Updated: Aug 22
I spent yesterday evening listening to Dan Arel on the Lalo Dagach podcast. The topic of discussion was punching nazis, the comically surreal issue that seems to have the skeptic community divided… still. I listened after I noticed Matt Dillahunty had been drawn into the conversation as well as Stephen Knight of the Godless Spellchecker podcast. I was poring over tweet after tweet and finding it difficult to sift through the overt snark and connect the ideas Dan was putting forth, so I thought I’d look for a better source. I needed to hear the guy out because nothing he was saying on Twitter made any sense at all.
It needs to be said that Dan Arel is a man who I’ve admired for a long time, whose books are invaluable additions to the godless conversation and who, I am sure, has introduced logical thought into the minds of many. When I launched the campaign to help free Mubarak and my web site crashed with too much traffic, he was first to contact me offering help. He’s passionate, committed and hardworking and I have always been a fan since I first came across him on Twitter.
I guess that’s why this is so disappointing. I’m totally happy to have him hold a differing opinion from me on this topic, this is not the part I find disappointing. The part I find disappointing is that, it would seem, anyone who goes at him hard enough with opposing opinions is being labeled, by Dan, as a nazi sympathizer or “engaging in outright nazi apologism”. Including, now, Matt Dillahunty. Matt Dillahunty and Nazi apologism are two things that I would have never thought I’d see together. Ever.
So, I listened to Lalo’s podcast and I wondered what the fuck I’d gotten myself into about ten minutes in. I had a lot of trouble with pretty much everything Dan said, but the one issue that stood out was when he clarified that the nazis he advocated punching were nazis who clearly called for genocide and had a platform and influence to get their message across to people. We don’t punch nazis with no platform, he assured Lalo. We don’t punch white supremacists who don’t advocate for ethnic cleansing. We only punch nazis like Richard Spencer. We only punch popular nazis.
Naturally, I had to wonder why. What end does this achieve? Dan offered that nazis who are punched will be more cautious about speaking in public. The thing is, Richard Spencer, in his post-punch world, hasn’t seemed to slow down at all. Sure, he’s come out and said he feels less safe speaking in public but do we really buy that when he’s launched a campus tour of the US and been in the headlines more now than ever before? I don’t think the punch has, nor would it ever have, achieved what Dan suggests.
I do believe Dan is mistaking his bloated satisfaction at the idea of Spencer with a broken jaw for effective deterrence. Violence has never been an effective deterrent. That’s why kids who get beaten don’t improve their behaviour; that’s why we train puppies with positive reinforcement; that’s why death penalty states have higher homicide rates. We are in 2017, and we know, now, that violence is not a deterrent.
The weird thing is, Dan knows this, too. He wrote a piece once – one that I cheered through as I read – about why America needs to abolish the death penalty, in which he, himself, wrote,
The death penalty clearly doesn’t work.
I wholeheartedly agree, Dan. The death penalty does not work, because violence does not work. It doesn’t work for kids. It doesn’t work for your baby schnauzer and it sure as shit doesn’t work for men like Richard Spencer, currently basking in the afterglow of post-punch publicity.
The thing about thinking logically and leaning heavily on reason to inform my opinions is that there are a great many things I know to be true because they are demonstrably so. One such thing is that even the most far-gone, hateful, bigot can have his or her mind changed. We know this to be true because we can demonstrate it happening repeatedly.
Take, for example, Christian Picciolini who was the leader of a notorious American skinhead gang by age 16, toured the world with a white supremacist band called The Final Solution and whose plan and weapons stockpiling to overthrow the American government was taken so seriously, he was invited to form an alliance with Muammar Gaddafi to that end. Make no mistake, this man was all about ethnic cleansing. As he said in his own words,
I hated Blacks, Jews, Hispanics, gay, Muslim, anything that wasn’t “white” with almost every ounce of my being…people I had condoned annihilating… [people] I had proposed to wipe off the face of the earth.
Here is a man who rose to prominence in the white supremacist movement; a man who had a platform and influence; a man who advocated for the genocide of all non-white people in America and across the globe. He was, without mincing any words, a complete monster.
Today, however, Christian Picciolini runs the not-for-profit organization called Life After Hate. He says,
In 1996, I decided to leave the vicious movement I helped create because I could no longer reconcile my hateful ideology and thoughts with the empathy I began to feel and the compassion I began to receive from those who I deserved it from the least — those who I previously hated.
He is now a vocal opponent to the white supremacist, neo-nazi movement with a larger platform than he ever had before. In his AMA on Reddit, he answered several questions from current neo-nazi skinheads asking for advice on how to get away from the hateful lifestyle. Not only does he speak out against the groups he once belonged to and the hate he once shared, but he actively helps others get away from it, too.
Even the most hateful monsters with significant platforms and influence who call for actual ethnic cleansing and act towards that end by forming alliances and stockpiling weapons can change their minds. What’s more, they can become a powerful voice affecting real change against these hateful movements once their minds have been freed.
Demonstrable. Evidenced. Proven.
Consider, as well, ex-white supremacist leader, Arno Michaelis. Like Picciolini, Michaelis became a leader in the white supremacist movement at a young age. He expressed his hateful ideology through actual acts of violence. He says,
Violence of any sort, no matter how it may be rationalized, is the bread of hatred. We put mustard on that shit and gleefully gobbled it up and clamored for more.
Also like Picciolini, though, Michaelis eventually left the movement citing the overwhelming compassion he never ceased to receive from those he professed to hate,
My life changed because people demonstrated the courage and inner peace necessary to defy my hostility rather than reflect it. They were not subject to my actions, as the person who hit Spencer was subject to his. People who I had claimed to hate — a Jewish boss, a Lesbian supervisor, black and Latino co-workers — refused to lower themselves to my level, instead choosing to model the way that we human beings should treat each other.
Now, like Picciolini, he works with Life After Hate and a handful of other non-profits who take the front lines against the spread of white supremacy and hate of any kind.
Another man who once could have been described as a monster, who also had a platform and actually engaged in violence against those he despised, had his mind changed so drastically that he now fights against those he once identified with.
Demonstrable. Evidenced. Proven.
Consider Daniel Gallant, the former white supremacist recruiter here in Canada, who recruited a man who carried out a bombing in B.C. He spent a year committed to engaging in one assault per day and focused his violence on individuals from First Nations. Gallant now speaks out against neo-nazism and white supremacy due to,
“transformative education,” acceptance by compassionate and loving communities, participation in Cree healing practices with elders both Christian and traditional, and focusing his social work on assisting individuals from the very groups he had targeted in the past.
Take Shannon Martinez, who left white supremacy behind and now works against it with Life After Hate. What about Derek Black, godson of David Duke who was rising publicly through the ranks of white nationalism when weekly Shabbat dinners with diverse students at college slowly drew him out of the darkness of hatred? What about Angela King, Tony McAleer, and Bryon Widner? How about Frank Meeink, Maxime Fiset, and Felix Benneckenstein?
All of these men and women, once hateful neo-nazis and white supremacists with platforms and self-admitted commissions of or calls for violence against ethnicities they loathed; all of them with their minds changed through compassion, logic, reason and empathy.
Thanks to the weird little niche I’ve nestled myself into here on the intertubes, I internet-know a lot of people. Many of them have confessed that they were once homophobic fundamentalist Christians. Some have confided in me that they once believed, with all their heart, that apostates were evil and deserved eternal torture. A few have discussed with me the fact that they used to support the idea that Jews should be wiped from the face of the earth. One man, in particular, told me in confidence, that he used to be a racist, xenophobic, homophobic, violent white supremacist Jesus lover. Each and every one of these people I’ve been lucky enough to cross paths with had their minds changed. Over half of my Twitter followers, I would say, had their minds changed; horrible ideas that resulted in real harm to real people were knocked from their worldview.
The thing is, not a single one of the many thousands of people I’ve connected with who once held different views has ever said to me,
“Yeah, I changed my mind because someone punched me.”
Each and every one of them changed their minds with varying mixes of reason, logic, truth, compassion and empathy.
It is beyond any doubt that minds can be changed. Even the scariest among us can turn their lives around and devote their days to making up for every second of pain they’d ever caused. We know that no matter how hateful someone is now, it is demonstrably true that he or she can have their mind changed. The ex-extremists we’ve talked about in this post are living, breathing, demonstrable evidence that hate is not a forever thing. It can be defeated and has been defeated, repeatedly, over and over again, with non-violent exposure to new ideas.
So, that’s two things we know: violence doesn’t act as a deterrent, and minds can change with exposure to new ideas.
Given these truths, if you’re standing out there on the street, facing a well-platformed, influential neo-nazi who vocally advocates for genocide and you choose to punch him, it can only be because you lack the verbal weaponry to open his mind. If you choose ineffective violence over mind-opening conversation, it can only be because the ability to face hatred with logic, reason and compassion (which we know, demonstrably, to be effective) completely eludes you.
It’s either that, or you don’t really care about what’s effective in reducing the numbers of nazis, and you’re just throwing around your fist to satisfy your hunger for vengeance.
I mean, I get it. It feels good to think about smacking someone square in the jaw as they ramble on about heinous things – I, myself, find it hard to listen to anyone tell me about the “good” the Catholic church has done and when I do, it’s often accompanied by a clenched fist and twitching arm muscles. Oh, to clock that child rape apologist right in the temple… wouldn’t it feel so great? There is, though, a vast difference between running the fantasy around in your mind and having it translated into action. Sometimes, what we imagine would feel good, is not the right thing to do. It’s not the most effective action to take. Sometimes, you have to calm your thirst for anger-satiating violence and look at the situation from the context of the facts. A punch will not stop genocide. A punch will not change a mind. A punch only serves to make yourself feel righteous. If you choose the punch, you’re willfully ignoring what can and has been demonstrated to be an effective way of shrinking nazi numbers, in favour of your raging revenge boner.
Your way will keep the population of nazis the same, but with a few more bruises. My way reduces the number of nazis. You’re capable of either, and you choose the option that keeps the status quo.
Almost seems sympathetic to their cause, to me… avoiding, willfully, that which you know will cause fewer people to be nazis. Given this, if I was so inclined, I could call those who advocate for punching nazis nazi sympathizers. But you know what? I won’t do that, because I have no evidence it’s true. You probably don’t like nazism as much as I don’t like nazism. I can understand your desire to sucker-punch a hateful goon, but neither you punching nor me refraining from punching and opting for a demonstrably more effective approach makes either of us a nazi sympathizer. In fact, it would appear that the two of us, with our differing opinions on how to deal with nazis, are on the same goddamned side.
So, please, disagree with me. Please, tell me all about how much you want to clock that fucking nazi upside the head. I can’t promise I wouldn’t grin at the thought, so go ahead and yammer on about your nazi-destroying left slug.
But don’t tell me that simply because I refuse to do the same and I don’t believe it’s effective, that I sympathize with the hate that they spew. Don’t say that anyone else who disagrees with your knuckle-sandwich-diplomacy is “engaged in outright nazi apologism”.
That’s just straight dishonesty and there’s not a single one of us reading this who doesn’t know it.