When Your Only Tool Is a Hammer…

The devaluation of useful words through overuse

“When your only tool is a hammer, all the world looks like a nail.” – Ancient Proverb

A note from your host: I considered writing this as an open-letter to my fictional  twentysomething nephew. My reasoning was that my intentions might be more apparent if I was expressing these thoughts in a relational context — from an uncle to a beloved nephew. As you’ll see, I decided to keep the form I use for most other posts, since I couldn’t be sure that the open letter wouldn’t cause confusion within my extended family. As I have said before, I am not my own, so I have to consider how what I do here and elsewhere affects others.

We’ve been talking about Identity, Stimulation, and Security — the three emotional and psychological needs that each one of us seeks to fulfill once we’ve seen to our bodily needs. In a recent post, I observed that social activism seems to be a way many young and not-so-young people are seeking to satisfy these needs. The bigger-than-yourself cause, the identity derived from what one is for, as well as what one is against, the meetings, the rallies, the conflict, the drama, and the security of being part of the group — one of the good guys. All these benefits are real. And if one is aimed at a righteous objective, one can accomplish a great deal of good. But I also warned that cults and destructive causes can also provide the same good feelings, but in the service of destructive aims.

Brass Tacks, hammer, nails, tacks

Tools of the trade – Your mileage may vary
(Photo by Krzysztof Puszczyński)

Won’t get fooled again?

These days, we see groups of masked and black-clad anti-fascists, antifa for short, protesting primarily against the Trump administration, though there are various other social critiques and statements on the signs I’ve seen. I take these activists and their intentions seriously, even while I differ with their views and their methods. They have already demonstrated a willingness to suit up and show up, so they deserve credit for believing strongly enough to do something about it.

What is harder to do is to pin down the core message and beliefs of the group. The latter-day antifa have adopted the mid-20th century communists’ name and symbols, so that’s a strong directional clue. I am less certain how many of the participants in various street demonstrations share these tenets with their philosophical ancestors, versus how many enjoy the identity, stimulation, and security they derive from the cause.

It is also disappointing to see their passion boiling over into violence against “fascists” who do not deserve the label, but who simply have a different point of view.

The rationale

As I understand it, antifa teaches that it is moral to use violence, since that violence will create disincentives among those who are on the receiving end to behave fascistically, and will further inhibit any inclination toward “fascism” among those fearful of getting the same treatment. As cartoonist Scott Adams explains (I’m paraphrasing), If you could go back in time and kill Hitler when he was a baby, it would be moral, so of course you’d do it. The problem is that the labels Nazi, Hitler, and fascist have been applied to every presidential candidate the Republican party has nominated since Bob Dole.

You can see the problem, right? These epithets have become cheapened through overuse — so much so that actual fascists are nearly impossible to identify. But more dangerous is the license to commit violence this appears to give to young activists whose identity, stimulation, and security depend on remaining in the in-group. These emotional needs are so strong that, unfortunately, innocent people fall victim to violence.

What is a fascist?

That’s the problem! Ask ten people for a modern example of fascism and you’ll likely get ten answers. This, despite a well-established body of political philosophy that defines fascism and its assumption quite clearly. More than anything, to cry fascist seems to be a lazy way to slander people whom one designates unworthy of debate. And as we’ve established above, if my opponent is not worthy of debate, he isn’t really human. This depersonalization of the other further justifies inflicting harm. Non-persons’ lives, families and communities are valued at zero, so one can attack them and say they have it coming.

What’s the payoff?

My impression is that most antifa footsoldiers aren’t very happy. Their willingness to accept a role as an imperial stormtrooper in the service to a totalitarian ideology that subsumes their identity, suggests that they are seeking an escape. Whether from boredom, envy, or a sense of powerlessness, I can’t say. I recognize however, that this is a mark of spiritually hungry people looking for what John Eldredge expresses as the needs of our hearts — beauty, adventure, and intimacy.

This seems to be a misplaced attempt to obtain the excitement and the satisfaction of genuine adventure, set in the context of a great struggle. Cosplay and live-action role playing satisfy some of the same longings, minus the lethal potential.  Violent protesting goes far beyond dressing as a hero at Comic Con, or mock duelling at the Renaissance Festival — but it’s easy to see where the desire comes from, and the progression to direct action.

But referring again to the plumbline, is today’s antifascism truly a noble and transcendent cause?  For the reasons I’ve given above, I understand its appeal, but I say it is neither worthy nor noble.

A still more excellent way

Follow Jesus.

He’s the only religious figure who taught his disciples to love their enemies and pray for their persecutors. While I recognize that there is a gap between what Jesus instructs and what His followers (including your host) actually do, we have seen Christ followers unfairly maligned as Christo-fascists — assigning a totalitarian motive to followers of the king whose kingdom was — and is — not of this world. That’s truly revolutionary,

Love — you keep using that word…

C.S. Lewis distinguished love from sentimentality. Love can be fierce and hard-edged, but it always seeks the good of the beloved. Consider parents who discipline their little boy for running into the street. Sentimentality suggests the parents shouldn’t hurt the child’s feelings by scolding him, but the failure to convey to him the wrong he’s done isn’t loving. If the child doesn’t learn not to run into the street, he will likely be injured or killed by a car.

In the same way, we have an obligation to speak the truth in love to those with whom we disagree. We should seek to avoid violent confrontations while asserting what is true. After all, if we believe God will repay evil, we can afford to take the long view. You do have the right to defend yourself and others, however, so for Heaven’s sake be wise.

So how about you? Are you feeling the urge to do something? How can you channel that into something life-giving? Add your comments below.

Coming soon – Why the next six years could get sporty

Please note: I reserve the right to delete comments that are offensive or off-topic. Bring your best manners, please.

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5 thoughts on “When Your Only Tool Is a Hammer…

  1. Great post. I can see God identity, security and stimulation drive us to do what we do-for good or evil. I thought of nazis. It’s always hard to imagine how they went along with Hitler. But he provided them identity, stimulation, and security. Fear and unbelief will lead souls to latch on to any seemingly firm foundation.

    May the mission and values of Jesus Christ, the humble and all-powerful King, be our firm foundation.

    • Thanks for your comment, Gentry. The example of Nazi Germany shows the perils of seeking Identity, Stimulation, and Security in anything other than Christ. I think of Proverbs 27:7 — “One who is full loathes honey, but to one who is hungry everything bitter is sweet.” I don’t fault starving people for trying to satisfy their hunger, AND I am thankful for men like you who tell them where they can find real nourishment for their souls.