I live in a little satellite town half an hour from a fairly ordinary city, in a county not dissimilar to Tolkien’s Shire – Devon, in fact. Here it’s very easy to scan the bucolic scenery, the quaint villages and pastoral idylls and feel entirely removed from the horrific and frightening events unfolding in places like Charlottesville.
To the many lucky ‘ordinary’ people untouched by such hatred and violence, those frightening scenes might feel remote, even otherworldly – after all, surely Nazis belong to another century? Is there really any need for energetic and angry demonstrations against an emboldened right in places like Exeter?
‘Ordinary’ is, of course, a relative term. Most people probably consider their own lives to be fairly ordinary, because they have no other point of reference, what with not being someone else. But most organised anti-fascist activities seem to take place in big cities with far greater diversity than quiet clone towns nestled comfortably in the South West of England. But that doesn’t mean the emergent right wing is any less a threat here. Although we aren’t yet pulling down statues of our own imperialists and colonialists, who themselves subdued and stampeded on countless peoples and cultures, perhaps it’s worth considering what would happen if we did…
If you’ve not been on the receiving end of violence and hatred for being who you are, then it might be easy for you to identify with being a Hobbit, someone who goes about their daily business, being friendly to neighbours, not knowingly causing harm to others, and perhaps even being rather helpful to strangers now and again. If you are white, straight, cis and fairly comfortably off, it’s quite easy to assume ‘there’s none of that Nazis nonsense in these parts’, but we know how that belief worked out for Hobbity types in similar settings in Germany only a few decades ago.
But when the most powerful leader of the western world is a fully-fledged Nazi sympathiser, surrounded by alt-right cronies, whom the UK’s PM creeps around with handholding and invitations to tea, it’s time to take a look at how extraordinary it is that those with a living memory of Nazi Germany are seeing sights they had thought would never be seen again.
Tolkien’s Hobbits are characterised by their reluctance to get involved with the problems of the wider world. They are content tending their own backyards and enjoying home comforts. Only when, very insidiously, their way of life is threatened by the encroaching evils of that hostile wider world are they galvanised to fight for what they hold dear. How can we help avoid the ‘scouring’ of our own ‘Shires’ when fascism has a foothold once more? A foothold that has been facilitated in part by a woeful misunderstanding of what constitutes ‘free speech’.
And how can we ordinary, lucky little Hobbity types, who do our shopping, go to work and feed our pets, fight the very real threat of harm to those same friends and neighbours?
If it’s so easy for fascism to get traction, and if we’re not yet able to initiate or join in with vocal and sometimes very angry demonstrations against the far right, what everyday things can we do to fight the rise of the right in our seemingly harmonious little corners?
Here are some ordinary and everyday suggestions, which each of us can take up, without any requirement to seek out and punch the neighbourhood Nazi.
1. Use your power as a consumer
The loyalty card scheme, Nectar, recently lost huge numbers of customers when it joyfully announced its partnership with the Daily Mail. Thousands of customers were instantly turned off the brand when it defended its partnership decision – which was made ostensibly because data revealed Nectar customers to be readers of what many class as a far right hate rag. Doubtless this move is a significant mis-reading of the mood of the country, and one that has generated a PR disaster for the household name. In response, many cardholders took swift action by cutting up and returning their cards and boycotting well-known partners – the most high profile of which is Sainsbury’s.
But many consumers didn’t stop there. As an act of defiance against a partnership with a paper that demonises society’s most vulnerable and demonstrably generates hateful messaging, shoppers sought to spend points on food bank purchases, or contributions to Oxfam (another Nectar partner) – initiatives that are anathema to the right wing publication – before sending back their shredded cards.
I too filled a basket with food bank items and took my purchases to the checkout, placing them back in the basket once each was scanned.
‘You can’t take the basket with you dear,’ said the affable woman at the checkout.
‘It’s ok,’ I replied, ‘I’m just taking them over to the food donation box.”
At this the cashier almost collapsed in admiration of my generosity, whereas in fact I was merely spending points (which I had accrued by accident), in a way that would piss off Paul Dacre. I’m lucky enough to be able to afford to donate points to the food bank at Christmas in any case, rather than depend on them for my own shopping. I went on, enthused by the glowing admiration this not-that-generous gesture had inspired. 1
‘Some of us are spending all our points on good causes and then we’re ending our membership because of Nectar’s partnership with the Daily Mail.’
‘Ohhhh,’ she replied, nodding comprehendingly. ‘…Why’s that then?’
It was clear she had not before considered the most toxic UK paper as particularly remarkable or something to rally against.
‘Many people feel that unfortunately the Daily Mail is a paper that spreads hatred and they don’t want to support or be connected with that,’ I said lightly – still affable, as though of course she knew this already.
‘Oh, ok… I see,’ she replied, still smiling, more thoughtfully this time.
It was clear that a simple everyday, friendly and warm transaction had given rise to new thinking; the possibility that an item that regularly passed through the till was not as benign as it may have previously appeared. Add to this dialogue the two elderly, rather conservative (possibly Daily Mail reading), customers observing this gentle and kindly exchange between strangers, and there’s the possibility that new thought was generated in more than one person. After all, here was one quite nice person, doing a quite nice thing, talking to another quite nice person about doing something quite nice (i.e. standing against hatred) in reasonable, kindly tones. What was there to disagree with? I suppose instead I could have yelled:
‘ANYONE WHO READS THE DAILY MAIL IS AN IGNORANT RACIST WHO WANTS REFUGEE BABIES TO DROWN!’
But what response would this have elicited by possibly loyal Daily Mail readers? Certainly defensiveness, a hardening of an existing position and identity perhaps, and doubtless loathing of a loudmouth name-caller with evidently hysterical ‘loonie lefty’ ways – that would be all the proof needed that an alternative position is wrong. People don’t think their own views are ‘wrong’, precisely because they are their own views! In this scenario, quiet explanation, decency and warmth was a far more effective communication technique.
Of course, consumers are empowered to make purchase decisions that don’t prop up any kind of social injustice, chiefly by make ethical buying choices and supporting brands and organisations with socially and environmentally sound values. Look out for brands that donate funds to right wing political parties and avoid them. Tell others about them too. A little research is all that’s needed to help you take power away, pound by pound, from the harmful corporations that are instrumental in facilitating hatred.
Although making educated purchasing decisions and polite conversation at checkouts is part of our every day, it’s a far cry from the front line of vocal and sometimes violent anti-fascist protest. Indeed, a tool of the right is to police the tone of those who live in fear of their lives; a trap many liberals, keen for a harmonious resolution to conflict, can easily fall into. Minorities who understandably respond with emotion when faced with very real danger are often accused of being ‘just as bad’ as the very Nazis who would seek to annihilate their rights or even destroy them, which is why aligning to fight Nazis by resisting – in any way possible – is imperative. After all, though Frodo was a gentle soul, he never criticised the fellowship for their methods in their fight against the dark might of Mordor. Both sides are not – by any measure – as ‘bad as each other’. 2
2. Be nuanced in your arguments and fight for education
Many white progressives are understandably terrified of being mistaken for Nazi apologists if they say anything that does not explicitly and powerfully condemn Nazi ideology. Afterall, inarguably faux liberalism has been permissive of ugly and violent stances that should belong to the last century, but has instead enabled them foothold once more, plus the option to participate in mainstream debate (as though genocide is merely one side of a perfectly balanced argument).
Far right views have demonstrably attained greater currency, so why is it not ok to ask how we we got to this position and what we can do to understand and tackle this? Many ‘right on’ people consider merely asking this question to be a weak and treacherous – virtually on a par with jumping rope with Hitler.
Obviously this is far from it. Many of those seeking insight into the societal, environmental and psychological conditions that have facilitated an emboldened fascist movement, don’t seek to de-Nazi someone with a cup of tea and a hug, rather they don’t want to see the emergence of a Nazi in the first place.
If you find yourself in a dialogue with someone who is keen to understand and ameliorate the origins of hatred, and you are concerned that this is not a forceful enough stance to take against fascism, then please take a moment to resist the desire to signal your own virtue, and instead think about what is really being said. After all, if we cannot educate future generations and help them to gain insight, develop tolerance and accept difference right this second, then when? It will be too late after another generation of Nazis is raised.
So slow down, be nuanced and think a little more critically when you debate. Don’t jump on the next person who wants to stop fascism by understanding its origins, who is perhaps not even able to join an antifascist march – or maybe they are very active on a grassroots level, you just don’t know. There are hobbity types among antifascists too, and many can fight the same fight with different sets of skills, which have their place and are equally powerful.
3. Challenge ignorance firmly, but don’t let the ego join in
When you get chatting to them, many people in the street are ‘nice’. There’s a meme going around that points out how many ‘nice’ people allowed neighbours and friends to be dragged off to concentration camps. There are many reasons for this, but predominantly standing by is a result of a deep-rooted (and not unjustified) fear of the consequences of speaking out, and the subsequent harm that doing so will befall you and those you love. But by speaking out sooner, perhaps we can make sure we never get to the point when our friends, colleagues and neighbours are vulnerable.
We can help prevent this nightmare scenario by challenging everything. Socrates used a question and answer method of dialogue to promote independent, reflective and critical thought – the kind of thought that is incompatible with the dogmatic, unquestioning anger-fuelled beliefs that facilitate fascism. If you encounter ignorance in any form, practising the gentle art of Socratic questioning can help dismantle the dangers before they have a chance to take hold, leaving strong emotion and ego out of it entirely. By all means be vocal and join in existing movements, but you can’t necessarily make that part of your everyday life. However, you can encounter ignorance in your everyday, which you can combat in a way that doesn’t assert your own egoic position and strengthen theirs.
4. Align yourself with the most vulnerable and marginalised
If you are one of the aforementioned non-marginalised individuals, someone who can generally go through life without being attacked for their ethnicity, religion, disability, gender, sexuality or social status, then consider whether it is your job to go into those communities to show yourself off as an ally.
Welcome though your allegiance might be, consider the possibility that offering yourself as an ally, whose only artillery is blind luck, could be perceived as patronising and disempowering. Instead, speak to others in similar positions to your own; those who don’t yet understand their own privilege, or don’t understand what it’s like to actually be marginalised, criminalised and persecuted. Help them to understand by championing and facilitating cradle to grave education. Those on the receiving end of hatred don’t need help understanding that; they need help tackling it, which can only come from within groups that perpetuate that suffering. So go to the white, able, cis, straight, rich communities and help them understand their part in how to defeat fascism, by creating an intersectionally fairer society.
5. Own your own history and be on the right side of whatever’s next
In the UK we’re grossly under-educated about the part our own country’s history plays in the situation we’re facing right now. Many of us substitute ignorance for mindless pride, remaining woefully (or wilfully) naive about the impact of past crimes committed to other cultures in the name of monarch and country.
We might feel angry because we don’t want to be held personally accountable for the crimes of our ancestors in India for instance, but that doesn’t mean we can’t engage with the consequences of their legacy that we continue to benefit from today.
Economic imperialism is just as violent as cultural imperialism, though it is legitimised by a neoliberal economic ideology that is maintained by a self-serving corporatised establishment. It is our job to interrogate this system, at every possible turn, and only then do we deserve to begin to feel any pride in ourselves rather than patriotic about some fantastical tale of derring do passed on in history books by the winners of the battle.
It’s far better to ensure social justice prevails right now, brought about by our purchase decisions, our interactions with one another, and our emphasis on meaningful education that accepts the truth of our past and integrate it into our current reality. In this way there is the possibility of a future reality that is not generated by the brutal destruction and anguish that is celebrated in our existing monuments, our architecture, our culture and much of our press.
6. And if Nazis do march through your own ordinary town?
Then take a leaf out of the book of these German villagers who have found an amusing, imaginative, positive and very powerful way to deal with their neo-Nazi problem…
Do the above, and the burgeoning right might not notice the soft tread of your Hobbity presence, working to dismantle the darkness of hatred in our own small ways, in our own ordinary little towns to create a better future for us all.