If your response to neo-Nazi rallies or domestic terror attacks is to say something like “love conquers hate” or “hate never wins,” please pause and challenge yourself to dig a little deeper into what those words means.
If you criticize people who praise Nazi-punching or antifa or black bloc for defensive acts of violence and say things like “violence is never the answer” or “hate is hate,” please stop and consider more nuance.
And if you are a white person and have the nerve to point out to black people that Martin Luther King Jr. promoted nonviolence, for the love of God, please just stop.
These seemingly well-meaning slogans don’t address the severity and prevalence of everything that falls under “hate” and “violence.”
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The hate the oppressor feels toward the oppressed is not the same as the hate the oppressed feels toward the oppressor.
Hating a group of people simply because they exist and you don’t identify with them is not the same as feeling anger, frustration, and hatred toward a group who has (or identifies with people who have) beaten, lynched, enslaved, interned, killed, and silenced people like you, for existing, living, and wanting to not be subjugated.
It might be too reductive to call any of this “hate” anyway.
On the one hand, you have those with a deep-seated inability to see other persons as fully human. It’s not necessarily a volatile, reactive feeling, which is why it’s so sinister, why the sweet old lady who makes blueberry pies for the church bake sale can be a white supremacist.
This idea of “more or less human” is an idea that goes back at least to Aristotle, who said at one point that slaves and women were not fully human or rational (Pol. 1259b22–60a4). Or Kant, who claimed there were four fundamental races, and, although they started with the same fundamental potential at the beginning, due to climate and circumstances, their differences became irreversible. And this was not “different but equal,” this was: “The yellow Indians do have a meagre talent. The Negroes are far below them, and at the lowest point are a part of the [Native] American people” (Kant 1997, 63).
Aristotle and Kant weren’t angry or violent themselves. Aristotle pretty much thought anyone who wasn’t as smart as him was inferior. Kant, the man who wrote about cosmopolitanism as a way to establish world peace, never left Königsberg (present-day Kaliningrad) and likely never interacted with anyone who wasn’t white.
This probably is hate broadly, but when the supposed greatest minds in Western history are using rational arguments to explain it, “hate” doesn’t seem adequate. It’s something worse than hate. Thinking of others as less than human seems categorically different from reacting against these ideas or in coming to the defense of people made to feel lesser by them.
Hannah Arendt, another philosopher and political theorist, was a secular Jew born in Germany in 1906. She was in France in 1940, briefly interned at Camp Gurs, but she was able to escape to the US. She reported on the 1961 trial of Adolf Eichmann for The New Yorker. For my mind, she gives a pretty strong justification for hate toward one’s oppressor in the closing of the essay, addressing Eichmann:
“And just as you supported and carried out a policy of not wanting to share the earth with the Jewish people and the people of a number of other nations — as though you and your superiors had any right to determine who should and who should not inhabit the world — we find that no one, that is, no member of the human race, can be expected to want to share the earth with you. This is the reason, and the only reason, you must hang.”
The platitude that “love wins” is hard to hear when you know what hate can do.
The trouble is that hate of the first type, hate of the oppressor, often does win. It took up to 6 million deaths of Jewish people in concentration camps and shooting operations for Eichmann to hang.
Not to mention, the violent, aggressive hate neo-Nazis march with might not look like a hateful piece of legislation that cuts funding to support women’s reproductive health or hateful racial disparity in arrests, but is it not the same wolf only in sheep’s clothing? The hate of the oppressor is the hate we have normalized into basic social structures, and that’s why it isn’t the hate of the oppressed.
Very little legislation is written out of a love for mankind. Very little of it is upheld even if “equality” is the letter of the law.
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There are excellent posts that explain why white people shouldn’t bring the words of Dr. King into their arguments for nonviolence here, here, and here. I won’t reiterate those, but to think that the Civil Rights Movement in the 1960s, which led to certain legislative acts that addressed discrimination, was effective because it was nonviolent or passive is the whitewashed version. It was an economic boycott that ended bus segregation in Montgomery, but that’s often missing from the narrative. In “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” King writes that the purpose of demonstrations was to provoke, to “dramatize the issue that it can no longer be ignored,” which one could take to mean that violence was invited in order to get national attention.
Violence gets noticed, but only certain kinds of violence against certain people. When police officers shoot and kill a black transgender woman, there isn’t national outcry. Domestic violence never makes national news. Normalized hate begets normalized violence.
Violence has been committed against women and justified in most cultures and periods of history that I am familiar with. In 1910, the US Supreme Court ruled in Thompson v. Thompson (218 US 611) that a wife had no cause for action on an assault and battery charge against her husband because it “would … open the doors of the courts to accusations of all sorts of one spouse against the other.” In contemporary times, a history of domestic violence is a commonality among many people who go on to commit political terrorist acts in the US (in England as well). But we’ve normalized domestic violence and assaults on women to the point where the president of the United States has an entire Wikipedia page devoted to his sexual misconduct allegations. We don’t treat it as a punishable offense or a warning sign.
Violence has been committed against indigenous people of the Americas, black people of all ages, transgender people, gay people, developmentally disadvantaged people, Asian Americans (in this case an Indian immigrant), Latinx, people who practice Islam, Judaism, and those are all links from 2017. The Southern Poverty Law Center tracks this.
It’s not a coincidence that it is white people, often white Christians, who I hear say to “turn the other cheek.” It’s easy to say that when it’s not your cheek being struck, and when you can go into your safe place and pretend that striking doesn’t happen at all. It’s easy to say that when you’ve never been struck simply for existing, when the person doing the striking is unable to identify with you, hates you for a fabricated reason that doesn’t reflect the reality of the human species, but you’re the one who has to socially and economically bear that burden through absolutely no fault of your own.
But then again, sometimes we collectively seem to think violence is acceptable.
Physical violence is associated with masculinity, often considered a sign of strength or character. Violence is at the center of the dominant story of history. Violent revolutions, assassinations, uprisings, terrorist attacks, inquisitions, wars — these are the dates we all learn. If you don’t think human beings (and let’s be honest, it’s mostly men), are violent, then you have either been presented history through an alternative narrative or you have never seen a movie.
If we follow Just War Theory, it’s actually difficult to justify America’s participation in any war except World War II. According to Just War Theory, the UN should have intervened in Rwanda in the 1990s and failed to do so. These are the two best (of the very few) examples of just violence. The common thread between the two is the atrocities against humanity that were committed; the uncommon threads are numerous, but skin color and the economic risk (or lack thereof) to global capitalism stand out.
Meanwhile the US has been involved in more than one hundred military conflicts since 1890 that you probably never heard about, some still ongoing.
In the US today, we continually allow police officers to exercise violence without consequence, when there is no self-defense justification for their actions, and the response from the president is that the police need to be “tougher.” Essentially this is state-sanctioned violence that targets minorities, normalized with words like “law and order.”
More benign forms of violence exist: we let surgeons cut into us with knives, tattoo artists pierce our skin repeatedly with needles, and massage therapists apply painful amounts of pressure to our bodies. Sadomasochism is a sexual fetish that some people engage in completely consensually. Football is one of the most popular sports in America, in spite of the fact that the violent hits players take incontrovertibly lead to brain damage. Boxing is a multi-billion dollar industry.
Not to mention, violence is not necessarily physical. Cyberwarfare, for instance, is an increasingly common way for one nation to attack another. The American prison system is a form of violence — mass incarceration that targets black men, a prison-industrial complex where corporations profit off of said incarceration, human lives being used for profit only few will ever see, targeted because of their race, while white people get away with the same acts (watch The 13th, a documentary about this by Ava DuVernay).
Frantz Fanon wrote about violence in the context of colonialism. In The Wretched of the Earth he says that for people who were colonized and subjugated, violence against the colonizer is cathartic, because it allows colonized people to reclaim their sense of self that had been violently taken from them.
It’s hard to read Fanon and not feel sympathetic. It’s hard to read Malcolm X’s views on violence and self-defense and not find it totally reasonable for those who are “the constant victim of brutal attacks” to defend themselves. It’s hard to read accounts of antifa and black bloc protesters putting themselves between police armed with tear gas and peaceful protesters and wonder if the message is really heard when a protest is peaceful.
There were no arrests at the Women’s March in Washington DC in January 2017, but the cynic in me says it’s simply because police don’t see women as a threat or catalysts for change.
It’s a controversial topic, but it’s up for debate whether nonviolent demonstrations are effective. This often comes up in discussions of Nazi Germany (here and here), but it’s just as relevant today. As activist Bree Newsome points out, debates about violence and nonviolence are almost always told from the white perspective. The president has essentially endorsed white supremacy in the US, a nation that has always been violent against non-white people, which means neo-Nazis and their ilk have the tacit backing of the state.
The white supremacists in Charlottesville were armed like a militia. Whatever you think about the 2nd Amendment, it was written to give people the right to form a militia against a hostile state (“being necessary to the security of a free State”). The thing about contemporary white supremacists and neo-Nazis is that the state is on their side, so you have to recognize what their fight is really against. By eyewitness accounts, it was antifa, not police, who put themselves in the way to protect synagogues and members of the clergy. Dr. Cornel West said antifa saved his life.
What all of this amounts to is that white militias and mostly white police forces, white men, are enabled to be violent when no one else is, and without addressing this reality you are accepting violence whether you want to or not.
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Humans are violent creatures. We seem to only oppose violence when it happens to us without our permission. We normalize violence when white men use it. We accept certain forms of it.
The rhetoric of love conquering hate sounds nice, and love and nonviolence are certainly worth valuing. Nonviolence is generally the preferred option to dealing with conflict. But sometimes love is violent. Sometimes hate is nonviolent.
It’s the motivation behind the violence that matters. If we want to address senseless violence, then we need to take seriously our concept of masculinity, how anger is the only feeling we allow men to have and do something about it. If we want to truly address hate, then we have to look at the normalized hate (the buzzwords the right hates: racism, sexism, homophobia, xenophobia, transphobia) in our criminal justice system, in capitalism itself, and change the system.
I don’t think there’s a one-size-fits-all answer. The white supremacist’s inability to see other people as fully human is what drives them, so one response is to show them empathy, to expose them to the common humanity we share. But I think that can only work for someone open to changing, someone with the ability to self-reflect. In a capitalist world, economic protest could be effective, but it isn’t always plausible, especially when the system ensures that the marginalized are poor.
But to condemn all violence is a privilege for those never confronted with it, and violence is a choice for those who have it routinely committed against them.
Sometimes self-defense is necessary.
Sometimes violence is the only language that speaks.
Kant, Immanuel.  1997. “From Physical Geography.” In Race and the Enlightenment: A Reader, edited by E. Eze. Oxford: Blackwell.
Originally posted on medium.com.