Friday, 18 August 2017

How to deal with neo-nazis without becoming a violent fool

It looks like the American news cycle is going to give us another 3 and a half years that will include regular infusions of nazi-like people poking themselves into public life. It's obviously bad that they want to be racist and fascist, and it may or may not be useful that they're now exposed to the light of day, rather than festering away in secret. But one thing that's going to keep bugging me a lot, every time, are the well-meaning but badly misguided opponents of nazism who keep going on about punching them. This response is dumb, at best.

I am not the world's supreme authority on deconversion techniques, nor on conflict resolution, but I have had more than the average amount of undergraduate and postgraduate training in this sort of thing. It was one of the main things that got me interested enough in politics to get a degree in it, though I subsequently went in other directions. But I do definitely know just enough to recognise that the total amateurs calling for violent rage don't know what they're talking about at all. To highlight this point, note that by far the most common reference they are relying on is the Indiana Jones series of movies. I haven't counted yet, but I'm pretty sure that the fictional pedophile colonialist thief main character in those movies actually kills a lot more non-nazis than nazis. In fact, brutal violence is that fictional character's solution to most problems. So let's start by agreeing that this and all similar works of fiction are dumb role models for real 21st century behaviour. People who believe otherwise need to grow up, quickly.

Another popular gambit people seem to be relying on lately is saying that anyone who fought against Germany in World War 2 (or at least the British and Americans, in some perspectives I've been given) somehow proves that violence against nazis is good, great, wonderful. This argument is a smidge superior to the totally fictional Indiana Jones, I will concede, but it still lacks an astounding comprehension of how history actually happened. Even if you think soldiers are fighting for a good cause, they're still functionally only there to kill other people. Arguing that they were doing a good thing is tantamount to arguing that war is a good thing. And you know who argues that war is good? Nazis. They fucking loved war, and many of their current neo-nazi followers have a similar veneration of all things violent and military. You know who hated war? The average non-nazi. This is a massive topic we could digress into for years, but give Spike Milligan's war autobiographies a read sometime, or any of the hundreds of similar accounts, and see how a typical person in the middle of that mess felt about it all. War is entirely shit, there is no good side in it, no true good guys, and World War II in particular was an unusually brutal and wide-ranging slaughter on the largest scale humans have ever seen. It's not a period in history we should be aspiring to, because it is beneath us, not above us. Saying you want to beat people is the first step in the cycle of escalation to war that humans have witnessed a million times and never fully learned our lesson from.

There may, I will very cautiously concede, be scenarios in which an innocent person must be rescued and ad hoc violence (by that person or third parties) may be needed to improvise their rescue. But that is a world away from sitting in your underwear at home, cold-bloodedly typing into Facebook that you think we should all plan ahead for beating groups of other people, as a routine and default action, to make them do what we want. That kind of statement is the statement of a bad guy. Don't do that.

Now an interlude: This, experience tells me, is the point where I am accused of being a secret nazi sympathiser, or of not caring about their victims, or of being the unrealistic one for thinking anything short of total violence can work. I've even been accused, for the first time in my life, of being a "moderate". (I have burned a thousand bridges, with friends and strangers alike, over my strong political convictions. Accusing me of excessive moderacy is just an indication that one doesn't actually understand the words one is using and/or doesn't know me at all.)

So let me address these concerns, before spelling out a more constructive path.

I do not support nazis, racists, fascists, sexists, homophobes, or meat eaters, among others. These are all examples of deeply immoral choices, which all share the trait of personal enrichment as part of a privileged group at the expense of another, more vulnerable exploited group. Choosing to be one or more of those is a terrible mistake. But making that choice does not void a person's most basic human rights (which EVERYONE gets, even if they're a dick), it does not absolve the rest of us from our full set of moral duties, and it does not turn any human being into a mindless automaton who cannot or should not be reasoned with. Talking people out of their bigotry is hard. But beating it out of them is close to impossible AND it drags us down to their level. The reason we don't like bigots is that they try to force others to their will, often violently. There must be some pretty major cognitive dissonance to want to use the same method to make them stop that.

And of course, obviously, priority one should not be the comfort of nazis, but the wellbeing of their (intended or actual) victims. It's inaccurate and a little insulting to suggest that I don't have the well-being of these people at the front of my mind. So far, everyone who's accused me of this has been lily white English, with a bit of Afrikaans thrown in. These are not cultural heritages that are squeaky clean of abusing others, and they're not known for having been routinely badly abused themselves (except by each other, by coincidence). I've got my British ancestry. But I also have half my ancestors who were oppressed by the Ottoman Empire for centuries, and when they came to South Africa, were also oppressed by the early apartheid laws, for about a generation. I have not personally been oppressed (I've been privileged my whole life, without question), but it's ridiculous to say that I'd willingly be on the side of the oppressors, knowing how my ancestors (and just as much, the much greater number of my non-relatives) starved and trudged and bled and suffered. My entire academic and professional career has been centered around making people's lives better, not worse. I definitely don't always get it right, but I'm still far ahead of literally supporting bigots (and possibly also ahead of the typical, neutral jobsworth who makes a fair living but isn't really in the helping others business, professionally). I'm very lucky to have paying work that is so constructive to society in general. (I've got a vague hunch that people in the arts & entertainment field are more prone to getting thin-skinned over this; I like artists, I don't think they're wasting their time, generally, but I can see that they might doubt their self-worth in unfair ways, and twist that into doubt of others.)

And finally, perhaps most crucially, we need to pick apart the idea that hitting people will change their minds more than anything else, especially rational discussion. Correction: That previous sentence should read "the really fucking dumb idea that hitting people will change their minds". And this is a big obstacle right there: How to convey to someone that they've embraced a very dumb idea, without alienating them, and pushing them into embracing it even tighter, rather than admit that they've made a mistake? Obviously, I should make clear, it doesn't help at all to tell them that they're dumb stupid idiot fools. Nobody responds well to that, and it usually isn't true anyway. Smart people make dumb choices; I've made plenty and I'm at least moderately intelligent. The more important thing is the ability to move beyond these mistakes.

At the same time, we mustn't lose sight of the fact that this is a really dumb idea. It used to be widely held, in some parts of the world, that pain and physical violence helped to encourage learning and good behaviour. But this was definitely totally wrong, and there's a good century or more of research pointing in exactly the opposite direction. Pain is bad for learning. Physical violence begets more physical violence and other forms of anti-social behaviour. Operant conditioning (like the electric shock training forced on the Project Mercury chimpanzees) gets some basic, coerced behaviour through the application of pain in the short-term (which is why it was sufficient for Project Mercury's very limited needs), but it's shit for actually teaching anyone anything on an intellectual level. Hitting people just doesn't work.

Interlude over. What does work? How do you teach people things they don't want to hear? As a teacher, I can summarise it for you this way: It takes a decade or more of stressful struggle and argument and pushing and discomfort, and it requires the application of many different techniques to achieve many separate parts of the whole desired result. If it were easy, I'd be out of a job, and this post would be totally unnecessary.

So I totally understand the desire for an easy quick fix. It's frustrating enough for me when I have to push algebra into a bored grade 9's head when they'd rather be playing games. And nobody's life is in immediate, urgent danger in my classroom, usually. But wanting a quick fix is not the same as actually having one available. Beating people is definitely not it. Pretending otherwise helps nothing.

So here's what you can actually do that'll be useful: Talk to people.

To be clear, this doesn't mean any of the following:
  • "Love them." Fuck that, don't abuse the concept of love in such a silly way, whether you mean it seriously or mockingly. You don't have to be full of flowers and little bunny toes to convince someone of the simple idea that it is wrong to oppress others. Arguably, you should naturally feel angry that you have to explain this at all. But one thing I've learned thoroughly from teaching is that losing your temper is a completely useless way of convincing anyone of anything, and nobody will buy fake expressions of "love" or other forms of sucking up either. Instead, do your best to be calm, neutral, but devoted to your better principles. You don't have to hate or love someone to explain something to them; you have to play a role that will get them to listen. If you can't do that, step away.
  • "Let them get away with their intolerance." I struggle to understand how people get stuck on this misunderstanding. We don't accept, for comparison, robbery, but we sane, normal people also don't accept that the police or private citizens should mow down suspected robbers with machine guns and chainsaws and no legal due process. There are options in between "nothing" and "murder", and it's my contention that people need to get more familiar with these more sane alternatives. If you're unwilling to accept that premeditated violence is not an ethical choice, then I say you should step away, and leave this to better people.
  • "It will be easy." As I've already spelled out above, changing people's convictions is far from easy. If you want quick, easy-feeling solutions, then this isn't something you should get involved in; step away.
  • "Let's sink hundreds of hours into angry, pointless online rants and arguments with faceless strangers." Not all talk is equally worthwhile. Focus on people you can engage with best, the precariously balanced fence-sitters, and don't try to rush the hardest challenges just to satisfy your own ego. Direct confrontation with hardcore true-believer neo-nazis is something best left to expert professionals (psychologists, psychiatrists, diplomats, and other conflict resolution experts). The best most of us can do for people that deeply twisted is to help channel them towards professional help. Otherwise, it's reasonable to step away.
  • "Nazis don't deserve to suffer." Choices come with consequences, sure. And depending how you do the moral maths, you might even conclude that physical pain is a morally justified punishment for really shit choices, like nazism. My position is that I don't care much what they deserve, I care what the rest of us deserve. And I say that we all deserve to be the better people, who do not have to sink to their shitty level. And I say that we all deserve a solution that will actually work and make the world better; whether you like it or not, the evidence says that beating people in the street will not work. So I don't care if you're robbed of the (somewhat sadistic) chance to cause pain; its not important that you get that chance.
How much talking you can do, who you can talk to, and how useful you will be, are all difficult things for me to predict. Everyone is different, and there's some element of luck to this, because it's hard to know exactly when is best to confront someone. But remember this: Being bad at convincing people of things is not a moral failing, it does not make you a bad person. Just do your best, encourage your friends to do their best, and hopefully our combined efforts will add up to enough. On the other hand, I think it is a moral failing to want to harm others, as a first choice of default reaction to what we all agree is unacceptable behaviour. Telling everyone to rush out to beat people in the street probably does make you a bad person. And grabbing at the violent option, just to feel like you're doing anything at all, may be natural and understandable, but try to accept that it may actually make things worse.

People calling us to beat nazis worry me, but I am still pretty optimistic. They're asking for something stupid, but I don't think they're generally stupid people. They're calling for something bad, but I don't think most of them are bad people. We're all opposed to nazis because we all agree that what nazism wants to do to people is wrong; having a bad idea of how to counter nazism probably makes you a decent person with a bad idea, rather than a bad person. And ultimately, luckily, I don't think most people calling for this violence will ever actually do it. The ones I know best are nerdy, lazy cowards, shouting at social media because they feel powerless; they're very unlikely to form vigilante gangs and go roaming the streets, looking for fights. I don't think many of them would even really know where to look for their local neo-nazi group. But I do worry that their message will provoke others, elsewhere, to do stupid things. And I know they can all actually do the talking and convincing thing better than I can, if they put their minds to it.