The troubling question of violence

I recently watched the 2016 British TV documentary Exposure. It deals with the horrendous murders of atheists and other secularists in Bangladesh and elsewhere by religious fanatics in the Muslim world and how that hate has spilled over to the threats faced by Muslim apostates in the UK. You can see the full 47-minute video online.

In the documentary, radical Muslim clerics in the UK exploit the freedom of speech available to them in that country to threaten the freedom of speech and beliefs of those who do not believe as they do. These fiery speakers call for apostates to be hanged and their homes burned. These clerics skirt close to the edge of UK law in threatening violence against apostates but are careful to not cross over it and thus get prosecuted. Not surprisingly, this causes many ex-Muslims in the UK to remain quiet about their beliefs or, if they are open about them, to keep their locations secret. Some courageous ex-Muslims like Maryam Namazie have formed groups such as the Council of ex-Muslims of Britain to support and protect the ex-Muslims.

This kind of hatefulness of religious extremist leaders is not limited of course to just Muslims. We can see their Christian counterparts in the US.

On Friday, Christian extremist Pastor Kevin Swanson and his radio co-host called for schools that teach LGBTQ tolerance to be burned down and for the bricks left behind to be used to kill non-Christians.

According to Right Wing Watch, Swanson and co-host Bill Jack were fuming over the fact that public schools in Washington state are now including gender identity issues as part of their comprehensive sex education program for students.

Swanson compared the sex education changes to rape charges that were leveled against an employee of Washington’s Fish and Wildlife Services, saying that exposing children to sex education materials is a crime against God.

“Rape is also against God’s law and I guess it must be against state law; I’m not getting why, though,” Swanson — who in the past has called for the execution of LGBTQ people— said. “Why in the world is a sexual crime against the law in the state of Washington if the other forms of crimes are not against the law in the state of Washington? See, this is confusing to me.”

These speakers incite violence against their enemies but are careful not to commit such acts themselves, presumably hoping that some of their misguided followers will take the advocated action and put their own lives and freedom at risk. The speakers seem to feel secure in the belief that the laws protect them from retaliation. But should they be allowed to feel that secure? Some groups in the US have felt that these hate groups should get a taste of their own medicine and have attacked the neo-Nazis and white supremacists.

The current political climate in the US has prompted debate about the proper role of violence and how we should respond to the rise of neo-Nazis, white supremacists, and other provocateurs. Should they be considered fringe groups whom it is best to ignore because what they seek is publicity? Molly Knefel argues that turning a blind eye to the presence of Nazis will not make them go away, and the advice of “just ignore them” is a misapplication of the advice we give to children about childhood bullies.

Ignoring bullying doesn’t make it go away, but organizing the community against it can. So it’s not just that ignoring white supremacist violence won’t make it go away, although of course it won’t. It’s that to ignore white supremacist violence, as a society, is to sanction it.

To say “just ignore it” only makes sense to those who are not at risk of directly experiencing violence at the hands of violent racists. The flip side of that coin is that it’s easy to ignore the KKK when your skin color doesn’t make them want to kill you. It matters deeply that institutions and individuals condemn white supremacy and Nazism and stand in explicit solidarity with those who these hate groups would like to see gone from the country or dead.

But if one does not ignore it, what other options are there? Should these groups be met with massive counter-demonstrations to show that they are outnumbered, even if these encounters can lead to violence? And when violence does occur, does that mean that we are descending into the muck that these racists wallow in?

This debate has been playing out on the FtB site where you can read Siobhan/Shiv’s take on the issue where she argues that taking a violent response completely off the table is unrealistic, as well as Marcus Ranum’s post where he criticizes the way that the media describes these clashes.

Josh Marshall has a post where he discusses the issue in some detail.

On a basic philosophical level, embracing violence to combat political and moral evils like racism and fascism is simply not equivalent to embracing violence to advance these evils. Any liberalism or constitutionalism that is so bloodless that it can’t make these distinctions is too ornate and theoretical to exist in the wild. So the entirety of Trump’s equivalence is false. But again, what should our attitude be towards even small groups who embrace physical confrontations and violence as the way to confront these groups?

Marshall goes on to argue that fascists groups tend to emerge as victors whenever there are widespread brawls. He then confronts a key question as to whether anti-Nazis should have taken on the Nazis back in 1933 during Hitler’s rise to power. Cartoonist Ted Rall seems to think that those who decry the current violent attacks on neo-Nazis do not realize the danger that is being faced that he compares to the early days of the Nazis in pre-war Germany.

But Marshall says that it is not that simple and that while he enjoys seeing Nazis get punched, and that while the occasional bruising they get may send a “salutory message” to them, one should not be too quick to draw the Hitler analogy.

[T]here is a time when violence and extra-constitutional action is likely the only way to prevent fascism and dictatorship. But, paradoxically, the resort to street violence, political paramilitaries and empowered violence over law is also the surest route to the destruction of democracy and dictatorship. Quite simply, as dire a situation as I think the country’s in, we are not remotely in a position comparable to the Spring of 1933 in Germany. Suggesting otherwise amounts to a grandiose and self-flattering conceit.

Anthony L. Fisher also thinks that the pre-war Germany comparisons are overblown and argues that striking back at the neo-Nazis with violence would be to present the right with the gift they seek and he harshly criticizes the antifa movement as “violent intolerant clowns, and nihilistic opportunists taking advantage of societal anxieties to live out fantasies of bloody heroism on the public stage.”

Abe Low (a pseudonym) writes as a self-described “left-wing, white, Jew” about his own internal conflict about how he abhors violence at an intellectual level but nowadays seems to constantly fantasize about beating up these neo-Nazis.

At work, I’ve spaced out for 20 minutes at a time during meetings, daydreaming about committing violence, always righteously, in overly dramatic, obnoxiously heroic ways, with a very troubling overtone of white saviorism.

The physical compulsions I’m feeling are purely from rage — a hunger for violence and vengeance. You threaten me, I fuck you up.

The concern deepens because the spike in racist, sexist, anti-Semitic, xenophobic, homophobic hate crimes has compounded an ire that has easily found fuel from regular non-Nazi men out there.

And now it’s especially on my mind as the neo-Nazi alt-right folk are gathering in my city in just a few days. If I go, should I take the role of security for a counter-protest, as some white men I know are doing (at the request of some organizers)? Should I use my white male privilege to be taken seriously enough by a misogynist white supremacist to have a dialogue, reach for empathy, in the hopes of humanizing the “other” to him? Should I go to a family-friendly anti-white-supremacy rally away from the Neo-nazis and work a childcare shift? Should I continue to step back, manage my socialized masculine impulses of presumptuous arrogant aggression, or should I harness them, or simply let loose as much as my courage will allow?

These men are coming soon, here and elsewhere. Maybe see you there?

I am not someone who advocates violence (my own physical frailty would make such a stance both hypocritical and laughable) but in watching the documentary Exposure, I was appalled at how glibly these clerics called for the death and destruction of apostates. I wished that these speakers who so freely incite mobs to kill and destroy the homes of unbelievers would experience for themselves what it is like to be on the receiving end of such threats, to have howling mobs set on them, to live in fear of being attacked and having no recourse.

It struck me that perhaps this could become an art project, with performance artists and a flash mob being organized to simulate such an action and take these hateful speakers by surprise to see how they react when they think that a mob is outside their homes and coming for them. Of course this would only work a few times before the targets catch on that there is no real danger.


  1. says

    a misapplication of the advice we give to children about childhood bullies.

    This advice is utter backfiring bullshit in its childhood version too. Bullies are interested in easy targets, not reactions.

  2. says

    Of course this would only work a few times before the targets catch on that there is no real danger.

    You’d have to make the ‘reward’ versus punishment random. Roll 2D20: “if we roll less than 10 we’re going to rip you apart. 11-50 we just beat you up. if we roll 00 we take you out for cheeseburgers.”

    The problem is that the racists/nazis/fanatics are sheltering behind non-violence. If they were confronted with people that were willing to return measure for measure they’d go back to muttering their threats anonymously over the internet.

  3. lanir says

    The racists all have one clear message right now. They have a powerful urge to be the victims. Just listen to how desperate they are to paint themselves as the victims of someone else’s aggression (if you can stand listening to several minutes of disgustingly self-serving, lying idiocy). Violence plays into their hands.

    Anyone with half a brain is going to wonder how all those brave assholes managed to come out unscathed from the murderous confrontation they claim to have lived through, where a vastly larger crowd that wanted to kill them all magically didn’t seriously harm any of them. As fish stories go that’s about on par with saying you caught an adult blue whale while fishing in your row boat. But it’s not like their targets are people with significant critical thinking skills. They want anyone willing to make up reasons to be afraid and then blame the people they’re afraid of for it. The more stupid and pliable the better.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *