The Ethics Of… Punching a Racist in the Face

For those not paying attention, there has been some interesting rumblings in the Australian cultural landscape recently. Over the last few decades, Australia has hauled itself blinking into the new millennium, realized once-cherished ideas such as the White Australia policy, blatant racism and the belief that beatings are good for one’s character were kind of on the nose, and started to get with the times.

Naturally these newfangled ideas of multiculturalism, religious diversity and tolerance for differences upset quite a few people, which has led to several little zits of bigotry to appear on our national face from time to time. Pauline Hanson’s One Nation Party is probably the most memorable and damaging of those, leaving us with the horrifying scar of asylum seeker persecution to this day. But after that particular festering boil was lanced, things seemed to settle down to the background rash of dog-whistling attention whores like Andrew Bolt and Alan Jones, and we all generally got on with our lives.

Right up until last weekend that is, when the group Reclaim Australia mounted nation-wide protests in defense of ‘the Australian Way of Life ™’ and against “the creeping Islamisation of Australian society, law and government”.

Seriously, is there some genetic link between xenophobia and mouth-breathing? Because seriously. Geez.

Now I have no intention or writing a rebuttal of this group’s cause because A) I did that two weeks ago, B) I’ve also already taken a thorough look at whether multiculturalism is a good thing or not, and C) what the fuck is the Australian Way of Life anyway? Because this here Australian doesn’t have a lot of time for the sort of people who wear flags, or who’s opinions attract neo-Nazis.

Neo-Nazis are never a good sign, really.

No, the reason this wankery is worthy of an article is because of what happened next: at every protest nation-wide that Reclaim ran, a variety of left-wing groups, ranging from socialists to anarchists to feminists to environmentalists turned up under the banner of ‘No Room For Racism’ and ran counter-protests. How wonderful, right? Great to see forces for progress showing the bigots that their ideology doesn’t speak for all Australians!

Well you might think that, assuming you’d never seen a counter-protest in action before. In practice, the result looked more like this:

For those that can’t watch video, it was basically a riot. Sure, a fairly lame riot where people shove a lot, smack each other from behind and run away, and generally get their arses handed to them by annoyed-looking police, but not exactly the stunning display of ideological triumph either side was going for.

Once again, I’m not going to bother analysing the ideology of the coalition of left-wingers who showed up because A) good luck making head or tail of that dog’s breakfast, and B) their various political ideologies weren’t really important on the day – what it all came down to was that they opposed racism/bigotry/mindless nationalism, and this is definitely something I can get behind.

Except that I didn’t.

Why? Because for all the principle-defending, banner-waving, chant-hollering righteousness on display on the weekend, both sides only made things worse for their causes.

But that doesn’t make sense; how can both sides have lost the same clash? Sure one side losing implies that the other side won? Naturally they’re both claiming it was a victory in order to sway public opinion, but in reality there can only be one winner from something like this, right?

Well that would be right if this was a matter of direct conflict, like a fist fight or a war: two sides clash and the first one to run away, surrender or die, loses. Sure the winner might not be in great shape either, but they still win and come out on top. From this perspective either side of last weekend’s scuffle could technically have won – the Reclaim group managed to get their message out and gain attention, and the Anti-Racism groups managed to outnumber their opponents and therefore ‘prove’ that their cause was righteous – but stick to any one specific idea of ‘victory’ and yes, one side won and the other side lost. As such both sides clearly had good reason to show up on the day since not showing is losing by default.

Take this thinking to the next logical step and it also explains why the protests broke out into (fairly awkward) violence; if a protest can be won or lost, then simply showing up isn’t enough – we have to win as well. And if peaceful protest isn’t doing the job then we have to take things up to the next level, because our cause is too righteous to be allowed to lose! Sure, pushing through police lines and attacking our opponents is dangerous, illegal and might hurt some innocent people, but when the future of your nation’s culture is at stake then surely that’s a worthwhile cost to pay! And if you manage to smack a racist or a hipster in the chops, so much the better.

At this point a slight concussion can only improve things.

So if these protests and counter-protests were indeed a grand clash in ideologies, with the winner of the day demonstrating the superiority of their cause, then why is it that I’m so down on the whole thing? In fact if I hate racism so much then why wasn’t I there, supporting the No Room for Racism groups? You’d think that I’d be right there in the thick of it, doing everything I could to beat down and scare away those bigots and prove to the country and the world that Australia has moved beyond such backwards ideas. What am I, a coward? Surely if I’m not willing to stand and fight for my beliefs then all these words I write are just hollow noise?

It’s a pretty compelling argument, grabbing you by the adrenaline glands and appealing to that secret desire many of us have to go forth and fight the Forces of Evil ™ in glorious and righteous battle. Of course there’s the small problem that the other side feels exactly the same way about us, and the idea of ‘evil’ doesn’t actually make any sense, but these concerns are pretty easy to ignore when the opposition has neo-Nazis in their ranks.

No, the bigger problem with all this is that your little protest is not actually a direct conflict like a war or a fist fight, where one side wins and the other loses. Your little protest is about ideas, not turf or money or reputation or anything material, and the fun thing about ideas is that you need to convince people that aren’t you.

If you have the conviction and the drive to show up to an angry, aggressive protest during your precious free time, stand under a banner yelling fairly embarrassing chants, and even put your physical safety on the line for a cause, then it’s a fair bet that you don’t need convincing of its merits. And if your opponents are willing to do the same thing for a completely conflicting set of beliefs then it’s also a pretty fair bet that you will not be converting them to your way of thinking. Ever. Ever, ever, ever, ever, ever.


So if the purpose of a protest of to promote an idea rather than force it into being physically (since you’re not exactly going to launch a political coup with 150 people on a Saturday), and if your faction is already on board, and the enemy faction is never going to convert, no matter what, then who the hell is this all for? Who is the audience of this little contest you’ve engineered? Who are we trying to convert? The general public of course! The people that didn’t show up to the protest on either side, either because they’re not aware of the conflict, don’t understand the stakes, or are too disengaged to care. These are the people you’re trying to recruit by demonstrating the worthiness of your cause, and by rejecting the ideas of your opponents. And once you recruit enough of the public, then your cause will get stronger and stronger until true change is possible on political levels across the land!

But you know what that public is doing while you’re fighting the good fight to inspire and recruit them? A pack of dickheads jamming up the inner city and making them miss the first 10 minutes of The Lion King, that’s what.


For anyone not involved in the protests already, all they saw was a massive inconvenience blocking several major city roads. And if they actually managed to get close enough to the protest to see any of the banners intended to persuade them to take up a cause, then they would probably have been distracted by all the angry, violent people holding those banner and acting like chimps on amphetamines and surrounded by 400+ very annoyed police spraying capsicum spray. Not, I’m sure you’ll agree, a very persuasive case for them to get involved on either side.

But that’s what the media is for, right? They’ll capture the event in full and show one side beat the other, which will clearly demonstrate to the public that one side is superior, right?

…have you SEEN the media? Like, ever? Yeah they have indeed been all over these protests like flies on compost, but if you think the reporting will in any way flatter either side then you have clearly not been paying attention to how the media does business. Conflict sells, but bad behaviour sells even better. Why analyse the protest for which side has the best case when you can just point out the damage and injuries caused, the number of people arrested, and the utter immaturity of the entire mess? Sure, certain media groups have ideological biases and might give slightly favourable reporting to whichever side they support, but assuming that support isn’t swamped in the general “look at these idiots being idiots” tone, you know who’s going to be swayed by media bias? People who already agree with that bias, that’s who. That’s why they choose that newspaper, TV show or website in the first place.

You did not watch this crap unless you already agree with this crap.

(For international readers, this was the low-rent Australian version of Fox News)

So if the protests on the weekend didn’t convert the protesters, had no chance of converting the opposition, and generally just pissed off, scared or disillusioned the general public, then what was the god damn point of the protests? All either side achieved was to convince people who already agreed with them, and alienate everyone else in the process. One side might have technically won the battle on the day, but both sides lost the war.

This is not to suggest that protesting, or even counter-protesting is completely unjustifiable – protesting is a great way of gaining attention for an issue you consider important, and there are plenty of example of counter-protests that seriously undermined an opposing argument – but if you go into these sort of things with that ‘win or lose’ mentality that not only permits but encourages violence, then you have already lost.

Punching a racist in the face is likely to one of the most satisfying things a lefty like me will ever do. Hell, they might even deserve it, especially if they’re a neo-Nazi. But quite apart from the fact that neo-Nazis tend to be quite good at punching back (not a lot to lose in life when you’ve got a swastika tattooed on your friggin’ face), all you will achieve by using violence to promote your ideals is to drive away anyone isn’t already committed to your cause. And if you’re truly willing to hurt other in order to promote your ideas, then you really have to ask yourself – just how worthy are you of being listened to?

10 thoughts on “The Ethics Of… Punching a Racist in the Face

  1. I can defo see the point you’re making. But the point of counter-protests isn’t always to raise awareness.
    I’m thinking of groups like EDL who come to places where there are high group of Muslim and minority ethnic people. They come to terrorise people in the communities. It’s important that we stand up against them and show them that we will not let them do that.
    The police will do nothing to protect minority groups – they will probably release them without charge after they’ve done the damage. (I have no faith in the police whatsoever).
    The same is the case for the white mans march happening against the Jewish community. It’s going to probably be about 30 men. But we need to show them they can’t get away with it.
    When these fascists turn up, it unities communities. Lefty groups who have political differences, communities who don’t usually go on protests, young ones who are very moved so go to their first protest – it brings them all and I think it’s important that keeps happening.

    • Hi BeingWoke, thanks for the comment. Excellent point, I did sort of glance over the practical use of protests/counter-protests like this and you’re right, they definitely serve an important purpose in that sense. I should have made it clearer that I really do respect the No Room For Racism groups that countered the Reclaim idiots on the weekend – its more the decision by some of them to resort to violence that I’m critical of, since it’s totally self-defeating in a strategic sense (even if it’s hugely satisfying/fulfilling in the moment).

      • Still a very good point however! One of the problems I always run into is that each topic touches on dozens of other ones that also deserve attention, and for every question I answer I open a dozen more. The ethics of protest is definitely a good one, but couldn’t do it justice in one sitting.

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