The Antifa movement, whose rise has captivated America over the past few weeks, is truly frightening for one simple reason: Its intentions are noble.
The enemies it fights — white supremacists — are clearly self-interested bigots fighting to keep their privilege safe and everyone else down. But the Antifa movement is a completely different animal. It is actually committed, aggressively, to the greater good; fighting not for itself but for a truly equitable society, one in which its white male member actually target their own privilege.
Yet, in doing this, they have adopted the tools of the enemy — fighting violence with violence.
“Violence is frightening,” antifa member Neil Lawrence told The New York Times at the University of California, Berkeley. “I get it. Violence is messy. It’s not elegant. [But] whatever you can do to throw a wrench in the gears [of racism] is valuable,” he said.
These young Americans appear to have decided that the only effective response to hate is more hate. Or, at least, searing anger.
In the Academy Award–winning movie “Doubt,” Meryl Streep famously tells her colleague: “In the pursuit of Satan, one must turn away from God.” And then she ends the movie in desperate, lonely tears.
One fears that the antifa movement is destined for the same fate.
To be sure, there is nothing essentially wrong with anger. Anger for a larger purpose, according to anti-apartheid activist Archbishop Desmond Tutu, is highly effective in causing social transformation, but it is the “how” of the anger that makes the difference between getting even and getting it right.
“Know that what was done to you was wrong, unfair, and undeserved,” he says in “The Book of Forgiving.” “You are right to be outraged. And it is perfectly normal to want to hurt back when you have been hurt. But hurting back rarely satisfies. We think it will, but it doesn’t. If I slap you after you slap me, it does not lessen the sting I feel on my own face, nor does it diminish my sadness as to the fact you have struck me. Retaliation gives, at best, only momentary respite from our emotional pain. The only way to experience healing and peace is to forgive. When we forgive, we take back control of our own fate and our feelings. We become our own liberators.”
This is not just a moral teaching but also a strategic one. For movements to be sustainable and therefore effective in the long run, they must learn how to identify anger, harness it and then channel it.
Young people in America and across the world have a right to rage against income inequality, white supremacy and fascism, political irresponsibility, minority oppression and corruption. But how can they effectively harness this anger to ensure the desired social change? How can they push back against the machine without losing their balance, without losing to anger and damaging the righteousness their causes?
In her new book “Anger and Forgiveness,” philosophy scholar Martha Nussbaum shares the lessons from titans of social change.
For her, those like Mohandas Gandhi, Martin Luther King Jr. and Nelson Mandela are examples of the effectiveness of strength and dignity. King’s speeches for instance, while impassioned, did not ask that the wrongdoer suffer some bad consequences. King, according to Nussbaum, avoided the kind of misguided magical thinking that “the suffering of the wrongdoer somehow restores, or contributes to restoring, the important thing that was damaged.”
In that circumstance, the anger leads into something so insidious that it damages not just the social fabric but the center of a person’s balance.
“If we had started guerrilla warfare in America’s cities, if we had given into terrorism in America, we could have won but America could not have survived,” said Andrew Young, one of King’s close aides, in 2014.
According to Ben Jealous, president of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, this restraint helped take the movement toward a crescendo in 1964 and 1965, when landmark civil rights legislation was passed.
“If moderation means moving on with wise restraint and calm reasonableness, then moderation is a great virtue that all men of good will must seek to achieve in this tense period of transition,” King wrote in 1957. “Our self-respect is at stake. We must keep moving with wise restraint and love and with proper discipline and dignity.”
In 2014, Obiageli Ezekwesili, the leader of Nigeria’s Bring Back Our Girls movement, gave a similar warning to antsy young protesters just after Boko Haram kidnapped 276 girls. They wanted “action”; she volunteered wisdom. “In fighting an injustice, you don’t use the same tools as the oppressor,” she said. “You lose yourself, and ultimately you lose the righteousness of your cause.”
Tutu, along with others, won the hard war against apartheid. King won hard wars over civil rights. Ezekwesili, along with others, has helped recover over 100 girls in the past three years.
So this is not a kumbaya call, even though there is nothing wrong with kumbaya.
This is a call to common sense.
This piece was first published on First published on Yale Daily News, and republished in commemoration of the International Day of Non-Violence