“Punch A Nazi”? You couldn’t help them more.

October 13, 2018 by Joshua
in Creativity, Leadership, Nonjudgment

There’s a phrase out there “Punch a Nazi.”

Here’s a video of someone acting on it.

What effect do you think it has on people who agree with the guy being punched? Or people attracted by his message?

I submit that punching the guy overall advanced his cause.

When I search “Punch a Nazi,” the top results ask the ethics and morality of doing it. Talk about ethics, morality, and judgment are guaranteed to generate clicks. Don’t you want to click these headlines?

Great for the web site and its advertisers, what about the rest of us? Instead of looking to others to tell us right and wrong, what do you do?

As you know from my Ethicist answers, I’m less concerned with philosophical analysis, labels, and talk than what we do about a situation. As I often write there:

You ask what’s ethical. Since everyone has different values, you’ll just get a label that not everyone agrees on. I suggest you want not a label but a practical plan to resolve your situation as best you can by your values and the values of others affected as best you can tell using empathy and projecting possible outcomes.


I would categorize this situation as a problem-solving, not an ethics, issue. Abstract questions of philosophy won’t resolve this issue as effectively as adopting a problem-solving approach. As with most of life, each potential action has results and you want to find an outcome most acceptable to the most number of people. What helps solve problems? In this case, probably talking to people with experience, developing social and emotional skills to communicate with the people affected, empathy for how potential results will affect different people. I would start with those things before writing a newspaper ethics columnist.

A leadership approach

If you want to change someone’s behavior, one way is to force them through authority. That’s hard if they haven’t broken the law, especially if the Constitution protects their behavior. Moreover, using authority tends to increase people’s motivation since their underlying beliefs remain and they didn’t achieve their goals in acting on them.

Using authority also leads people to want to undermine your authority—the opposite of leadership.

A more effective strategy, I’ve found, is to lead them by influencing their beliefs and motivations, which is hard to do if you don’t understand them and they don’t feel understood.

You might say you understand them and they’re wrong. First, you’re missing much about them. Second, they don’t feel understood.

However unpleasant you might feel to make them feel understood, the less they feel understood, the more they will resist you. All people who don’t feel understood resist listening.

If you feel there’s something I’m missing in this post—that is, if you don’t feel understood by me—you likely feel yourself resisting what I say. You probably feel you want to get me to understand something I don’t, thinking what you’d say to me if I were there.

Anyone communicating has something to say. People promoting Nazism know they live in a country where people fought and died fighting their predecessors, so they know they’ll antagonize them, their descendants, and pretty much everyone else.

People communicate to be understood, not misunderstood. Whatever hatred they may have, they want to be understood about something else that they believe others will understand about them. Until a person feels understood, he or she will continue to believe what motivated him or her to communicate that everyone misunderstands. They will continue to feel motivation to act on it.

“Punch a Nazi” fuels that fire. When you resort to and promote violence, you motivate them to continue. If you dehumanize them or treat them as different, you fall into their trap. When you call humans monsters, you motivate them to oppose you.

Moreover, when you call humans anything other than humans, you do what Nazis do.

The challenge is to see their humanity. To see that you share the same emotional system they do. You don’t think humans can become Nazis? Do you believe everyone who fought for Germany was different from everyone else in the same way?

If so, how do you distinguish yourself from them?

Yes, they hate people. So do you. Hatred is a human emotion that we all feel.

They may promote violence. So does “punch a Nazi.”

charlottesville nazi

They clearly feel strong motivation and I guarantee it’s not just hatred. What do you think motivates them in their hearts and minds?

Cue the knee-jerk misunderstanding

Nearly everyone falls into a false dichotomy of thinking that the only alternative to violence is appeasement or something ineffective. They confuse understanding someone and making them feel understood with supporting them.

Maybe you’ll suggest that my promoting understanding them and treating them as human means I support them. Maybe you’ll throw in that as white and male I don’t understand something. Does it feel funny using my skin color or sex to augment your point? Would my blue eyes and once blond hair augment your view more?

Understanding is not support, nor is making someone feel understood.

My goal

Driving me is the observation that “Punch a Nazi” stems from a desire to vent. People’s emotions get intense when they want to do something important but can’t think of how. As they exhaust tactics and strategies that don’t work, they lash out.

I find such impulsive behavior satisfies a person’s urge in the moment but rarely achieves the goals that the exhausted strategies and tactics were for. Usually it achieves the opposite.

My goals?

I ask myself, do I want to satisfy ineffective, counterproductive impulses or change a situation.

I’m looking at what citizens can do here and now, not what to do in 1930 or 1940, ideally to learn from then to prevent repeating past mistakes.

First, if someone breaks the law, I want them subject to the same justice as anyone else. If they’re violent, promote violence, and so on, there are laws against it. If they exercise their constitutional rights legally, I don’t see promote vigilante justice. I’m fine with new laws created following the law too.

Second, my goal in the case of Nazis is to avoid helping them and to lead them and their supporters to change their behavior. Everything about “Punch a Nazi” tells me it motivates them more.


What are alternatives?

I’ll tell you where I’d look first: role models such as Gandhi, Mandela, King, Havel, and Frankl are the first place I’d look, several of whom opposed actual Nazis. Actually, I think they all did.

From earlier than modern times, you might add Christ, Buddha, and Laotse.

Can you imagine any of them promoting “Punch a Nazi”?

I submit to you that they had some lasting effect that we today value and weren’t mere appeasers.

I put to you: what would they do? What can you learn from them?

If you support punching Nazis, I suggest you’ll find more useful answers looking inside yourself and learning from these leaders than by supporting vigilante violence.

Do you disagree? Did I miss something?

I’d rather learn what I missed so I can improve than not.

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