It might not be an especially noteworthy incident by world standards, but events like the sad occurrence in Charlottesville, US today, that is to say street clashes between relatively radical groups (which in this case appeared according to news reports to involve the tragic death/murder of a protester by a 20-year old with opposing views), seem to be creeping back into Western politics at the moment. A few violent nut-cases trying to cause harm and havoc is probably nothing to be overly alarmed at, but there is something just a little reminiscent of inter-war Germany in the flavor of this kind of street violence. Prior to and during Adolf Hitler’s rise to power, far-left and far-right groups clashed on the streets of the shaky Weimar Republic, further alarming an already nervous populous and inflaming political tensions enough to create an “in” for one of history’s most genocidal leaders.
The modern West isn’t 1930s Germany, but it does worry me a little that as a society we’re not more wary of the basic pattern than these sort of things seem to take. Being a little philosophically inclined I tend to think about these sorts of things fairly abstractly – what seems to be the case in all these kinds of things is that far-left and far-right both foster support by using the crimes and flaws of the other as an excuse for harmful behavior and a lack of self-scrutiny. The violence is in a sense just the symptom of an escalating illness, an illness who’s ultimately end point is the idea that one’s evil acts don’t erase or even detract from some absolute righteousness of one’s cause. Criticizing the core ideas of the in-group, in this way of thinking, is the exact same as directly aiding the “enemy”. Once this thinking takes hold, it’s much easier for well-meaning or justified concern to slide down a slippery slope into extremism. There’s nothing so advantageous to a homicidal leader than having a unquestionable cause to hide their evil behind. That’s one reason I’ve learned to be very suspicious of unquestionable causes.
I don’t know what can be done to prevent these kinds of incidents, but I think we in the West could do more to try to avoid polarization from occurring. To start, maybe we could all (whether we’re left, right or center) try to avoid using the actions of our opposition, especially the most extreme fringe of our opposition, to justify dropping our own moral and intellectual standards (here’s a couple of nice Slatestarcodex articles that are related to this problem – 1 & 2). That also means criticizing those in our in-group that drop their standards. Secondly, we can make a effort to listen to the concerns of our opposition (because chances are we underestimate their legitimacy – I’ve written about that before), and realize that listening authentically isn’t the same as agreeing with somebody. And I guess lastly we should try to learn from history by reading a little on how authoritarian regimes came to power, and try to keep watch against that in our own camp as well as our opposition’s.
This goes regardless of whether you’re left or right wing – each is typically too busy complaining about the authoritarian tendencies in the *other* camp and so they are blind when it comes to their own. Yet both the extreme left and extreme right have typically brought ruin, or at best a lot of misery, upon any country they’ve come to power in. And on a small scale it leads to the sort of senseless death that seems to have occurred Charlottesville today. The best way to oppose that sort of misery is, in part, to promote open minds and free and fair discussion, but it also means discouraging people on our *own side* of politics using opponents as an excuse for rubbish moral standards, violence or unquestionable causes.