Fighting fascism with ‘niceness’ is idealistic, ineffective

Credit: Diane Lee/ Credit: Diane Lee/
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Last week, I made a terrible mistake: I engaged in a political debate on Facebook. My opponent was a family friend with a familiar and increasingly frustrating argument. Basically, she expressed her unhappiness with how polarized and angry everyone has gotten since the election, and argued that everyone should just try to get along and “choose love.” I argued that was a load of unproductive, idealistic crap. Don’t get me wrong. This family friend is a perfectly nice person with good intentions. But in these strange and terrifying times, “niceness” is exactly what I’ve got a problem with.

Niceness is valuable in ordinary circumstances. You could even say it’s the glue that keeps civil society together. Saying “please” and “thank you,” smiling at the appropriate times, and making pleasant small talk allow people to calmly navigate their days without killing each other.

However, little more than a week of T****’s reign has proved that these are far from ordinary circumstances. My personal worst-case scenario for the next four years is the rise of a global far-right neo-fascist state. If you think such fears are overblown, consider Holocaust Museum’s new sign for “The Early Warning Signs of Fascism,” which went viral over the weekend.

Let’s do a brief run-through. “Powerful and continuing nationalism” – check, see every ugly red hat reading “Make America Great Again.” “Disdain for human rights,” “identification of enemies as a unifying force,” “obsession with national security,” “religion and government intertwined” – check, check, check, check, see the Muslim Ban. “Corporate power protected” – check, T****’s countless violations of conflict of interest laws. “Disdain for intellectuals and the arts” – Hamilton, SNL, need I go on? “Obsession with crime and punishment” – have you read his Twitter? “Rampant cronyism and corruption” – have you seen his inner circle? “Rampant sexism” – well, that’s just par for the course among right-wingers. Is this starting to feel ominous yet? The only signs T**** hasn’t explicitly hit are “Labor power suppressed” and “supremacy of the military,” but keep your eyes peeled for the legalization of running over protesters and the Trumpian Gestapo.

In extraordinary circumstances, the true colors of niceness are revealed. The daughter of a Holocaust survivor said it best: “Nice people made the best Nazis. Or so I have been told. My mother was born in Munich in 1934, and spent her childhood in Nazi Germany surrounded by nice people who refused to make waves. When things got ugly, the people my mother lived alongside chose not to focus on ‘politics,’ instead busying themselves with happier things. They were lovely, kind people who turned their heads as their neighbors were dragged away.”

It turns out that niceness is a lesser virtue, shallow and selfish, where as true compassion and kindness are deep. While the dominant goal of niceness is to avoid conflict, the purpose of kindness is to actually help others. While niceness keeps a careful distance from the world’s problems, kindness gets its hands dirty. Unlike kindness, niceness is utterly useless in the face of real evil.

Take the example of punching Nazis, which recently threw liberal discourse into a frenzy. Punching Nazis is definitely not nice. But it is something more important than nice: useful. After alt-right (read: Neo-Nazi) leader Richard Spencer got punched on live TV, he stated that he was now wary of leaving his house for fear of a repeat occurrence. Punch a Nazi, and he becomes a little more afraid of airing his disgusting views.

If you don’t believe me, take it from Spencer himself: “We have to get serious about security…or we can’t have a public movement and without a public movement we can’t win.” Hitler himself expressed a similar sentiment:“Only one danger could have jeopardized [the rise of Nazi Germany]… if our adversaries… had from the first day annihilated with the utmost brutality the nucleus of our new movement.”

Nazis like Spencer want niceness. They want nice people to nod politely as they debate the merits of a “peaceful ethnic cleansing.” They want nice people not to call them out in interviews, and they definitely want interviews. The more traditional and far-reaching the news source, the better. They want to turn the most abhorrent brand of white supremacy into a pleasant, respectable topic of debate.

Punching Nazis, while not nice, cuts into their hopes of achieving all this. Yes, free speech is vital and must be protected now more than ever. However, there is a fundamental difference between allowing Nazis to speak without legal punishment and allowing Nazis to speak on NPR. The former is a right granted to Americans with even the most revolting views. The latter brings those revolting views into the average American living room. The latter legitimizes Nazism, normalizes Nazism, and yes, advertises Nazism. Punching Nazis doesn’t deprive them of free speech, but it does push them and their “views” back into the shadows of deplorability – where they belong.

Like my family friend on Facebook, you may now want to quote Martin Luther King, Jr.: the liberal icon of pacifism. Martin Luther King, Jr. would never consider violence an acceptable political strategy. Martin Luther King would be nice. If you’re invoking MLK to invalidate militant anti-fascism, there’s a good chance MLK would place you in the category “white moderate.” He had some firm words for white moderates, and I will also urge all “nice” liberals to listen.

“I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in the stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen’s Council-er or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate who is more devoted to “order” than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says “I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I can’t agree with your methods of direct action,” wrote King in a 1963 letter from Birmingham Jail. “Shallow understanding from people of goodwill is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will. Lukewarm acceptance is much more bewildering than outright rejection.”

I will never advocate violence, but I do believe that this nation, democracy, and the world are in crisis. I believe that Nazis and fascists will continue to take the T**** presidency as an opportunity to gain power. While liberals and white moderates are occupied trying to bring these people to the table of discussion and compromise, I believe they will continue to charge forward, trampling human rights — and human lives — in their wake. The stakes are too high for niceness. We all must take a bold stand and choose kindness — active and forceful kindness — instead.

If we want to prevent the worst-case scenario, all liberals should abandon “niceness” as a political stance. Instead of niceness, refuse Neo-Nazis the courtesy of a legitimate public platform. Instead of niceness, persuade those in your network to take full advantage of their democratic rights (protest, contact your representatives, express your dissent). Instead of niceness, choose instead to loudly and repeatedly reject all omens of fascism. Resist now. Not tomorrow, not at midterms, not when T****’s policies inevitably strike you personally, but now. Resist now and fascism won’t win.