Some thoughts on why one shouldn’t debate Nazis

Screenshot from the interview.
Screenshot from the interview.

I have great respect for Gary Younge and his work. I even have some appreciation for his attempt to interview Richard Spencer, one of the leading figures in the so-called “Alt-Right” (which, it needs to be stressed again, is basically newspeak for “neo-nazi”) movement. Younge expresses his reluctance to engage in a conversation with this person: “ordinarily giving someone like that oxygen is something I think journalists shouldn’t do”. He nevertheless decides to do precisely this – thus proving why his first intuition was right after all.

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Let’s be clear about this: one shouldn’t debate Nazis. Not as a journalist, not as a politician or policy maker, not as an activist, teacher, neighbour or fellow citizen. One shouldn’t engage in a political discussion with them, period. What’s so great about Younge’s attempted interview with Spencer, however, is that it astutely illustrates why not.

Here’s a few things that we can learn from it:

1) Some people feel that we should be prepared to listen to Nazis as long as they are not inciting violence. The thing is: they always are, by definition. Their message simply IS violent. For example, take the moment when Spencer suggests that – by virtue of his British name and heritage – he is entitled to tell Younge that he “will never be an Englishman”, and effectively to claim superiority over him. Spencer is literally trying to subordinate Younge in front of his own camera. Younge’s response is the only right one, I think. You can’t have a proper conversation on that basis. But it also shows why it’s better not to give Nazis the space to say these kinds of things at all: whenever they open their mouths, someone’s basic rights and dignity are immediately being violated.

2) Spencer’s perspective has no additional value to the public debate. His ‘opinions’ are not merely outrageous – they are absurd. So absurd, in fact, that literally anything he says becomes questionable. Someone who claims that “slaves benefitted from slavery” should categorically not be trusted. When he says that it’s sunny outside, then better take your umbrella. If he claims that 2+2=4, it’s time to get out your calculator. There’s absolutely no value to his ‘opinions’ – so why take them seriously?

3) In fact, racism is not simply someone’s ‘opinion’. It’s a means of subordination and exploitation. It’s a power mechanism. Racism is a form of violence that is deeply sedimented in our public institutions, the Western culture, and in our political discourse. Ultimately, anti-racism and anti-fascism have very little to do with challenging Spencer’s personal ideas or motivations. It’s about questioning something that is way more structural and that exists literally everywhere (and arguably, Spencer is only one of its most extreme exponents). For non-white people in particular, anti-racism is a means of self-defence. Not just another topic for a nice debate.

4) It is often argued that Nazis and their so-called ‘opinions’ should be taken seriously, as they give expression to a widely shared resentment or frustration. The last thing we should do, according to this logic, is to dismiss people’s genuine feelings as illegitimate or insignificant. Some add to this that only by engaging in a serious political debate with Nazis, the superficiality and stupidity of their ideas can be revealed. The problem is: there is no proof that this strategy actually works. This is so, first, because some extreme right leaders (like Spencer) actually DO have the rhetorical and strategic skills to use such opportunities for mobilising their own support base. And second, this support base has entirely different perceptions of what renders an argument valid or convincing. Spencer’s own fanboys will probably think that he actually won this ‘discussion’ with Younge (if that’s what you want to call it). This interview does not lead to a better understanding of Spencer’s ideas or politics. It does not give his supporters the feeling that they are “being heard” (and they probably wouldn’t care anyway). But it does give him further media exposure on a major outlet. He really is the only one who gains from this.

5) One may of course object that Nazis as well have a “right to freedom of speech”, just like everyone else. Sure, legally that may be the case. But this is often misinterpreted as a moral obligation to hear them out – no matter how ridiculous, insulting, or outright dangerous their so-called ‘opinion’ is. The “right to freedom of speech” only pertains to the relation between citizens and their government. It basically means that you cannot readily be censored or prosecuted on the basis of what you say in public (although there obviously are limits). But it sure as hell doesn’t mean that anyone (including journalists or politicians) has any moral or political obligation to listen to you – let alone to offer you a stage. We don’t have to give a fuck about what Nazis think or feel, and we don’t owe them shit.

6) We’ve got our hands full with the ‘radical centre’: those who claim that all radical (or “extreme”) positions are equally bad and that we should all “keep talking to each other”. Which implies that racism and egalitarianism, fascism and anti-fascism are basically on the same footing. In this case, it also implies that Spencer’s statements on slavery or his attempts to humiliate and subordinate Younge are politically legitimate. The ‘radical centre’ is one of the reasons why we have to put up with people like Spencer in the first place. It’s an incredibly harmful – yet increasingly popular – position. If we are to engage in a rational, public debate on racism and the rise of the extreme-Right, it is this ‘radical centre’ that we should seek to address. It is their opinion that we should try to change.

In short, one shouldn’t debate Nazis. We don’t gain anything from it – they do. So let’s not give them the oxygen. We need it more than ever for our own survival.

Mathijs van de Sande