Content Note: mention of nazi’s, toxic masculinity, gender stereotypes, mass incarceration, forgiveness
As I scroll through my news feed over the past week I am disturbed by the drastic increase in violent messages. My Facebook page slants leftward and thus every third post is some variant on the “punch a nazi” meme, which has been disconcerting in ways that do not feel healthy or helpful. So I’d like to unpack this, in my usual public way of scattering seeds of ideas that I hope will prompt further exploration among those that read them.
First of all, I feel I need to add a disclaimer. I’m a white, temporarily able-bodied person, who has recently been granted an immense amount of class privilege. I’m also autistic, queer, transgender, and a trauma survivor. In this reflection I am speaking only for myself and the questions that I am experiencing. I do not condemn anyone for acting in self-defense, nor is this an attempt to dictate a set of norms that everyone must follow. I’m asking these questions because I believe it is healthy for all communities to explore the benefits and consequences of their methods, even as they are firmly in agreement about their goals.
For the record, I firmly stand against any ideology that dehumanizes, others, or calls for the genocide of humans because of their race, class, ability, gender, sexuality, religion, or any other aspect of identity. I abhor the ideologies of eugenics, the violence of the American system of mass incarceration, and the intricacies of systemic discrimination that are interwoven in every aspect of our lives.
That said, as I was thinking through the prevalence of the “punch a nazi” meme, I couldn’t help but wonder if there is a connection between the call for violence with toxic masculinity. Toxic masculinity, as I’ve seen it described, is the way in which those who are perceived to be male are encouraged to use violence to solve their problems, to hide (or deny) their emotions, and to remain in control whatever the cost. This concept is also interwoven with a societal valuation of masculinity being more useful than femininity. As one of the ways that toxic masculinity reinforces these expectations is shaming, the parallel grows even more haunting to me with every “if you aren’t punching nazi’s you’re on the wrong side of history” post I read.
As I write this, I am mindful of the ways in which the skills our society calls feminine, those of connection and bridging, empathy and love, have been misused and twisted. The very concepts of ‘love’, ‘respect’, and ‘tolerance’ are still being used as weapons to coerce and force people to ‘forgive’, or rather to appear to have forgiven, those who are still actively causing them harm. With this in mind, I still wonder what it would look like to value radical feminine skills alongside the violent response the punch a nazi meme involves. Empathy that demands accountability. Bridges back to the community that require those who have caused harm to acknowledge the destruction they have caused. Educators who know the value of what they teach, and yet still stick with that one person who doesn’t quiet get it. And they do so not from a place of coercion or desperation, but because they are adequately resourced, valued, and supported and thus can choose to do this necessary and valuable work.
Perhaps I have a higher valuation for this connection based activism because of how it has changed my life. The place I come from taught me many racist ideas (along with ableism, sexism, heterosexism, cisnormativity, and many, many others), most of which I am still actively unlearning. All I can say is that the person I am today depended heavily on people with the later skills, who met me where I was, showed me the harm I caused, and loved me even as I make the repeated mistakes necessary to unlearn a destructive habit.
With this in mind, I believe it is very possible to be firmly against nazi ideology and not be able or willing to use physical violence. For me, I hesitate because I’m always aware that because of my sensory needs and gender the American penal system would be a terrible fit for me. Thus for me to punch a nazi would be to commit an egregious act of self-destruction. This does not mean that I desire passive resistance, in which the martyrs pile up to no good end. I’d simply ask that between the bleeding and fighting we reflect on what skills we want to see flourish when the time of violence truly does come to an end. What are we doing to protect and care for our empathetic dreamers, our reconcilers, and our healers, who are excluded from our communities when violence is offered as the only acceptable option? How are we celebrating the unique gifts that everyone can bring to the struggle for justice? What types of responses are needed now, and which do we hope to see needed in the future?