equality, he spoke the word as if a wedding vow(dylan)

Why We Shouldn’t Treat Supremacists and Fascists as Our Equals

What Equality Really Means (And Why it Matters)

When I was in high school, there was a kid, big enough to be called a giant, named Joe Jasper. The strange thing about Joe was this. Even though he towered over us, even though he could have been the biggest bully of all, he was impossibly fragile. Already broken inside. A kind of fear always flashed in his hooded, downcast eyes, which never met anyone else’s. His dull, almost inaudible monotone seemed to be haunted by a spectre. Today, I’d see that a kid like that was probably being profoundly abused, by a male elder, a father, a priest, maybe even a teacher — but back then, I just saw the strange contradiction of a wounded giant.

Now, this was in America, and American kids are raised from day one to scent weakness, indoctrinated early into the only law operant in America, the rule of the strong over the weak. So they lit upon this strange, haunted giant, like a ravenous pack of wolves. Every day, kids of a certain kind — the jocks, all budding patriarchs, a little preening tribe of testosterone, cologne, muscles and logos — would surround Joe, and scream at him. “Fag!” “Pussy!” “Freak!” “Dumbfuck!” “Loser!” I had only a little understanding then, an unconscious one, that they were doing it because he was their physical ideal — a giant — but didn’t live up to their cultural one, of cruelty, greed, superiority, and dominance. And so he had to be, like all false idols, destroyed. So they tormented him to destruction, day after day.

Now, something in me — skinny, frail, green hair, leather jacket — was enraged by all this. The daily public humiliation — and sometimes beating — that Joe suffered, over and over again. It made me frown, and then go volcanic inside. I’d see him when no one else was looking — a giant curled into a ball, there, under the bleachers, crying. How terrible. How odd. How sad. So I welcomed him into our motley crew of misfits — punks, artists, poets, musicians. Outcasts on an island of the damned. I thought — or maybe I just hoped — being part of a tribe might shield him. And the truth was that the guys picking on him were scared of us. Our spikes and studs and combat boots.

But it created something like an instantaneous civil war instead. There was Joe being picked on again. Now the punks were involved, too. We’d try and pull him out of the clutches of the jocks. Every so often, there’d be an epic brawl, fists flying, shirts tearing, faces bleeding, boots kicking. And the jocks would shot: “Fags!” “Freaks!” “Fucking weirdos!” “We’ll kill you, you fucking pussies!!” We’d laugh, sneer, and give them hell.

I didn’t know it then — but Joe had become something like a fault line, in our little world, cleaving sharply between the fundamental ideas of civilization — equality, freedom, gentleness towards human fragility — and those which most truly define its opposite: patriarchy, supremacy, domination, violence, the power to destroy, not the power to lift up. We were re-enacting an old war. Maybe as old as time itself. Maybe we still are — but I’ll get to that part.

“Break it up!!” We’d be called into the principal’s office. All of us they could find. Sneering punks, scowling jocks, a bewildered Joe. And the teachers would look at us sternly, and say something that dumbfounded me. “You need to respect each other. It’s OK if you don’t like each other. Everyone has a right to their opinions. Just don’t take it out with your fists.”

Something in me would erupt at that point. “Respect each other? It’s OK when they call Joe a fag and a freak? They’re the ones picking on Joe!”, I’d cry. They’d look at me, frowning with a kind of dumb pity, and reply, “Everyone has a right to their opinion. They don’t like Joe. Joe’s different. That’s OK. But you all need to get along.”

“How can we get along with people who want to hurt us?” I’d ask. “That’s your job. You’re equals. With equal rights to your opinions. Figure it out,” they’d reply.

I’d walk out, sneering. Nothing would change. The bullying, the fights, the brawls. It would go on and on. And I’d keep thinking that something was badly wrong with this idea of “equality.” It just didn’t work in practice — it only seemed to protect the strong, and turn them into predators, who preyed on the weak, a little more viciously each day. It had to be a profoundly flawed notion, this version of “equality” — one which had torn our little world apart, two halves which no one could put back together again — but I couldn’t say how yet.

Fast forward a few decades. Here we are, all of us — in my high school. The supremacists and fascists of the world are picking on the Joes. Gays, Jews, immigrants, minorities, refugees, anyone who’s weak in any way. And the liberal response is: “everyone has a right to their opinion! Be civil to them. You must treat them as equals.”

It’s exactly what my teachers said to me all those years ago — and now, as then, it’s as laughably disappointing. It only emboldens the fascists. In just a few short years, using this principle of “equality”, we’ve gone from grievance to predation — kids in camps, while we’re still told to “respect” supremacists as equals.

Only now I understand what went wrong with this idea of equality. How fatally flawed and illogical it is. Let me put it to you like this. Marcuse once said that the one thing we must never tolerate is intolerance. I think there’s another way to see that. When someone asserts supremacy, they’ve in that precise instant given up a claim to equality — and so there’s no need to treat them as equals.

What, then, should we do? Our first obligation isn’t to “treat them with respect” and “hear them out”. That essentially legitimizes and licenses their predation, just as “Fag!” “Weirdo!” and “Freak!” all those years ago legitimized and licensed the jocks making Joe’s every day a living hell. Instead, our first obligation is to shun, ostracize, deny, and reject supremacists, wherever we find them.

If they come to our restaurants, we should jeer them. If they come to our bars, we should mock them. If they come to our theatres, we should expel them. If they want to do business with us, we should refuse them. Any kind of contact whatsoever must be minimized, to the point that supremacists are as small a part of society as is possible. Does that sound harsh to you? Maybe unfair? Does it make perfect sense?

Let’s think about it. When a person or group asserts supremacy, what are they really doing? They are putting themselves above everyone else — inherently, in an iinescapable and irreversible way. I am pure in blood, genetically better — whatever, the message is that I am strong, and my destiny is to prevail over the weak. Now, at that very moment, they themselves have decided to “opt out of”, as we’d say these days, being equals. They cannot be true equals anymore. They do not wish to be treated as such — and therefore they don’t treat anyone else as such, either?

So why would we treat people who don’t treat anyone else as equals…as equals? Do you see how foolish it is? What happens if we do that? Then, as I’ve said, we license and legitimize supremacy. We make it possible for supremacists to mistreat anyone and everyone — just like my foolish teachers’ notion that “Fag!”, “Freak!”, and “Pussy!” versus “Don’t call this poor kid those names” are “opinions” with equal moral weight. They aren’t. That’s exactly how we end up with white supremacists on CNN and in the New York Times, isn’t it — and that licenses and legitimizes them, too, doesn’t it?

One is predation, and one is an expression of equality. If we are to value equality, then we cannot say that supremacy is just another valid opinion, position, or perspective. It is the very absence and negation of equality, and in that way, those who assert it have rejected equality a priori, and therefore, there is no obligation to treat them as equals — but the very opposite. To treat those as equals who have already rejected the idea of equality is to debase and devalue the very idea of equality itself.

This is the war, in many ways, the world is fighting today. Are we equals? Or am I better than you? Me, the American, me the Brit, me the Hungarian, me the Pole. Over the immigrant, the refugee, the unwashed immigrant, the dirty Muslim, the filthy Jew. Make Us Great Again! Better! The best! When worlds fall apart, people revert back to tribal hierarchies. But the problem with tribal hierarchies is that then each tribe must in turn compete for the highest position of all, so that its members are above all the others. That is why the world made no progress at all until the creation of the idea of equality — only war, in an endless cycle, forever, peasants fighting for their kings. Just like scared little boys, fighting each other, in high school hallways.

It’s an old war, isn’t it? It goes on and on. We’ve been fighting it since the beginning of time. Athens and Sparta. Caesar and Brutus. Kings and free men. Free men and unfree women. The slavers and the abolitionists. The Axis and the Allies. And on the wheel turns. It’s as old as time, this great cleavage among human beings. Between those who are for equality, and those who are supremacy.

I won’t say to you that the arc of history bends towards justice. Justice is something we get only if we’re fortunate. Joe taught me that much. But if there is to be something like greater and truer justice in the lives of men and women, then there must first be equality. Equality is dignity, respect, and gentleness for the fragility in every human soul. But it is not equating all that with supremacy, because the supremacist has already ceded any claim to be (treated as) an equal. That’s what I was trying to tell my high school teachers. Equality, therefore is, created only this way: through the obligation to reject supremacy, as much as we can, in whatever ways we can, wherever we find it, in all its forms. Not with violence, unless it is done to us, perhaps — but at least with scorn, refusal, defiance,rebellion, laughter, and grace.

July 2018