On Compassion for Fascists
The Buffalo Mass Shooting occurred yesterday. A young white man shot thirteen people, eleven of them Black, and killed ten. Prior to doing so, he published a manifesto in which he espoused the Great Replacement Theory and associated ideas. The lineage of Great Replacement Theory goes via Hitler’s Mein Kampf, and it’s always been an influential component of fascist thinking. The idea is that White people are going to be swamped by non-Whites, in a conscious strategy usually attributed to Jewish people. (Both Hitler and the Buffalo shooter blame Jewish people for it.) The Great Replacement Theory postulates the sickening picture of a global history constituted by blind, irrational racial conflict, with no possibility of transcending this. Kill anyone different, it argues, or be killed yourself.
Today, I’ve been considering what it would mean to be compassionate towards such people. Buddhism advocates compassion as a world-changing force, with the power to undermine hatred and make things better. But it’s hard to imagine how I could operationalize compassion for such an individual. For a start, other advocates of these kinds of views are already claiming the attack was faked. When one’s interlocutor is presented with evidence of the direct outcomes of their beliefs and values, and refuses to countenance them, it is difficult to continue to engage them in good faith. This is a consistent aspect of far-right politics in the US: the combination of the most blatantly racist positions, along with a bare-faced disavowal of racism. Such a position suggests a conscious strategy. It’s relatively easy to see how one could feel compassion for someone who is struggling against a given deformation of personality or character — an alcoholic who recognizes the harms their habit causes, for example, or someone with a history of abuse struggling to heal the violence this causes in themselves. But when such an individual gloatingly denies responsibility for the outcomes of the beliefs they have consistently urged and argued for, compassion feels like a category error. One is dealing not with an individual who is afflicted by these beliefs and values, but with one who derives some of their most fundamental values from them.
Comparison of this kind of right-wing extremism with Islamic extremism brings to light another aspect of the challenge to compassion in such a context. As research has shown, reduction of Islamic radicalization in Western societies is benefited by greater inclusion and lower levels of hostility. Efforts to show the young people most at risk of radicalization that they can find value, belonging, acceptance and meaning in the societies in which they live make them less likely to gravitate toward extremist positions. This seems intuitive, and follows from a basically compassionate attitude. If one accepts that
1. Muslims in Western societies are likely to face challenges related to exclusion, marginalization, and prejudice; and
2. Such experiences are likely to lead to both a) a pressing need for belonging and acceptance, and b) the likelihood of hostility toward the culture from which they are experiencing exclusion; then
3. One frames extremism as a function of the individual’s fear, loneliness, confusion, or justified anger.
One can find acts of violence abhorrent, and still see how they derive from the individual’s own suffering.
I expect that this kind of attitude would be more difficult with white, right-wing ethno-nationalists in a Western society, such as the Buffalo shooter. The first premise in the argument above is going to be harder to grant. Those on the far-right do regularly argue that they’re marginalized in Western societies, but the empirical evidence demonstrates the opposite. This makes the emotional responses encompassed in the second premise difficult to sympathize with, given that they’re based on paranoid projections.
Additionally, such an individual doesn’t appear to want the values or meanings that (this compassionate version of) their society seeks to embody and make possible. Their actions and beliefs are directed specifically at undermining these in a fundamental way. Such individuals also belong to a political bloc that has the power to reshape society in its own image. They have no reason to revaluate their own values when they have a realistic prospect of revaluating those of society as a whole. For those for whom anti-fascist values such as tolerance are of fundamental importance, this represents a pressing existential threat, as the current Roe v. Wade contestations demonstrate.
Whatever the fever dreams of adherents of the Great Replacement Theory, there is no genuine risk of Islam transforming Western society into a place where I am unable to exercise the rights and liberties I consider fundamental. But there is a real chance of right-wing fundamentalists doing so, and this difference would seem to have a crucial bearing on my potential for compassion and understanding. This difference is fear. I’m frightened of right-wing extremism and what it is doing to Western society and the world — much more frightened than I am of Islamic fundamentalism. This fear makes it more difficult for me to summon compassion for its adherents and exponents. I fear that my compassion will make me weak in their eyes and in my confrontation with them, and that this will simply embolden them.
This, however, involves a mistaken assumption about the nature of compassion. Crucially, the emotion or orientation does not need to involve a display of itself. Emotions are communicative, perhaps intrinsically so. But we can also conceal emotions if we choose. One can feel anger without giving any expression of it to the object of one’s anger, and the same goes for pretty much any emotion. So I can feel compassion for someone in the grip of the hateful ideologies that animate individuals such as the Buffalo shooter, while still decrying everything he stands for and represents. My strength or otherwise in my contestation with such attitudes need not be affected in any way by compassion. Indeed, compassion seems likely to benefit me in such a contestation.
Umberto Eco notes that fascists are doomed to lose every war they fight, because they are constitutively incapable of reaching an accurate estimate of their enemy’s strength. The fascist needs to portray the enemy as both overwhelmingly powerful (an irresistible tide that will sweep the nation away) and also pathetically weak (a sub-human degeneracy that the fascist’s own group is self-evidently superior to). The oscillation between these two caricatures makes it impossible for them to genuinely understand the enemy. Compassion would provide the opposite stance: a fearless and searching attempt to obtain a genuine picture of the impulses animating the fascist, and the way these shape his vision of the world.
For a Buddhist, an attitude of compassion for individuals such as this begins from the recognition that we all act out of fear and confusion. We are all prey to emotions that warp our values and lead us into destructive habits. Not all equally, of course — but not everyone is subject to the same brutalization, the same deforming influences. There’s no competition of victimhood to be deserving of compassion. Referring back to the syllogism outlined above, we can accept that the individual’s explicit explanations of their fear and anger make no sense, while still feeling compassion for the fear they are feeling. We can find an individual’s actions abhorrent and still wonder what harms to the self may have led the individual to commit them. We can fight this tide of hatred while retaining an ability to feel compassion for those swept up in it. Doing so would presumably lead us to wonder why young men are adopting these views and what needs these views are responding to.
For a start, it would involve acknowledging the suffering that drives such views in a way that even their exponents themselves are unable to. If the individual’s explanation of his anger makes no sense, this doesn’t invalidate the anger. I certainly have compassion for those who feel contempt and scorn for fascists and neo-Nazis who seek to portray themselves as victims in a society founded on slavery and based on persisting racialized relations of oppression and domination. I find it difficult not to feel these emotions myself, in response to such a framing of their situation by a fascist. But there are myriad forms of victimhood, and myriad forms of suffering. As Eric Santner and Christina Wieland show, the generation of men who would bring Hitler to power were systematically brutalized by their own fathers and by societal norms around masculinity. The paranoia, terror and sense of threat that animated their socio-political beliefs and decisions did not come from nowhere. They were inculcated via specific models of masculinity that forced them to choose between shame and violence. It is possible to feel compassion for an individual so brutalized, while remaining horrified by the outcomes of this brutalization.
Compassion for such a situation will not in and of itself solve it. Those fanning the flames of this hatred will continue to do so, and some of those exposed to it will continue to catch fire. But an infusion of compassion into society as a whole may make it easier for those feeling isolated, frightened, angry or confused to find genuine support, and thereby make it harder for fascists to convince them that violence is the only answer. It will also make opponents of fascism better able to understand what they are fighting, and how to fight it. I suspect that achieving this kind of compassion will require a confrontation with our own fear, anger and confusion. But this is nothing to be afraid of. Like compassion itself, it will make us stronger.