A bullet from the back of a bush
Took Medgar Evers' blood
A finger fired the trigger to his name
A handle hid out in the dark
A hand set the spark
Two eyes took the aim
Behind a man's brain
But he can't be blamed
He's only a pawn in their game
Only a Pawn in Their Game, Bob Dylan
By Daniel Tarade
Nazis and neo-nazis. It is unfortunately the case that white supremacy and other alt-right movements have been increasingly prevalent in North American and European society. Although most can agree that the ideals espoused in these circles are hate-filled and have no place in a tolerant society, there is confusion as to how best deal with these people. My own outlook definitely places an emphasis on the societal, political, and economic structures that have precipitated scapegoating and hate. But what do we do right now? It takes time and radical action to overthrow the systems that make conflict between members of the working class inevitable. So what do you do when neo-nazis take to the streets in your city? Although we should try to understand why the neo-nazi behaves the way they do, for the good of all society, we cannot tolerate the intolerant.
Starting from the premise of not tolerating the intolerant, I am quickly confronted with what appears to be an inconsistency in my own writing. I have repeatedly pointed to the material conditions of those who have committed atrocities; using such a determinist framework, I have advocated for compassion when looking backwards in history and to promote unity among the working class. I am beginning to rectify my post hoc tolerance with my more aggressive stance regarding ongoing racism, sexism, Islamophobia, etc. In my latest writings, I try to confront the futility of determinism as a prescriptive tool. Even choices constrained by physics and genetics and society still feel like choices. They still are choices. It’s just that choices don’t happen all willy nilly but are motivated by what has happened before. It’s absurd but, quite simply, a choice in the moment becomes determined in hindsight. But let’s not get too academic. It’s not that the world is a clock. Just like a clock. Fundamentally, as a Utilitarian, I want to use the models that allow us to maximize our collective well-being. So if we need two standards, one for past actions and one for present actions, so be it.
Let’s commence with a concrete example. I have previously argued that forgiveness be given to Oskar Gröning who was charged with 300, 000 counts of accessory to murder for working as an accountant at Auschwitz. Based on the documentary The Accountant of Auschwitz and on numerous, personal conversations, it is safe to say that I hold the minority opinion. But don’t cast me as some centrist who feels compelled to see some good in everyone. I am in absolute support of the numerous antifa movements fighting to keep neo-nazis off the streets. This may seem paradoxical. Oskar Gröning contributed more to an actual genocide than any of his contemporaries in Charlottesville or elsewhere. But Oskar Gröning, at the time of his trial, was 93. He had lived out his post-war life as a non-genocidal citizen. More than 40 years after the war, he voluntarily thrust himself into the spotlight to describe the horrors of the holocaust in a bid to shut down Holocaust deniers. During his trial, he fully cooperated and expressed a qualified guilt. Peter Singer, a prominent Utilitarian, argues that his candid testimony provided some good and that jailing a geriatric, who no one believed was a threat to recommit their crime, causes more suffering than not. I agree. However, I also fully support the guilty verdict bestowed upon Oskar Gröning. He was guilty. I am against the punishment he was sentenced to receive (4 years in prison). With a reformed nazi, let’s be compassionate. It’s the same reason we should celebrate Daryl Davis, who has convinced 200 KKK members to give up their robes. Neo-nazis, on the other hand, require a different strategy. The nazis of today are actively spreading hate. The more their rhetoric spreads, the more widespread and violent crimes targeted towards Muslims and Jews have become. To quote from a speech given by Adolf Hitler in 1933;
Only one danger could have jeopardised this development – if our adversaries had understood its principle, established a clear understanding of these ideas, and not offered any resistance. Or, alternatively, if they had from the first day annihilated with the utmost brutality the nucleus of our new movement.
Although only the second half of that quote is shared by antifa members, it does highlight, generally, the need for proactive actions that can be more brutal than those we apply retroactively. A useful paradigm to apply to this problem is the paradox of tolerance. As conceived by Karl Popper, an open and tolerant society is grand but these ideals cannot be extended to those who are intolerant themselves. An unabashedly tolerant society would spiral out of control as the intolerant begin terrorizing others. Thus, the goal is not tolerance for everyone but tolerance for the majority, with the intolerant minority to be silenced with impunity.
When looking backwards, we have the luxury of interpolation; we can see what came before and after an action. We can employ the entirety of our deterministic toolbox; evaluate how the material conditions and genetic predispositions may have precipitated awful actions. In Oskar Gröning, we have an individual who was raised as a Hitler Youth in Nazi Germany. Becoming a Nazi is pretty much par for the course. And similar justifications may be offered up for those polo-clad neo-nazis marching with Tiki torches. But while Oskar Gröning became a harmless, honest, and repentant defendant when he was finally brought to trial, the members of fledgling alt-right and neo-nazi groups represent an ongoing risk to the rest of society. If 19 year old Oskar Gröning was teleported to our time, I would treat him the same as the other neo-nazis. The same holds true if, even at the age of 93, Oskar Gröning defended and spread nazi ideology. For me, the most important consideration is not the action committed but what results from the punishment of the action; increased well-being or just more suffering.
I am not asking that we ignore the material conditions that have proliferated living and breathing fascists. We need to recognize that they are a symptom of artificial scarcity, nationalism, and scapegoating fostered by those who benefit from an unfair society. Bob Dylan wrote Only a Pawn in Their Game in his younger, more political days. It is a song that has placed more blame on societal structures for the assassination of Medgar Evers (prominent civil rights activist) than even the assassin, who is not named once in the song. However, when hateful ideology proliferates, we do not have the luxury to focus solely on society. To prevent further atrocities that indelibly linked with widespread fascism, we must prevent a nucleus of hate from forming. In this way, neo-nazis are like zombies. They may have come to terrorize our neighbourhoods because of the industrial-military complex or negligent for-profit corporations, but we cannot just play pacifist and let ourselves be consumed.
I now want to take the time to defend my idea of justice from claims of relativism. On the surface, it does seem relative. The same action is to be forgiven or punished depending on characteristics beyond the individual’s control. However, there is an underlying and unchanging principle at play: Utilitarianism. Punishing Oskar Gröning, who was actively campaigning against Holocaust deniers, does not maximize wellbeing. It would be a different story if he spurred on neo-nazi movements or did not take ownership for his actions. The same idea shapes our concept of self-defence; our right to self-defence expires when the assailant begins to run away. The neo-nazis currently spreading hate are not running away. In keeping with Utilitarian ideals, we have a right to self-defence. Within a Utilitarian framework, we are entirely justified in doing whatever it takes to shut down neo-nazi rallies and groups, up to and including violence. That does not mean violence should be the goal but merely a possibly justifiable means to an end. Only if violence is reasoned to be the most effective strategy, in that moment, ought it be employed. Further, we must always be cognizant that the best self-defence requires us to terraform our societies and institutions. By focusing excessively on personal choices, we can forget that scarcity and alienation in our capitalist sphere provides the cess pool from which hateful individuals emerge.