The Dichotomy of Tolerance; or, How Punching Nazis can be both the Right AND the Wrong Thing to Do

If the road to hell is paved with good intentions, then why is the road to utopia paved with them as well?

You hear it all over the news these days, especially in light of the 2016 presidential election and the cancerous beliefs in brought to light. “The only way forward is tolerance.” We must embrace these reactionaries and make them feel welcome. No matter how odious their beliefs, we must create a place for them in American society, so that they feel safe enough to give up their radicalization and extremism. We must allow ideologies of hate a place in sober political discourse.

You also, of course, see the flip side. “Do not tolerate racism. Do not tolerate classism. Do not tolerate sexism. Do not tolerate Nazism.” That last one in particular is the core of the argument. Nazism, as an ideology, does not just preach the superiority of the Aryan bloodline; it also preaches specific and explicit manslaughter against undesirable groups. To the Nazi, it’s not just that blacks, Jews, gypsies, homosexuals are inferior; it’s that murdering them is virtuous. Is it even possible to tolerate an ideology which claims it is virtuous to blow my head off? Theoretically, I’m sure that it is; but in practical terms, I have a relatively limited number of spare heads. (Zero of them, actually.) Letting someone murder me may make their lives better, but it’s hard to argue that it makes my life better. If the best policy is the one that guarantees liberty and justice for as many people as possible, and two is larger than one, then I think the math has spoken.

And so that’s where a lot of the left has arrived at: an attitude of zero tolerance. Punch Nazis. Which the Nazis always complain about, for some reason. (Funny: it’s as though they believe hurting a stranger based on circumstantial visual evidence is a bad thing.) But they also try to dress it up as liberals betraying themselves. “So much for the tolerant left,” they moan. “(Never mind that we were counting on their tolerance to get away with our own transgressive behaviors.) A true liberal would just lie down and take it.” Which is, of course, bullshit. A true liberal punches Nazis. A person who doesn’t punch Nazis will only do so because they believe that Nazism is, could possibly be, a valid ideology. They don’t punch Nazis because they believe that murdering a stranger based on circumstantial visual evidence might actually be a virtuous decision. This person is, in short, not a liberal — frankly, I’m not certain that they even counts as a moderate. I am certain they count as someone who should be punched.

And now, having got up on my soapbox and talked about how tolerance is a bad idea and we shouldn’t bother with it, I want to go right back on myself and talk about how tolerance is a good idea, and we should absolutely bother with it.

And to do it, I’m going to quote the thing that you were least expecting: The Sims.

For the five of you living under a rock, The Sims is a long-running series of video games which put the player in control of nothing more, or less, than everyday human life. The player controls a group of Sims, average people with skills, jobs, fashion choices, friends and, depending on how many expansion packs you’ve bought, additional details like cars and pets and vacations and the ability to visit a neighbor’s house. The original game was relatively limited, in that Sims didn’t age: a Sim created as a child would stay that way forever; and a Sim adult would live forever unless you either, by negligence or by intent, got them killed. (The tradition of drowning Sims in their own swimming pools, because you deleted the ladder and no one programmed them to just climb out over the rim, dates all the way back to the game’s launch.) The sequel, released 5 years later, added seamless aging, capping the Sim’s lifespan and dividing it into a number of chronological stages. It also added in personalities, wrapping them around a central desire: a Sim with the Family personality would want to have many children and grandchildren, while a Sim with the Wealth personality would strive for a big bank account, and a Sim with the “Grilled Cheese” aspiration was preoccupied with sandwiches.

The primary gameplay impact of the Sim’s personality was seen in the Wants and Fears system. Everysim’s control panel had several windows of things they either wanted (“Fall in love,” “Buy a new couch,” “Eat my favorite food”) or didn’t want (“Go too long without taking a shower,” “Do poorly at school or work,” “Make someone hate me”); you’d get new ones fairly regularly, but the ones you got were partially influenced by the Sim’s personality. Each would contribute, whether positively or negatively, to the “Aspiration meter,” which analogizes roughly to self-esteem. The Sim’s self-esteem could be locked into a permanent happy mood if you achieve something truly momentous, but otherwise it would lose some value periodically, going through two platinum segments and two green ones into two red ones. If the Sim hits rock bottom, they have a (humorous) nervous breakdown and are equipped with a small quantity of Aspiration, enough to let them function again and try to get their emotional feet back under them. The Aspiration meter was removed after the second game, as it interacted poorly with the “biological” needs that had been there from the start (sleep, hunger, socialization, bladder, etc), though the personalities remained intact, and Wants and their positive impacts were folded into other systems.

Despite its brevity, I often look to the Aspiration meter when discussing mood and self-esteem, because it does such a clear job of explaining the impact of mood on everyday life. And I bring it up here to explain one simple fact that often gets overlooked:

Taking criticism lowers your self-esteem.

I think we all know this instinctively, even if we don’t realize it consciously. We can’t accept criticism without feeling at least a little bad, because it’s that feeling of failure that provides (at least some of the) motivation to change. Therefore, when someone criticizes us, we feel bad. But it goes one step further: Therefore, if we aren’t in a place where we can afford to feel bad about ourselves, we avoid criticism. We’ve all met this person: the co-worker who won’t listen, the parents who’s off in their own little world, the spouse who refuses to change. Sometimes, we have been this person. We have been the person who can’t look the truth in the face, because it’s too painful, it’s too hard. And so we instead cling to our lies. It’s not because we like lying to ourselves; it’s because the only alternative is to demolish our personalities like an old building and then put them back together piece-by-piece, a lengthy process that we may not have time or energy to complete. It’s because the truth will destroy us and we’re frankly not sure if we can come out the other side.

And that friendly boost on the Aspiration meter? Doesn’t happen in real life. In fact, sometimes we ought to step back and question how often we feel positive emotions. The Critical Positivity Ratio is a theory, first stated in a published paper by psychologists Marcial Losada and Barbara Frederickson, which states that a human being who does not experience 2.9013 positive emotions for every 1 negative emotion will fail to flourish. The math behind the theory has — perhaps unsurprisingly — since been discredited, but no one has been able to attack the idea that, yeah, people are probably more successful if they feel happier. And yet how often does this happen? Throughout our lives we are bombarded with messages concerning our inferiority — body-shaming, ethnicity-shaming, hobby-shaming, body-shaming, gender-shaming, sexuality-shaming, job-shaming, class-shaming — because that’s a good way for corporations to make money. (And yes, I have experienced all of these things, why do you ask?) We are a culture of negativity. And, even if we can’t agree what the proper ratio of positive to negative affect is, I think we can agree that most of us fall far, far below it.

So. These racist folks. These white supremacists. These eminently punchable Nazis. How many of them are clinging to their ideologies of hate because that’s the only way they have to keep themselves from a complete mental breakdown? How many are using them to provide that vitally necessary positive affect? How many can only shield themselves from existential crisis with a swastika armband?

Now, the answer to that is obviously, “Not all men.” The truth is that some of these assholes are genuinely into eugenic superiority and genetically motivated slaughter. These sewer vermin honestly believe that we actual humans are in fact the vermin. They will end up on death row or serving consecutive life sentences or blown away in a shootout, because mass murderers always do, and may we be rid of them quickly. And may, additionally, they get what they deserve. None of us are strangers to hatred, to desperation, to loneliness, to worthlessness; but there’s a difference between being told, “You can become a better person if you just go murder those people over there,” and not believing it or doubting it or questioning it; versus, you know, going and doing it. At some point you make your choice. No one just accidentally Nazis. And, as I’ve said more than once, protecting people from their own mistakes is its own form of immorality.

But there are others. The ones beaten down by life, the ones this country has left behind. They have seen themselves being served increasingly smaller slices of the American pie, smaller and smaller until all that is left are crumbs: no jobs, no food, more drugs, more crime. No pride, no dignity, no ability to do (it feels like) the one thing liberals will let men do anymore: be employed and support the family. They are staring down the barrel of a harsh truth: America doesn’t need them. America is not going to safeguard their inalienable rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. If they live or die, if they are rich or poor, if they are happy or sad, it does not matter; America does not care.

So when the culturally-dominant value system declares that you are worthless, what do you do? Simple: you find an alternative value system. Say, racism. Say, white supremacy. Say, Nazism.

Of course, there’s another answer to that question. If the culturally-dominant value system declares that you are worthless, you change yourself: you become someone who is valuable to that value system. You become an entrepreneur, you become a CEO, you become a professional athlete, you become a tech worker. The counterarguments to that idea is that all men are not created equal. Sometimes it’s simply impossible to become those things, because you don’t get to choose whether or not to become them: you either have what it takes, or you don’t. As an example, I simply don’t have what it takes to program in C++, the programming language my company uses for its apps. I would know. I’ve tried. So I either put my life on hold for several years to try and force my square brain into a round hole, or I accept my limitations and move on to something I’m actually good at — say, project management, which (as it just so happens) I was promoted into recently. And forget playing pro football; maybe if I wasn’t already 35, but I am, and that’s that. The fact is that America only values certain kinds of labor, and if you don’t happen to be equipped to perform them, and can’t become equipped to perform them, you’re, well, shit out of luck. This may be the Land of Opportunity, but opportunity only matters if you can take advantage of it.

So. Let’s take this down-on-his-luck, say, American coal miner. (Or former American coal miner, since so many American coal mines have closed). He’s got nothing except for his virulent racism. And now liberals want to punch him because of his racism. They want to punch him until he’s forced to face his own hateful behavior, and take the hit to his (non-existent) self-esteem, and give up the one thing that’s keeping him from facing the fact that there is no hope and he might as well just blow his brains out right now. Or he sticks with it and we punch him so much he dies.

To this, I would say, without irony: So much for the tolerant left! I mean, seriously: How is it an act of “tolerance” to force someone into a position where either 1) they must kill themselves or 2) we have to kill them?

And it’s why this whole article centers around tolerance. Because, on the one hand, yes: it is a bad idea to tolerate Nazism. It is a bad idea to tolerate an ideology that actively wants to kill you, if for no other reason you are now in imminent danger of being killed. It is a bad idea to tolerate Nazism, and I will never say otherwise.

But it’s a good idea to tolerate Nazis.

Think about that damn Aspiration meter for a second. Think about the video-game mechanic. If a person can only make improvements on themselves when they are not deeply in the red, self-esteem-wise, then what is the best way to defang a Nazi? Is it to punch them and kill them and murder them based on circumstantial visual signifiers? Is it to be just as bad as them? Or is it to gradually, carefully, bring them to a place where they are finally ready to have their noses rubbed in the truth? Is it to just murder them out of hand?… or to convert them?

And yes, I realize that this is easy for me — an Asian, white-passing, male — to say. I am less at threat of casual murder than, say, a black woman, or a gay man, or a Jewish person. I’m less likely to pay the consequences if I am wrong. And for those people, I say: Do not let me tell you what to do. You’re the one with the boots on the ground. If the best way for you to survive is to keep punching Nazis, then you keep punching those fucking Nazis, and if you need help I will put on my black belt and punch them with you, because your life is more valuable than my idea.

But I’m still going to ask this question: What is the best way to convert the fucking Nazis? And I’m going to keep asking it because we keep having this problem. The Third Reich had barely surrendered when neo-Nazis first dubbed themselves and started continuing the “sacred” work. Here in America, we saw the election of Barack Obama as a step forward, but it was immediately answered with the election of a man so venal and incompetent that only Prince Joffrey Baratheon could possibly top him, a man who was elected not despite his unsuitability but because of it. And the internet has given all of them a platform, a place to organize and discuss and pretend that murdering people based on the color of their skin or who they get erections about or what god they claim to worship is, or has ever been, an act of virtue. There will always be Nazis… unless we learn to defeat them.

And that’s why I advocate tolerance. Not of Nazism, but of Nazis. We have to tolerate them because that way we nip the problem in the bud. Would the adults of today be racists if we had taught their fathers differently? Well, guess what: we have a chance to teach their fathers differently. And it doesn’t start with punching those fathers.

And dragging them, kicking and screaming, into the future, won’t work either. We know this because that’s exactly what we’re doing, and the result is more domestic terrorism, more open white supremacy, in America than ever before. It clearly doesn’t work. And, as a mystery novelist once reminded us, “Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again, but expecting different results.” (Too bad the Einstein attribution is mistaken. It would be even more potent if he and his Jewish background had said it.)

So what should we do instead?

Well, to be honest, that’s where it breaks down. I’m not sure.

I can tell you that we need to make more room in our liberal, open-hearted future for the realities of human psychology. I can tell you that we need to create a safe space for reactionaries who aren’t yet ready to face the truth. I can tell you that we have to shepherd them, slowly, into a place where they’re ready to look their own ugliness in the face and defeat it. I have no idea what that space looks like, what we celebrate in it, how it’s created, how it’s guarded, how we decide who goes there, how we decide when to let them out. I know how we raise the generation that comes after them — it has to do with, well, tolerance, with teaching them to see other human beings as other human beings and not soulless victims which have no ethical meaning — but I don’t know how we salvage the current one.

I only know we need to do it, because the alternative is simply murdering people based on their beliefs, and if we aren’t okay with Nazis doing that to us, we probably should not be okay with us doing it to Nazis. Even if the Nazi ideology is, objectively, unethical.

To some people, the way forward is to simply murder everyone who is different than you. Since those “some people” are, literally, Nazis, I think it’s a good idea for the rest of us to find a better way. And, believe it or not, I think that part of that better way involves doing something to those Nazis that each of them, individually, has never experienced before: treating them like they’re actual human beings. I believe it starts with tolerance.

Does it work? Fuck if I know. But I can tell you for certain that the other way is worse.

We don’t have the right to live in a world that satisfies our moral sensibilities. We DO, however, get to CREATE one. Here’s how we do it.