Don't feed the radical right trolls by counter-protesting them

We’re all shocked at the idea of a growing neo-Nazi movement, at the horrible attack in Virginia and the lack of condemnation by the President. It’s making us forget that the neo-Nazi radical right are trolls with many parallels to online trolls. And the only thing to do is not to feed the trolls, and definitely don’t attack the civil rights that they make use of.

A protest march has 3 main functions:

  1. Get publicity for the cause
  2. Show those of similar mind that they are not alone and foster community
  3. Show the outside world that you have numbers

The first is the primary purpose. They don’t get very far shouting slogans at the people walking their dogs past their march. There are far better ways to get your message out today. The march works because people talk about it, write about it in the press, or even better, if they counter-protest it, vastly multiplying the publicity. Counter-protests are what any small radical group wants, not a quiet and peaceful rally. To do this they will be as outrageous as they can, to goad their opponents. The protest group wants to show they have numbers, but to show it they need publicity. In this case, they don’t have very large numbers.

A perfect example is the Phelps Westboro Baptist “Church.” They protest at funerals with offensive signs saying “God hates fags” and similar. They are not protesting the funerals. They do it only in the hope that people will get riled up and bring them tons of publicity, and it works. (Some even speculate that their goal is to get people to get so upset they assault them, and then they file court actions profitably!)

We have a strong urge not to leave something as pernicious as neo-nazis ignored. We feel we must show “this is not us.” And we want to show our numbers are large while theirs are small. But we know our numbers are large. But the attention given to them grows their numbers. Nobody joins a neo-nazi group imagining the “movement” is not reviled. They join because it is reviled by their ideological opponents. We must resist that urge. We must ignore them, and treat them as the irrelevant last adherents of a philosophy long left in the dustbin of history, which is what they are.

Radical groups have been around forever, and were not always trolls. But today’s online world gives them an alternative and better place to communicate, to promote their ideas, and to find strength in numbers, if they have numbers. As such the “march” is far less important for those things, and much more of its purpose is trolling.

There are those who feel that the approach of not feeding trolls is too simplistic or outdated and that there are other techniques that can work online. In the physical world, which is not a private playground like most online spaces, censorship is not permitted and only non-physical methods can be applied. This has frustated some people…

One alternative

I don’t pretend there can’t be ways to respond to trolls, as long as you’re sure you are not giving them the reaction they goaded you for. One town in Bavaria took pledges so that the more Nazis and the more they marched more money was donated to an anti-Nazi charity. In the USA, rather than a physical counter protest, giving money to Southern Poverty Law Center or others for every neo who shows up could be highly effective.

If you are skilled at it — really this is not for amateurs — mocking them can also work. They want people to be angry, not laughing, and especially not laughing at them. As noted, the comedy must be very good. Mean spirited comedy can get a laugh but is also a reaction of fear or anger.

Don’t attack civil rights

Nazis get people upset, naturally. My grandmother was a Jew out of Vitebsk, where the Einsatzgruppen B set up a base and murdered every Jew in the city, including all her relatives that did not emmigrate as her family fortunately did. I have reason to understand the horror of Nazi thinking. So I get really pissed when people start attacking the civil rights which belong to all, including neo-nazis, forcing me to defend them. I defend the rights, not the assholes, but often to others, and sometimes even to us, it can seem like we have to defend the scum.

If you think you want to call for a reduction in free speech for these scum, think again. It’s what they want. They would like nothing better than to have their marches banned, their web sites shut down. It’s publicity and makes them victims. And yes, they will laugh at those of us who will defend those rights.

Make no mistake. When our rights come under attack, there will be people defending them. It’s just a given, and even if you don’t agree with doing that, it’s the choice of the rights defenders, not your choice. It’s going to happen. Your only choice is whether to force those defenders into action. If you attack the free speech of scum, you are playing into their hands. It also won’t work, and is a bad idea, as I outlined in my article recently on Free Speech Theory.

If there’s a legal case over free speech or other rights of these folks, the ones who attacked those rights are the ones to blame. So don’t say it’s OK to censor or ban them. Don’t say it’s OK to punch them (if they have not been violent.) You might believe it, and in this post I am not arguing with you about that. I’m telling you what your choice will set in motion, and it’s not what you want.

Hard as it may be, as long as they are a small radical fringe, the best course is to ignore them. You won’t fix them by focusing the world on them. If they get to be big enough to be a real threat, you can pay some attention, but don’t help them get there.

excellent analysis

An excellent, level-headed analysis.

Another thing to think about: What is a counter-demonstration supposed to effect if the counter-demonstration has many more people than the demonstration being protested? As Brad points out, both sides have a pretty good idea of the relative numbers in advance. If the hope is that somehow showing that one has more numbers will persuade people to join the bigger side, think about what would happen if the bigger side were the wrong side. The idea should be to do what's right, not to join the bigger group.

As Asimov had a character say, never let your morals prevent you from doing what's right.

You mean the Westboro

You mean the Westboro Baptist Church. The Landover Baptist Church is a parody.

-jcr

And a good one

Silly me.

Mostly agree

While the Nazis are scum, I fear the rise of a militant left almost as much.
With the Nazis at least their cause is obviously abhorrent.
Groups like Antifa on the other hand are able to convince at least some that they are fighting the good fight when they are little more than vigilantes.
Deplatforming and the curtailing of free speech in the name of admirable goals such as egalitarianism has strong echoes of Socialism, which also has a nasty record of bloody purges of its own people.

I am frankly astonished that some consider the loss of freedoms a fair price to pay to prevent Nazis from having a voice.
That it doesn't occur to them that one day the dissenting voice being crushed is their own is frightening.

I have to admit a bit of an internal struggle when writing this, because I felt it harder to want to extend the same freedoms to Islamic preachers who encouraged anti semitism or attacks against the west.
Perhaps this is simply because I see religion as a larger threat due to its ability to in effect leverage human reproduction to propagate, hence its ability to survive over the long term.

Agree

When I read your comment the first thing that came to my mind was "If someone hits you on one cheek, put the other one" . We must do the correct things, even if at the beginning it hurts us. At the final of the long way, the good things will win. If we do the wrong things, we can win , but then the bad things will win. If a violent kills a pacifist, may be one day he will repent and become a pacifist. If a pacifist kills a violent, it means that he accepts that the peace is not the way and the violence had won. So, we will lose the peace forever.

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