Leading Consciously logo

The Alt-right expands; progressives debate – Punch a Nazi or coalition build? (#112)

author's headshotauthor's headshotauthor's headshot
Jean Latting
November 10, 2023
apple podcast logotunein podcast logospotify logoamazon podcast logogoogle podcast logo
Subscribe to
spotify logoapple podcast logotunein podcast logogoogle podcast logoamazon podcast logo

Journalist Talia Lavin began a social experiment aimed at understanding and exposing the White nationalist movement.

Debating about violence against Nazis

Over the last few years, I have been in debates about how progressives should deal with the accelerated growth of alt-right radicals, White supremacists, and similar groups who seek a return to what they regard as the “glory days”: where White people ruled and people of color knew their place. The broad question is whether progressives can and should seek to deradicalize alt-right supremacists or – at the opposite extreme – to condone violence against them.

Some progressives declare the potential benefits make deradicalization worth the effort. Others argue the alt-right supremacists deserve our wrath, not our kindness. After an event in which an alt-right speaker was literally punched in the face, the meme “punch a Nazi” sprang up, succinctly capturing the views of those who support retaliatory violence against them.1

Recently, I listened to a podcast that vividly illustrates the two points of view. The podcast made it clear that we as progressives have internal work to do if we want to consolidate our forces to counter the hate.

The podcast, Bad Faith, was hosted by Briahna Joy Gray, a lawyer and political commentator who served as the National Press Secretary for Senator Bernie Sanders’s 2020 campaign. Her podcast addresses the subjects of racism and fascism and how to counteract them.

In this episode,2 Gray’s guest is Talia Lavin, a militant activist and American journalist who was raised as an Orthodox Jew. She wrote the book Culture Warlords: My Journey into the Dark Web of White Supremacy, a harrowing look into the underworld of American fascism. She reports on assuming the persona of a fictional blonde, blue-eyed White woman to dive deep into the underworld of dating, conspiracies, and violence practiced by supremacists, sometimes at risk to her life. Alarmingly, many of the adherents are current members of the military and police forces.

Lavin’s website summarizes some of the lessons of her book. She believes there is no meeting ground for people whose sole aim is destruction. “To make peace with White supremacy, to give it room, to tender its mercy, is to assert that protecting Black and Brown and Muslim and gay and trans and Jewish people from violence isn’t all that important or necessary.” She was changed by her immersion in hate and began to see herself through the eyes of the supremacists. By her own admission, she became a very angry woman, with no patience for coalition builders and “kumbaya” practitioners.

Gray, on the other hand, advocates for coalition building and a foundation of common ground. Her approach is more pragmatic. Because of her political campaign background, she is focused on what might actually work to change the political and cultural climate.

Let’s read an excerpt of the dialogue before explicating more about the differences in these perspectives:

Gray and Lavin: The Dialogue

Gray asks Lavin,

The way to get out of this mess, and the way to resolve the… rise of right-wing extremism, is going to require a… broader deprogramming that accesses the core of what's driving people into these communities at higher and higher rates. And it's not necessarily going to be about saying you're racist and you're bad even if that's 100% true. But it's going to be about figuring out what compels an individual to find more solace in White supremacy than another kind of community. Do you ever feel like there is a tension between the need to coalition build and a perception of a certain segment of society that is kind of untouchable?

Lavin [1:22]

I don't feel that tension. I understand that other people do. I’m in the punch a Nazi school of applied mechanics. I have no sympathy for these people, and it's not just as a personal peeve. Because people talk about deprogramming, deradicalization. Every time I give a book talk, four or five of the questions are about can't we just kumbaya? Do you deradicalize them? You have no idea what goes into deradicalization? Deradicalization is this magical term that people use constantly. It’s a years-long process that requires people to be mentally ready to leave.

… So I think if you're willing to engage in a years-long emotional connection of extraordinary strength – to the point where I've heard of people marrying their de-radicalizers or spending years having dinner with their de-radicalizers – only to eventually maybe arrive at a sort of tenuous former status…. If you're prepared to do that, fine; that's not scalable. Scalable is saying these sentiments are unacceptable, you cannot show up in my town, you cannot show up in my university.

If I sound angry it's because I’m an angry person I’m also quitting smoking and also f*** a nazi, like f** them, I don't care about them, I don't care about their lives, I want them to die. I have no patience, and the more we socially marginalize these views, the more we make them unacceptable, the fewer people will join. If you get them their jobs lost for holding these views publicly, for saying that they want to burn Jews and kill n-words – you make it socially absolutely poison to do these things.

Gray [4:22]

Is there evidence of that, Talia?

What strikes me is that it seems like there has been a radicalization approach that has been taking years. …You know other radicalizers are happy to take years and pursue this project and that they have been able to scale it at a significant degree in some ways. We've talked about the Powell memo … by soon-to-be Supreme Court Justice Lewis Powell where he set out an agenda for the conservative party in the 1970s and said look, we're losing the cultural wars, this is how we fix it. It was 30 years before Fox News, a right-wing news organization, manifested – and we're just now seeing the apotheosis of their efforts to take the Supreme Court and all of this stuff. There is a way that the long game, while frustrating and not as instantly gratifying, is very effective.

On the other hand, I’m concerned about what it means to say something like we don’t let them into our towns, we don't let them into our universities. Just on a logistical level I don't know what that even begins to look like.

Lavin [5:52]

You're completely entitled to your skepticism. I mean I don't know what else to tell you. … I have no interest in building a coalition with these people. …

Listen, I don't know the things that I'm going to be able to say to convince you. I think if you want to hold hands with a Nazi and kiss them gently on the cheeks that’s fine. I just don’t think that’s gonna work out well for you.

Gray [7:25]

Do you think that’s what I’m arguing for is that I, Briahna Joy Gray, who's sitting before you as a Black woman, wants to hold hands with Nazis and kiss them on the cheeks?

I'm not trying to debate you at all here, I'm just trying to explore what I think are some tensions that I too am wrestling with, and I would hope that since we're both members of these groups that certainly see no benefit in appeasing Nazis that we can have a conversation that doesn’t presume that where we’re coming from is because of some natural sympathy with these groups as opposed to genuinely trying to strategize about how to fix this problem that we very much agree on, which is that America is being increasingly radicalized.

Lavin [8:40]

I feel like I have stated my position repeatedly and then I don't quite know how to react, other than like to respond like no, I really believe what I believe….

I believe that we should have Medicare for all, that we should have social safety net policies, that we shouldn't leave people to be deprived alone to feel these senses of loss. And you know the elements of vulnerability to radicalization or very common human emotions is feeling lost, is feeling lonely, is feeling purposeless. And you know everything we can do to mitigate those feelings in such large masses of the population, that's great.

I think there are many constructive things you can do to fight Nazism that don't involve brass knuckling up and just flattening the nose of a Proud Boy. But I think you have to be willing to brass knuckle up and flatten the nose of a Proud Boy too. There is no space for coalitional politics with these people to my mind.


I was captivated by the dialogue and found it striking because it illustrated two lenses through which social justice topics can be understood: (1) rational vs. radical progressivism and (2) moral inclusion vs. exclusion.

The first lens: Rational vs. radical progressivism

Their dialogue illustrates the difference between what Nate Silver of fivethirtyeight.com classifies as rational vs. radical progressives.3 This age-old debate is between those who seek nonviolent and coalition-based approaches to social justice and those who accept conflict, even violent conflict, as inherent to achieving social justice.

Nate Silver4 compared the two approaches in this table:

Rational Progressivism

Radical Progressivism



Outcome oriented

Process oriented

Politics as battle of ideas

Politics as battle of will



Prone to elitism

Prone to demagoguery









Source: Abbreviated from FiveThirtyEight

Those of you who know history will recognize that the current debate contains echoes from past similarly polarized debates. Booker T Washington and W.E.B. Du Bois famously clashed at the turn of the 19th century over how best to promote advancement of the newly freed slaves.5 Washington advocated accepting discrimination and second-class citizenship while focusing on elevating themselves through hard work and self-determined prosperity. Du Bois advocated for political action, civil rights, and agitation.

Martin Luther King Jr

Fast forward a few decades to the 1960s when the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. led the civil rights movement with an emphasis on nonviolence and appealing to the moral conscience of the nation. A few years after the movement began, Malcolm X ascended, declaring violence was the logical response to violence. In his words, “We are nonviolent with people who are nonviolent with us” and “if someone puts his hand on you, send him to the cemetery.”

Now, as then, rational progressives such as Briahna Gray are looking for feasible strategies that can work, while radical progressives such as Talia Lavin are impatient with any hint of incrementalism, reform, and acceptance of injustice. For Lavin, violence (“punch a Nazi”) is acceptable as a logical response to violence against oneself and because it might bring more immediate results.

Which side do I agree with most? I truly vacillate depending on the issue. But I do draw the line when it comes to the second lens.

The second lens: Moral inclusion vs moral exclusion

The concept of moral exclusion explains how members of one social group willingly tolerate cruelty, torture, and inhumane treatment against another group of people. Why were slavery and Jim Crow deemed acceptable by people of European descent? Why did the Holocaust and Native American genocide happen? Why did ostensibly good people allow bad things to happen to people who differed from themselves?

According to justice researcher Susan Opotow, it happened because the more powerful group placed the less powerful group outside of their scope of justice. They literally did not view “the other” as worthy of the same justice considerations as members of their own group. This is called moral exclusion: excluding “the other” from the same moral considerations of fairness applied to one’s own group members. In this way, exploitation, deprivation, and worse can be witnessed or practiced without any moral compunction.

It's easy to see what is “wrong” about moral exclusion when we think of it as something perpetuated by the powerful upon the less powerful.

But how should we think about it when it is the less powerful who are morally excluding the powerful because the injustice visited upon the former becomes intolerable? Malcolm X said we are nonviolent with people who are nonviolent with us. In the movie Django Unchained, audiences cheered when the character played by Jamie Foxx coldly murders the White slaveowners. In recent times, when the alt-right speaker was punched in the face – spawning the “punch-a-Nazi” memes – Tauriq Moosa wrote in the Guardian, “It could be said that seeing a prominent representative of racist views being punched brings catharsis in a world that appears to be slouching toward Nazism.”6

Back to the podcast: Lavin has placed Nazi sympathizers outside of her scope of social justice. She refers to them as “these people” who were no longer entitled to respect – or possibly even life – as human beings. In contrast, while Gray views the actions of the Nazi sympathizers as reprehensible, she still morally includes them as human beings within her scope of justice and wonders whether coalitions with them are possible.

When is it self-defense and when oppressing the oppressor?

This leads to us to consider distinctions between violence motivated by self-defense and violence motivated by hate or negative stereotyping.7 One of my favorite old-time movies is “Friendly Persuasion,” which depicts a profound internal conflict of conscience. Gary Cooper plays Jess Birdwell, a Quaker living in Pennsylvania during the Civil War. Birdwell and the other Quaker leaders in his community hold a staunch pacifist stance against violence and refuse to fight against Confederate soldiers.

As the Confederate soldiers move closer to their town, his son and other young men run off to fight with the Union soldiers. Not until the Confederates were over the next hill and in a position to take his land and violate his wife and daughter did Birdwell and his fellow Quakers join the Union forces. He sobbed as he pulled the first trigger, killing an invading Confederate soldier. Sitting safely in front of my television screen, I sobbed with him as he did what had to be done.

Back to the Gray-Lavin podcast: Lavin has placed Nazi sympathizers outside of her scope of justice. She has morally excluded them from any claim for justice treatment, and instead, declared they should be punched out: “I think you have to be willing to brass knuckle up and flatten the nose of a Proud Boy too.” Her stereotype of what it means to be Proud Boy who would willingly oppress her allows her to justify reciprocating violent treatment back at them.

Is this stance unreasonable? When is strong antipathy justified if it leads to actual violence? How do we distinguish between violence stemming from self-defense and violence motivated by hatred of a stereotyped enemy? When do the oppressed become the oppressors8 rather than defenders of liberty?

These questions also illustrate the difference between a short-term view and a long game. To write her book, Lavin had to endure day after day, week after week, month after month of expressions of hate directed toward her Jewish community and other vulnerable populations. (Later in the interview, she explains she protected herself with a false identity.)

Black woman holding sign protesting for freedom

I too have endured hatred, and like Lavin, I too have stood firmly on the side of the radical progressives, advocating for freedom and justice now and by any means necessary. (A call-and-response chant during the civil rights movement was: “What do we want? Freedom! When do we want it? Now!”) Hate from random individuals throughout my life and career has been a consistent theme. I’m not counting unintended microaggressions in saying this. I’m talking about blatant spit-in-your-face hatred and disrespect.

Choosing the long game – how can progressives work together?

Somewhat reluctantly, I admit that the long game view places me in the camp of the rational progressives, advocating for nonviolent coalition-building while morally including even those who hate me and mine.

Why reluctantly? There are no easy answers and anyone who identifies as a progressive must decide where they fit on the continuum between rationalism and radicalism.

I freely acknowledge, however, that while I am a firm supporter of coalition-building and nonviolence, I don’t adhere to it at all costs. I would have joined Josh Birdwell in defending his family and home. I would “punch a Nazi” – or worse – when I’m clear that this is the most viable recourse to violent oppression. There has to be a clear existential threat.

What I don’t support personally – and this is tricky to explain – is retaliatory violence for its own sake. I wouldn’t simply punch-a-Nazi because I’m angry or under the assumption I’m doing good, when in fact, it’s a symbolic gesture and I’m only giving them cause to retaliate. As I have explained, I play the long game.9

Yet, because I believe in coalition-building, I am worried less at this point about how to build coalitions with the Proud Boys, for example, than I am with how to build coalitions with the Talia Lavins of the world. How might I explain to someone who has endured the hate that she endured that I’m not about futile appeasement? How do we bring our different progressive viewpoints together so we aren’t done in by divide-and-conquer tactics? How might we form alliances to create a world that works for everyone?

There are no easy answers. I welcome your thoughts.

Questions to ask yourself

  1. Where are you on the progressivism spectrum? Is this based on fear or belief?
  2. How do you place your views in the context of slavery? The Holocaust? African genocides?

Conscious Change skills
covered in this post

  • Bridge differences
    • Address underlying systemic biases
    • Check for stereotyping tendencies, unconscious bias, and blind spots in your behavior, especially as a dominant group member
    • Call others in rather than calling them out
  • Initiate change
    • Learn from resistance
    • Emphasize changing systems, not just individuals
    • Set direction, not fixed outcomes
    • Cultivate radical patience through the time lag of change
    • Acknowledge small wins

#PunchANazi   #ExclusionVsInclusion   #Fascism   #CoalitionBuilding   @BadFaith   @TaliaLavin   @BriahnaJoyGray

Coming July 9th!  Available for preorder:
Bookshop.org logo
porchlight logo
amazon logo
barnes and noble logo

Leading Consciously

We are a leadership development firm that helps people and organizations create resilient, sustainable, multicultural, and inclusive settings. The ability to lead consciously can help you gain true awareness and earn the respect and trust of others.  

It’s the assumptions we have about people’s lives that are the biggest obstacles to growth, awareness, and success. We help you understand how those assumptions are preventing you from becoming the best you can be as an organization, an inclusive leader, and a person.

Let’s start a conversation. Email us at jeanLC@leadingconsciously.com

1 Moosa, T. (2017). "The 'punch a Nazi' meme: What are the ethics of punching Nazis?" The Guardian. Retrieved 3/1/2023.

2 BAD FAITH: Punching Nazis vs. Deradicalization with Talia Lavin

3 Silver, N. (2009, 2/15/2009). "The Two Progressivisms." Politics Retrieved 2-25-2023.

4 Silver, N. (2009, 2/15/2009). "The Two Progressivisms." Politics Retrieved 2-25-2023.

5 Frontline (1998). "The debate between W.E.B. Du Bois and Booker T. Washington." Frontline Retrieved 2/26/2023.

6 Moosa, T. (2017). "The 'punch a Nazi' meme: What are the ethics of punching Nazis?" The Guardian. Retrieved 3/1/2023.

7 Hadarics, M. & Kende, A. (2019). Negative stereotypes as motivated justifications for moral exclusion, The Journal of Social Psychology, 159:3, 257-269.

8 Latting, J. (2021). How to go high when you really want to go low.

9 Latting, J. (2021). How to bridge the divide with the 47%. Why now?