectrum. As much as I may want us to choose a path of non-violence, it may not be a possibility unless violence is also an option.
Those are wise words from Michelle R Smith.
Can we really say that Martin Luther King Jr. would even have been as effective as he was without the threat of Malcolm X and the Black Panthers as the other option? Is it possible that MLK Jr is as venerated by NVRs as he is because of a deep seated white fear of retaliation?
Ok, ok, the NVRs don’t want to go there. They feel that if we can’t have a reasonable discourse they won’t proceed. They feel I’m being divisive.
Ok. I’m listening.
“Violence should only be used in self-defense.”
I see. What do you consider violence and when does it become self-defence?
The World Health Organization defines violence as “the intentional use of physical force or power, threatened or actual, against oneself, another person, or against a group or community, which either results in or has a high likelihood of resulting in injury, death, psychological harm, maldevelopment, or deprivation”.
I’d say that Nazis and Nazism are well within the purview of that definition, even if we use the more generalized terms like “power” and “deprivation”.
Do Nazis and Nazism use power (for example, politics and propaganda) against Jews and people of colour to deprive them of a sense of value? Yes.
Self-defence has many definitions but let’s allow wikipedia to provide a nice, general one:
Can Jews and people of colour punch Nazis in the face without being lynched? Probably not.
Can white people? Probably.
So acting in solidarity with the less powerful, acting as though, oh I don’t know, the safety and value of all people in our society matters to me because it’s my society too, is a form of surrogacy but also protects me as a society member. It protects me because I don’t feel safe or of value in a society that doesn’t value everyone.
Is punching a Nazi in the face a counter-measure that defends the health and well-being of bystanders from the harm of deprivation of a sense of value? I’d say so, yes.
Ergo, punching Nazis in the face is self-defence.
“Oh, come on!” protest the NVRs. “You’re using twists of logic now. Be reasonable. We need to work together, not become divisive.”
Ok, how’s this: when you repudiate the actions of resisters whose methods are different from yours, you do the work of the oppressor.
I’d love for you to stop upholding white supremacy by ceasing criticism of stronger, even physical, shows of force against fascism.
If you don’t want to do the work of the oppressor, and you believe non-violent resistance will win this fight, you go ahead and win for us. I support you and look forward to your victory.
But don’t police people who are using other methods.
We can work together by allowing the NPs to exist, alongside the NVRs, together in our fight.
If you must invoke Martin Luther King Jr in this context, let it be this:
It is not enough for me to stand before you tonight and condemn riots. It would be morally irresponsible for me to do that without, at the same time, condemning the contingent, intolerable conditions that exist in our society. These conditions are the things that cause individuals to feel that they have no other alternative than to engage in violent rebellions to get attention. And I must say tonight that a riot is the language of the unheard.
(Excerpt from The Other America, March 14, 1968)
When you promote non-violence as the only acceptable method of fighting fascism, your privilege is showing.
When you insist on “reasonable” responses to fascism, your privilege is showing.
When you implore peace in the name of “We are all one”, your privilege is showing.
Yes, we are all one cosmically. But we are talking about socially. Socially speaking, you are ignoring the facts on the ground and black and brown people are dying because of it.
Yes, it may feel uncomfortable for you to witness violence. Imagine living it from the moment you are born.
If you had lived with the threat and the direct experience of violence from the moment you were born, wouldn’t it be nice if privileged people demonstrated they cared and actively committed to protecting you using every tool available to them?
How long would you wait for the head shaking and protest signs to work against police brutality, or deportations, or missing and murdered girls and women?
Please, to all my non-violent resister friends, I beg of you: STOP criticizing Nazi punchers and their supporters.
Let go of righteous indignation.
Release spiritual superiority.
Lean into discomfort.
It doesn’t matter if punching Nazis “works” or not.
We can’t know what will work, we can only know what is right.
For more on this, please read Katherine Cross’s two excellent essays: