I’m one of those white liberal progressives who has advocated non-violence, yet I like so many others gave a silent cheer when Richard Spencer got punched in the face. I am human, with all my reptilian constructs and I couldn’t control my gut reaction; but I didn’t amplify the incident by tweeting because I had to be sure of why I felt happy about it.
So I wondered about my grim satisfaction, because my own ethical framework has only thus far admitted any validity of violence as a self-defense strategy and this did not look like self-defense to me. My white privilege informs my opinion and the definition of self-defense is idiosyncratic, one person will feel that their own survival is threatened, where another won’t. My privilege means that whilst fascism horrifies me, I do not feel as threatened by fascism as minorities do. See, the mind is a prediction machine which learns survival from experience, and I must acknowledge therefore that punching a prominent Nazi may well be viewed as the pre-emptive strike which prevents the puncher’s own demise in the future. In which case, was it okay to shout Bravo?! Was it okay for me to punch Nazis?
When it comes to ethics, I rarely believe in right and wrong as a definitive judgement. To my mind, we live in a society because it promotes our survival; without social interaction we would die, we live more efficiently when we exchange labour and we believe can protect ourselves better on the whole as a group. We–like any ‘in-group’–outlaw behaviours which are at odds with this goal. Ethics in the form of religion and politics, have evolved out of what a particular society has determined is the best in the long run, for the most people. Different societies have different political and belief systems, but all of them promote the ethics which underpin what those with voice have determined to be the most successful survival strategies to ensure successful and more or less stable replication. I have a voice, which means that non-violence is what I have determined to be the best way. What about those without voice?
I know that my principles are born out of a mind riddled with miscalculation, for past experience is no guarantee of future sucess. It is difficult to predict which strategies will work beyond a certain time and in different circumstances. Cannibalism is outlawed, but few considered that intrepid group of survivors unethical for eating the dead when it proved to be the only way they could survive the Andes after a plane crash. More importantly ethics, politics and belief systems also come weighted with privilege. For people of colour, white ethics do not promote their survival–it only promotes white people’s survival and usually at the expense of theirs. People of colour have not been allowed voice, still today have less voice and any choice of an ethical framework–even by me, a white person–is ill-informed if it does not take this into account because our world and experience is coloured by privilege.
Thus ethics are not fixed; they change according to circumstance, according to group and over time as our understanding of how the world works changes. And whilst society broadly defines what is ethical and what is not, individual ethics vary substantially from group to group and from person to person. From a pragmatic point of view ‘murder’ for example, does not promote our survival, so it is heavily penalized and generally regarded as unethical. Violence, on the whole does not promote our survival either. Except when it does…Violence when it is self-defence is sanctioned because otherwise, an individual’s survival is not promoted. War is also very often sanctioned because one country’s interests or survival is threatened by another’s. Perhaps there is no altruism or moral good here, although we like to rationalize it all after the fact, it is purely a matter of survival because that is who we are.
In the western world today, many feel their survival is under threat by the rise of fascism and this truth is undeniable. We try to choose the policies we believe we help us survive successfully. Fascism is a form of radical authoritarian nationalism, which white supremacists believe is necessary to promote the survival of their society and their identity. Liberal democracy is chosen by others, because they believe that this is best way to promote theirs.
Ethics change, but I didn’t expect mine to change so quickly.
I justified punching Nazis both from an ethical and a political standpoint very quickly after Richard Spencer was punched. Those who silently cheered, as I did were happily complicit in this violence. I didn’t support any actions by authorities to find the person who punched him, moreoever I would consciously protect that person from so-called justice from the State. Because the State does not mete out justice uncoloured by the privilege intrinsically built into our system. As a liberal who advocates non-violence most of the time, I have discovered my ethical framework demands that my intersectional peers have the right to access the same level of justice as I have. The State does not provide this, so I must use my own privilege to counter balance it. In examining my own heart, I discovered that I support the oppressed in punching Nazis when Nazis are given a platform to oppress. I support their right to act in valid self-defense, even though right now I cannot justify a punch because being white, I have no need to defend myself. My own reaction destroys my notion of any liberal live-and-let-live identity, because when push comes to punch it turns out that I am not as liberal, as I am progressive.
The real question is at what point my ethical framework demands that I myself resort to violence. I can lie to myself and say I would stand up for what I believe is ‘right’ and ‘moral. But if I believe my own ethics are simply what I have determined is necessary to survive, perhaps the sad and sorry reason I would punch on behalf of my intersectional fellow human beings is because my own identity and survival as a white progressive, is also under threat. And if this is true, then it’s time to take a good hard look in the mirror because I’m not the intersectional ally I thought I was.