Addressing Antifa

Or, The Wartime Mentality

[content warning: discussion of fascism, Stalinism, and associated atrocities; also mentions of rape and death; also for possibly inducing guilt through moral appeals]

“Only shitty people think Nazis are also people.”

“Nazis can’t be gay, because only people have sexualities.”

“We /are/ in a war, and have been for generations, to stay alive in a society that desperately wants us dead. Self defense is self defense.”

These are all quotes, paraphrased, from antifas. They mean exactly the same thing interpreted in context.

It seems clear that these are arguing for… something… about… opposing fascists? I have no clue, really, since they don’t specify what they’re arguing for, except that it is radical and violent and extremely radical and did I mention that it was radical?

But, all in all, it’s not really important what they’re arguing for, because I don’t think that anyone cares what they’re arguing for. It’s more the idea that they are standing strong against injustice and opposing fascists and that they are very very afraid of injustice ever happening.

So what’s not to like?

A Note to Readers

Before I say anything here, I want to say that I’ve read all the posts about how antifas are not “just as bad” as fascists. I agree that antifas are not “just as bad” as fascists.

Any movement, however, is vulnerable to declining into fascism. I would appreciate it if any antifas/sj activists reading this would take the time to read my arguments and to do the hard work of reform and critical thinking for their movement.

I will be comparing some of the antifa tactics and dynamics to fascist ideas, but that does not mean that I think that the antifa movement is equally as bad as fascism, nor does it mean that I think that self-defense is wrong. I will endeavor to avoid arguments of the form “x tactic is what fascists did, therefore x tactic is wrong”, because that is fallacious. Instead, I will instead use arguments of the form “x tactic is what the fascists did, and x tactic is bad because y”. The comparison to fascism is a way to frame it so that the reader will more easily understand.

The Antifa Position

I’ve seen a lot of posts insisting that good people are in a war with fascists. That their backs are to the wall and that the only option is self-defense. That self-defense is commendable and that killing fascists is a good in itself.

I hope that I am summarizing the idea of these posts well below:

We are in a war because our people are being killed. We are in a war because we are intensely vulnerable to them and that is terrifying. Our people are being killed day in and day out and we will defend ourselves by any means necessary.

Anyone within our ranks who argues is defending the enemy and possibly injuring our people. There’s no room for arguing because arguing means that there is division in the ranks and a weakness for the enemy. It makes your people vulnerable and it might hurt your people.

In addition, our enemies are not people. They have forfeited all goodness and all humanity because of the despicable people they are. Any act that they do is wrong.

To kill one of our enemies is a net good.

Let’s distill this argument down to several points:

1. We are in a war.

2. Be afraid of our enemies.

3. Don’t argue- that makes us vulnerable and hurts our members.

4. If you argue, you are an apologist for the enemy.

5. Our enemies are not people, and can do no good.

6. To kill or injure our enemies is a good in itself.

If you disagree with any of these points, please inform me and/or ignore the relevant point that I am making.

1. We are in a war.

The antifa position as I understand it:


Fascists and oppressors have been engaged in a war with us for hundreds of year by means of oppression.


Fascists want us to think we are in a perpetual war.

The Bush Administration, for example, has claimed a perpetual war against terrorism. Mussolini writes that fascism is opposed to peace because “war alone keys up all human energies to their maximum tension and sets the seal of nobility on those peoples who have the courage to face it”.

Fascism encouraged perpetual warfare.

For example, the policies and ideology of both Hitler and Mussolini encouraged perpetual warfare.

The factual question of “Are we in a war?” does not matter.

It is a matter of individual estimation whether or not we are in a war. I simply want to point out that fascism encouraged a mindset of war and the resulting fear created by a war. I will refer back to this point throughout the piece.

There is nothing wrong with thinking that we are in a war, by itself. However, this view is the foundation of other beliefs.

2. Be afraid of our enemies.

The antifa position as I understand it:


Our enemies are fascists (and kyriarchy). We should be very afraid of our enemies because they are powerful, could be anyone, and are hurting us.


If you do not endorse the idea that we should be afraid of our enemies (fascists), please skip to the next section below. If you have additional disagreements with any of the antifa assertions, please read anyway; some of the points may not be relevant but others will be. This goes for other points as well.

Fascists told us to be afraid of our enemies, and that has bad consequences.

In the past, the right has encouraged fear of the Other- fear of immigrants, fear of communists, fear of communist immigrants -in a bid to stop people from thinking. The right tells us to be afraid of the treacherous fifth columns and traitors, because that means that we can’t think. There are obvious consequences to this fear, in the form of restrictions and abuses against these “traitors”.

For example, one of the links above leads to an article about the Stab in the Back Myth, which was a Nazi theory blaming the Jews for Germany’s loss in WWI. The idea was that Jews had betrayed the fatherland, and were thus deserving of death and imprisonment. This blaming of the Other was used to incite fear and disturb rational thinking.

This is not a problem unique to rightist movements.

You might say, “Ah! But this is just a problem with rightist movements, not leftist movements!” But in this case you would be wrong.

For example, Stalin encouraged fear of and hatred of kulaks, regularly sending his enemies to gulags. Mao encouraged children to report their families for counterrevolutionary behavior. Pol Pot killed and tortured “intellectuals” for fear that they were disrupting the revolution.

This is not to say that antifas want to do any of these things. But it does mean that:

Antifas should stop telling people to be afraid.

Antifas should stop encouraging fear of enemies because fear is not productive and it is painful to be afraid. It also impedes clear thinking and physical health. Moreover, a fear of enemies within creates paranoia within activist movements and often hurts the very people it was meant to serve.

As we can see with fascism and the Stalinist and Maoist purges, encouraging the fear of enemies often leads to hurting them and dehumanizing them. The antifa movement is not unique, and this fear has led to dehumanizing and hurting enemies in the past.

This idea is based in a wartime mindset– the idea that our enemies are at the gates, that they are within us, and that they must be found and countered at every step. It enforces the wartime mindset and all of its associated ideas.


Objection 1: You might say, “This is clearly just a problem with hurting enemies. If we don’t hurt them, then encouraging fear is not a problem.”

Objection 2: You might say, “Ah, but I do not care about hurting fascists and/or cishet white men. Fascists are actually, demonstrably not people.” Or: “Fascists forfeited their right not to be hurt by me when they hurt me first.”

Your concerns shall be summarily addressed. Objection 1 is correct, but according to the evidence above I believe that it is overly optimistic. Objection 2 will be addressed under Point 6.


3. Don’t argue- that makes us vulnerable and hurts our members. If you argue, you are the enemy.

The antifa position as I understand it:


Arguing makes marginalized people feel upset and scared in their safe space, and it implies that you do not support the goals of the movement. We need solidarity in a time of struggle and oppression.


Fascists suppressed and dissuaded argument, justifying it by claiming it was defensive.

Hitler’s book burnings, for example, were justified by calling the books “un-German” and therefore subversive. Mussolini’s control of the press was used to repress free argument, as explained here:


“Fascism requires militant journalism,” the country’s newspapers presenting themselves “as a solid bloc,” committed to “the Cause” and obscuring or outrightly burying any fact or story antithetical to it. Even more than post-factum censorship, Mussolini favored this kind of proactive steering of the press, hardly subtle and clearly defining his expectations as both military and civilian leader of the people. In Fascist Italy, social and political pressures—and the resultant self-policing by the media—were at least as important as actual legal proscriptions, probably much more important.


(emphasis mine)

One of the major ways that censorship was enforced under fascist regimes was through social and political pressures.

It was justified by claiming that arguing hurt people and the cause.

Patriarchy and kyriarchy in general are upheld by silence- that when someone says something and is not challenged, it is assumed that that is accurate. Enforcing this silence is a large component of fascist regimes.

This is not limited to fascist regimes.

Stalinism is famous for its purges. Stalinist/Maoist-descended movements in general tend to err on the side of “let’s murder everyone who disagrees with us because they might be subversive” [1].

Antifas should stop saying that arguments hurt people, because that stops the movement from being as effective as it could be.

For example, you might be afraid that arguing about certain tactics is wrong and would make people feel unsafe.

Suppose that someone, Person A, said, “I think that callouts are not an efficient way of countering transphobia, and that maybe we should try to take a more empathetic approach.” You quickly jump in and say, “You are hurting trans people by even daring to question this! You’re actively making spaces unsafe spaces for trans people. Don’t argue about this, ever.”

Your hypothetical statement in this situation is deeply counterproductive. Person A, after all, clearly wants to combat transphobia, and wants to try to figure out the best and most effective way to do so. What if callouts actually aren’t the most effective tactic? What if Person A has some good points that you could use to improve your feminism? What if Person A is trans and has been spoken over by cis people doing callouts, and you’re ignoring their lived experiences?

Of course, you individually are welcome to feel unsafe and to set whichever boundaries you want. And there are, of course, accurate aspects to the antifa perspective here. Some arguments, such as the argument “Are trans people really valid, or should they all be sent to conversion therapy?”, are directly hurtful to most trans people and possibly triggering.

The problem here is that some people, often but not always well-intentioned allies, seem to think that this the only way to help marginalized people and to help us feel safe. You can have a space that is safe for marginalized people while also having a space that is open to argument.

Antifas doing this are vulnerable to the same unfortunate results as fascist and Stalinist regimes.

Censorship by fascist and Stalinist regimes was bad because it closed out the space for opposing viewpoints through creating a fear of hurting the movement. The idea that argument about sj tactics, in and of itself, is always hurtful to oppressed people, is highly similar to this view, and will lead to similar issues with groupthink. It will also lead to ignoring the perspectives of oppressed people who disagree with ingrained ideas. Antifa, again, is not invulnerable to fascistic ideas, and when this preemptive limiting of disagreement happens, it has always led to abuses in the past.

And once you’ve denounced not only the people who disagree with you, but also the people don’t disagree with the people who disagree with you enough, then where do you draw the line?

So what should antifas do?

I would appreciate this same sentiment presented in less absolute terms. For example, instead of saying, “This hurts oppressed people everywhere; stop defending transphobes!”, you could say, “This hurts me because of oppression I face, and I would prefer if you conducted this discourse with someone else”.

I would also encourage you to evaluate what your opponents are really saying and to give them a chance. But of course that’s your decision to make, on your own time.

If you are an ally trying to be more inclusive, you could offer to tag the possibly-hurtful argument with a content warning. Anyone who wants to avoid an argument that someone else is having can block tags using Tumblr Savior.

The idea of competing access needs is particularly important here, but with the caveat that, when trying to do activism, being open to opposing viewpoints is important in order to avoid blind spots and groupthink (see above).

4. If you defend people who argue with us, you are an apologist for the enemy.

The antifa position as I understand it:

***

Arguing with us actively hurts marginalized people (see Part 3). Therefore, people who argue with us are hurting marginalized people. Defending people who argue with us actively hurts marginalized people, therefore people who defend people who argue with us are actively hurting marginalized people (and so on). They are all apologists for oppression.


FascistsStalinists, and patriarchy use this same argument to stifle dissent (see Part 3).

Antifas should stop arguing this.

This mechanism of condemnation extends too far, and there is no clear limit to who it is applied. This stifles dissent and makes it easy for people to be ostracized without reason.

Antifa is vulnerable to possibly hurting marginalized people by ignoring their views. If people aren’t able to express dissenting opinions, then incorrect opinions might remain unchallenged. For example, second-wave cis white feminists often didn’t allow dissent, and they missed extremely important issues like trans women’s rights and black women’s rights. If you don’t listen to dissenting opinions and you ostracize anyone who disagrees with your current opinions, then you might end up making the same grievous mistakes as feminist movements in the past, and in the process hurting marginalized people.

This is also part of the wartime mindset- it derives from the idea we must be afraid of our enemies, who are at the gate and hiding within us in the form of apologists, and that they must be rooted out.

5. Our enemies are not people, and can do no good.

The antifa position as I understand it:


Fascists are not people, and it is impossible for fascists to do good. E.g. fascists are not morally important and do not count as sentient beings.


Fascists dehumanized people and claimed that they could do no good.

For example, the Nazis denounced the Jews as rats and untermenschen, less than human. Slaveowners called slaves subhuman. American combat troops in Iraq treated their kills as spoils.

Dehumanizing humans has always been the route to violence before. An expert on atrocities throughout history is quoted here:


Thinking sets the agenda for action, and thinking of humans as less than human paves the way for atrocity. The Nazis were explicit about the status of their victims. They were Untermenschen — subhumans — and as such were excluded from the system of moral rights and obligations that bind humankind together. It’s wrong to kill a person, but permissible to exterminate a rat. To the Nazis, all the Jews, Gypsies and others were rats: dangerous, disease-carrying rats.

From the beginning, Hitler and his followers were convinced that the Jewish people posed a deadly threat to all that was noble in humanity


Stalinists dehumanized people and claimed that they could do no good.

See the writing about kulaks before. And from the same article as above:


[I]t wasn’t only the Germans who dehumanized their enemies. While the architects of the Final Solution were busy implementing their lethal program of racial hygiene, the Russian-Jewish poet and novelist Ilya Ehrenburg was churning out propaganda for distribution to Stalin’s Red Army. These pamphlets seethed with dehumanizing rhetoric: they spoke of “the smell of Germany’s animal breath,” and described Germans as “two-legged animals who have mastered the technique of war” — “ersatz men” who ought to be annihilated. “The Germans are not human beings,” Ehrenburg wrote, “… If you kill one German, kill another — there is nothing more amusing for us than a heap of German corpses.”

This wasn’t idle talk. The Wehrmacht had taken the lives of 23 million Soviet citizens, roughly half of them civilians. When the tide of the war finally turned, a torrent of Russian forces poured into Germany from the east, and their inexorable advance became an orgy of rape and murder. “They were certainly egged on by Ehrenburg and other Soviet propagandists…” writes journalist Giles McDonough:


Stalinist antifa movements have gravely hurt Germans and fascists through dehumanizing Germans and fascists.

Antifas should stop dehumanizing people and claiming that they can do no good.

The answer to the fascist dehumanization of Jews is not to say, “No! Jews are humans, but Nazis aren’t! Let’s except another group of people from the system of moral rights and obligations that bind humankind together, justifying it by saying that they are less than human and a threat to society.

The answer is to say, “Everyone is human. Everyone deserves rights. Everyone is fully and always human.”

Let’s review the antifa perspective rationally.

The antifa idea that fascists are not people is simply factually incorrect as well. Fascists are people. They consciously and sentiently exist, have all the traits of people, and are not in general unusual. See here:


[S]tudies of the behavior of people who had committed war crimes, both individually and in groups, concluded that while human nature is not innately cruel and only rare sociopaths can participate in atrocities without suffering lasting emotional harm, such crimes do not require any unusual degree of personal evil or mental illness, and are nearly sure to happen given certain conditions (either accidental or deliberately arranged) which Lifton called “atrocity-producing situations”. The Nazi Doctors was the first in-depth study of how medical professionals rationalized their participation in the Holocaust, from the early stages of the T-4 Euthanasia Program to the extermination camps.


Not only is seeing fascists as monsters incorrect, it also hinders your ability to realize when your own actions become fascistic. This is part of a wartime mentality- that the enemy can do not do any good, you must fight against them, and they are fundamentally subhuman.

When you say that someone is not a person, you are effectively saying that they are morally worthless, and you are setting them up so that you can murder them. This is how it has always ended, and the antifa movement is, too, vulnerable to fascist ideas.

Also, the idea that fascists can do no good ignores that actions are separate from people. If a fascist saves another person from certain death, that is a good action, even though they have an incorrect ideology and have committed other incorrect acts. Similarly, even though he was likely a racist, it is good that Abraham Lincoln tried to prevent the expansion of slavery.

When combined with Part 4, the belief that certain people are not people anymore means that a terribly immense amount of people are not human at all, or that they are edging towards subhumanity. But they are people, and their lives matter.

I argued this point and an antifa stated that I was trying to defend fascists. They claimed that I was saying that “they’re just people too!”. This is not what I am saying. It is good to prevent fascists from killing people, and every human life is important.

Every single human life, worth protecting and defending. I am not sure why this view is “peak liberalism”. This view encapsulates the best argument for social justice that I have yet heard: if every single human life is important, then black lives matter. If every single human life is important, then you can’t throw people under the bus, you can’t play respectability politics, and you will be less likely to make the mistake of genocide.

If there is no way that someone can lose their personhood, then that means that criminals – like Osama bin Laden or Khalid Sheikh Muhammad – should be treated well. It means that the death penalty for murderers isn’t a good thing in itself. It means that war crimes are never acceptable, even against terrorists, even against Soviet soldiers- and yes, even against Nazis.

It means that you can’t attack people who haven’t directly attacked you. It means that, even if you’re acting in self-defense, you can’t kill someone after you’ve subdued them.

Every human life is valuable and worth defending.

If you stop believing this- if you start believing that, say, fascists don’t have lives that are valuable -then where do you draw the line? What beliefs are sufficient for you to stop valuing someone’s life?

And what happens after you stop valuing someone’s life? This lack of personhood implies that you would be willing to torture, abuse, and murder fascists, even if they were helpless, even if the war was over, even if you could succeed in protecting people without killing them.

It implies a world where fascists are dead, tortured, or abused is equivalent, in your view, to a world where they are not.

Or it implies something worse- that you prefer a world where more fascists are dead or hurt over one where less fascists are dead or hurt.

This brings us to our next point:

6. To kill or injure our enemies is a good in itself.

The antifa position as I understand it:


Killing fascists is good and injuring fascists is good, because fascists are not people.


Fascists and Stalinists believed this, as evinced by gulags and concentration camps.

See above.

Antifas should not believe that killing their enemies is a good in itself, because it leads to accepting horrible consequences and it goes against valuing all people.

Imagine the following hypothetical:

John, a fascist, is walking around eating pizza and not physically attacking anyone. (John has never physically attacked anyone, and there is no reason to believe that he has.) Having heard that he is a fascist, a government agent, Mary, assaults him, bludgeoning him about the head until he is bruised, bleeding, and sobbing. She takes him home and waterboards him, forcing him to stand in stress positions. She then rapes him. John dies the following morning.

The belief that killing and injuring fascists is a good in itself means that John, a human being, has been assaulted, tortured, raped, and finally murdered. If John’s injury and death are inherent goods, then Mary’s actions were correct. This is the inherent logical conclusion of the belief that killing and injuring fascists is good in itself.

This belief means that we’ll endorse any measures and any violations of human rights.

I am not sure what to argue if you believe that assault, torture, rape, and murder are acceptable when done to fascists. I hope that this hypothetical shows the unfortunate implications of your view on this, even if you were not convinced by Part 5.

Imagine that you’re looking in from thousands of years in the future, reading the history of the world. Is this incident a good thing, or is it another senseless hurt, a pain that could have been avoided? Could Mary have stopped John from hurting others without hurting him or killing him? Did Mary actually have to stop John?

If your answers are that the incident was not necessary, but it was good, because fascists deserve to die and to be hurt, I ask you to consider the possibility that you or someone you love might have been a fascist in different circumstances, and that you would not want to be dead or hurt.

If you believe that assault, torture, rape, and murder are acceptable when done to fascists, I would ask you to imagine yourself in the fascist’s place. Would you want to be hurt this way, if you were so horribly, wrongly mistaken that you were a fascist?

Imagine that you were born into a racist household. Imagine that you are white, cis, and straight. You lived in a small, isolated town where everyone went to church and the girls all wore long skirts and there was not a single person of color. Your parents taught you from the day that you were born that the transgenders were polluting the country, that being gay would make you go to hell, that even a single deviation from their particular sect of Christianity would be grounds for torture or worse. Every day you’d come home to hear a lecture or another piece of news about how another one of your people, the white people, had been murdered by Jews or raped by blacks or fired, only to be replaced by a Mexican. You’d only heard about Jews and blacks and Mexicans as criminals. And you become increasingly afraid.

Despite this, you end up venturing onto the internet, where you find the fascist and white supremacist movements. You end up making friends, good friends, who grew up in similar environments. You develop a community- in-jokes, memes, whatever.

They’re fascists.

You also find people – antifas – talking about how white supremacy and how fascism is bad.

What do you want your hypothetical self to find?

Do you want the antifas to be the ones talking about how all human life is desperately important? Do you want the antifas to be the ones who emphasize the value of all humans, every single human life, every single last one, to be protected and defended-

Or do you want the antifas to be the ones advocating for murder? The ones who say things like, “Kill all fascists”, things like, “Fascists aren’t even people”, things like, “We will use any means necessary to kill fascists”?

Remember, your hypothetical friends are all fascists. Everyone you know, your closest family members, talks similarly to fascists. When people talk about killing fascists it makes you physically ill, makes you imagine your best friend dead, your father with his head broken open and red stuff coming out.

You might have been a fascist. You might have loved fascists. They are people and it is a tragedy to kill any person.

And now imagine- if you love people and you have people to love -that the person you love most is a fascist, however implausible this might be. Would you want them to be hurt this way, or do you still want them to be well?

And what’s more, remember what I said about in Part 2 about how fascism uses fear and a sense of being under siege to achieve power and control people?

Well, you’re creating a sense of fear, of alienation, and of siege, which reinforces the fear mindset.

Finally, if you do not love people or have people to love, but still value yourself, I would ask you to look at the game theory. If we decide that murdering or injuring others is a good thing, then they will conclude that it is okay to murder or injure us. Fascists, of course, will murder or injure you without regard to your actions, but other people who are not fascists are still influenced by your actions. They might conclude that, since you murdered or injured others, you are okay with being murdered or injured yourself. This works against your interests because it provides a higher chance of being murdered or injured yourself. Also, attacking fascists makes you vulnerable to retributive attacks and exposes you to risk. (I expect that very few antifas fit this category.)

Typically, this belief is defended by saying that we are in a war, and constantly must defend ourselves from fascists. But even wars ought to be fought by minimizing casualties and harms.

Conclusion

I hope that my writing has convinced you to change your mind. Let’s recap the antifa statements and my responses.

1. We are in a war. The war mindset creates fear and impedes thinking.

2. Be afraid of our enemies. Fear creates distorted thinking.

3. Don’t argue- that makes us vulnerable and hurts our members. Safe spaces are highly important, but in order to avoid groupthink and a vulnerability to being incorrect without correction, there should also be spaces where it is acceptable to argue.

4. If you try argue, you are an apologist for the enemy. This label and its connotations extends too far, without a clear limit. It stifles possibly-accurate dissent (see Point 3). Instead, antifas should focus on countering arguments.

5. Our enemies are not people, and can do no good. Fascists are people, and can do good.

6. To kill or injure our enemies is a good in itself. Killing or injuring people, even fascists, is to be avoided whenever possible, because of our moral intuitions and game theory. Sometimes killing people is necessary, but it is never an end goal in itself.

Next Up: A Tangentially Relevant Explanation and Defense of Free Expression

“Fascists only respect violence. Liberals are prostrate in front of the altar of ‘freedom of expression’ and ‘the market of ideas’.”

See Also: how we should counter fascism instead


Footnotes

[1] – I am not sure what to say if you think that these are not true accounts of events. I don’t think we’d have much common ground here, but if you believe that these events were not true the rest of the argument is still applicable.

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