There are people I know who hold racist and sexist views. I have tried discussing with them, arguing with them, expressing everything from frustration to disgust at their worst extremes, and in the end I sometimes have to walk away from them.
But I go back. I can’t give up. I have to find a way to reach out, to not judge, to feel compassion for whatever deep seated fear or hurt has led them to feel so angry about other people.
When my daughters and I are trying to understand violence in the news, or grappling with what motivates some Neanderthal who has grunted at them in the street, I often say “Try to imagine what it is like to go around with a head that thinks that such behaviour is ok, to be so unhappy and dysfunctional that you project vile nastiness onto the rest of the world and don’t even realise that you are doing it.”
I don’t believe that people are born sexist or racist. They become that way because of the things that happen to them, the ways they see others around them behaving, and, perhaps most importantly, because they are not challenged and held to account for their views early enough while they are still forming.
Holding them to account means making them face up to the consequences of their actions. It means standing up to them face to face or ultimately invoking policy or the law to protect the vulnerable from their poison.
But if we want to prevent them acting the same way again, or being seen as a martyr or role model by others, we have to get close to them. Closer than we would probably like. Giving up on them is giving up on ourselves.
So, would I punch a Nazi? You bet if I saw them threatening someone else. But I might want to buy them a coffee afterwards.