When Mao Zedong was building his revolutionary army, he employed practices that gave his cause more legitimacy to average people, such as teaching new recruits how to read, employing severe punishments for those who would steal or mistreat civilians and a policy of only attacking the vanguard of the enemy regime. This way, he appeared to act far more ethically than the regime in place. Of course, we cannot forget the end result of his efforts, as many young pseudo-rebel intellectuals/activists choose to, but there is something to be learned here when it comes to political violence and ideological convenience.
Last year, when Michelle Obama spoke at the DNC, she said that, “When they go low, we go high.” Nowadays, you find videos on The Guardian explaining why it is ethical to punch “Nazis,” employing techniques of implication and cognitive dissidence, as well as appeals to pathos rather than logos.
At Trump’s inauguration, a white nationalist, Richard Spencer, was punched in the face. This sparked a discourse about whether this type of violence is acceptable under the current political circumstances. Some people call the idea that we should not punch Richard Spencer “disturbing.” This is disturbing in itself, and is highly characteristic of elite ideological ineptitude. Another Facebook video was even simpler, saying, “There should be no need to rationalize it.”
I am certainly not going to defend his ideas nor provide him any sympathy for having such a corrupted worldview. I believe these controversial speakers who have been given time on the mainstream media recently, like Spencer, are purely there for their own self-aggrandizement, seeking to upset and anger for their own selfish goals. Unable to find any verification through discourse that is intellectually rigorous or constructive, they resort to perverted polemics. Unfortunately for them, many of their critics fight back with delusions of the same character, only influenced by a different side of the ideological divide, fighting with overused, similarly delusional and overly moralistic rhetoric which falls, in general, on deaf ears. Is anything gained?
This is a persistent characteristic of the toxic political environment we are living in: dead-end pseudo-discourse up against dead-end pseudo-discourse. When people say “discussion” these days, they only mean to ultimately convince the other side to agree with them. This is a mark of the neoliberal focus on the self, permeating deep into our cultural experience. There is nothing to achieve except the satisfaction that one has gained social capital. However, when dealing with such people who are projecting their insecurities and fears about the world and their prospects, in truth, everyone is guilty of to some extent.
Fighting “violence” with violence is not the answer, nor is silencing dissenting opinions. Silencing bigotry allows it to be forgotten about, allows the bigots to keep it inside, to fester, to grow and to infect others in private. Silencing bigotry with violence further feeds the biases of the bigots. The old saying goes that when you have enemies, you must be doing something right, and it is this line of thinking that makes political violence and social intimidation fall short of achieving its goals. Not only that, but in an era of incredible egotism, having enemies provides excellent narrative bias to those whom you go after.
This is all said under the assumption that I am speaking to university students, and that assumption is important. It seems especially prevalent because we all speak as if we know better than the majority of people, evidenced by this privileged attitude and line of thinking, that because you have made it to college and took a few courses in politics and read “The Communist Manifesto” that you know when it is right to use political violence. The “black bloc” protesters, many supporters of and encouraged by the Internet anarchist communities, are fighting for something that is wholly unrealistic and unachievable without a significant amount of the population being killed.
It seems that many college-educated, Internet-echo-chamber left-leaning ideologies seem to lack any real agenda or have any practical plan. In the short-term, violent protests, in the long-term, communist/anarchist/peaceful/classless society? If any semblance of the international order is to stay together, a concerted effort to create a society like this is not beneficial, nor would it be possible given the strength in our political institutions. It is almost as if impossible, vague goals are chosen in an effort to create lopsided dialogue in which opposing parties’ arguments can be simply reasoned away when questioning the legitimacy of these goals, and in order to create a perpetual fight that feeds individual personalities, not society.
College conservatives, on the other hand, seem to fill a similar ideological void, albeit in a much more unstable fashion and a less totalitarian character. College conservatives are much smaller in number, and although they can sometimes be better at citing facts, there is little ferocity or energy behind their overused rhetoric, as compared to that of left leaning students, and it is falling on even deafer ears. This is why they turn to calling in people like Milo Yiannopoulos, to feel some sense of agency through a man who has no dignity nor respect. However, the existence of this feeling is not their fault for not caving. We live in a time where a lack of practicality and vision exists on both sides.
It is interesting when people compare the rise of these ideologies to the rise of the Nazis, especially when one leaves out such factors as the prevalence of the private militia that was the storm troopers, the overwhelming presence of anti-Semitism, the cunning and years of work with which the Weimar Republic’s institutions were undermined, the greater political power of the army and the years it took for the party to build up the coalition and break the monopoly on state power, which were all necessary to achieve Hitler’s goals. Germany had conditions far more conducive to the creation of a dictator than currently exist here. There are no Trump storm troopers, there is no one to call the “September Criminals,” over half of the country voted against him in the popular vote and institutions still have power. Better examples from history would be the system of “delegative democracy” prevalent in Latin America from the 1930s through the 1980s, where an elected president would rule by decree and undermine the institutions which created checks and balances. We may be seeing inept people being put in charge of agencies, but they come with thousands in their staffs. Also, even in delegative democracies, the president could be voted out.
I am all for dialogue. I am all for disagreement. I am all for protesting, and I am all for learning. Do not think I condone bigotry. For too long, our political leaders thought it convenient to forget what kind of thinking still existed under the surface. Then again, there were quite a few structural and cultural issues that were forgotten about, and now they have been brought to the fore. Our leaders are not offering any solutions beyond ones that are easy to repeat and trendy among their loyal constituents. This is not a problem perpetuated by just Republicans, either.
What I hope to get across is that people need to examine their ideas, compare them with facts and history, and when you feel certain you are correct, do not belittle people for thinking differently, even if you do not agree with their facts. Yelling at them for being wrong, and being openly angry at people for disagreeing with you before they even make their case is not constructive.
Unfortunately, many normal, rational people are “conservative with a small c,” in that they do not want to give up what they have (refer to Saul Alinsky). Indeed, it is the pervasive precariousness (real or imagined) in the economy and social settings that drives debates to such impotent ferocity. There may not be much you can do if this is encountered. Instead, pick your battles wisely. Do not tire yourself with constant action if you have not considered all options or weighed your opportunities.
Above all, do not silence people because you want to create a facade of everything being okay, and do not punch the people that disturb that version of reality. If they have not punched you first, do not be the instigator. Do not take words for action. Though this can waste opportunities for convenient labelling and early identification of threats, the harm that it does is much greater. Have some standards. If one of the most horrid human beings in history can have better standards than you, you can definitely do better. If you cannot, do not take the low road.