How the Red Guards Destroyed my Family
The Politics of Punishment has decimated movements. Here’s how we can save ours.
by Wayne Hsiung
The internet has always been a ruthless place. But recent episodes of cyberbullying (in some cases driving people to suicide) have left me pondering: Does history always repeat itself?
Over 65 years ago, my grandfather, then a young soldier in the Kuomintang Army of China, fled his home in a desperate attempt to escape civil war. He jumped with his wife and family onto a floppy boat, with whatever possessions they could scrounge together, and made the 100 mile voyage, over treacherous waters, to a rocky island that would become their new home.
They were the lucky ones. Because, in the decades that ensued, the family members who were left behind endured what was perhaps the most shameful episode of Leftist persecution in the history of humankind: the Cultural Revolution. So-called Red Guards, young workers who were the designated foot soldiers of the revolution, used public shaming and rumor-mongering as weapons of personal destruction. The slightest hint of disloyalty to "the cause" -- speaking the wrong words, believing the wrong truth, or even having the wrong set of friends -- would lead to ridicule, abuse, or even exile to concentration camps.
Some Red Guards used this opportunity to repay past personal grievances. They would whisper false accusatory words about former lovers, co-workers, or even family members. Other Red Guards held good intentions but simply lost sight of justice in the pursuit of retribution.
But anyone who did not go along with the Red Guards was fair game for attack. Bystanders were cajoled, pressured, or terrorized into going along because they, too, were afraid to be the next ones in the Red Guards’ gaze. The result was not only mass violence on a scale never before seen in Chinese history (at the cost of millions of lives), but the self-destruction of a revolutionary movement. "Power to the people" transformed into "power against the people." Dictatorship is the tragic legacy of China to this day.
This episode has now been analyzed by countless scholars and activists. And what they have found is that the Cultural Revolution follows a pattern that we see throughout history. Movements that start with good intentions -- challenging systemic inequality, ending tyrannical regimes, or expanding the political franchise -- often devolve from the politics of justice into a Politics of Punishment. Disempowered classes who suddenly receive power become drunk on it, wielding it violently with no regard for the real human cost of power misused.
In a Politics of Punishment, people who individually have better judgment -- skeptical, thoughtful, compassionate -- are shockingly quick to suspend their judgment to follow the group. Evidence, reason, and due process suddenly don't matter at all. After all, the alleged crimes, even if vague and unintentional, are so evil that one cannot tolerate such safeguards. The wrongdoers simply must be punished. The perceived authorities (based on identity rather than demonstrated judgment) must be obeyed. And there is no other truth that may see the light of day.
Stanley Milgram showed why this happens in one of the most astounding, and terrifying, experiments in the history of psychology. The experiment was simple: college students were asked by an authority figure to punish someone in the next room with an electric shock for giving the “wrong answers” to a question. (The recipient of punishment, unbeknownst to the students, was an actor who was not actually being shocked.) Escalating voltage levels would be deployed for each mistake to the point that shrieks of pain could be heard in the other room. “They simply must be punished,” the experimenter would say. "It is the only way they will learn." Eventually the shrieks would go dead, as the test subject apparently went unconscious from hundreds of volts of electricity pulsing through their body.
Though students predicted that only 1% of them could be complicit in this sort of horrifying abuse, a shocking 65% shocked their subjects all the way to the end. That 64% gap in punishment – between righteous appearances and complicit reality -- is where a Politics of Punishment makes way.
And that same gap is exactly what allowed the Red Guards to thrive. Their position as Red Guards gave them unimpeachable authority to punish offenses to the revolution. Anyone who refused to join them in punishing the wrongdoers, in turn, was also guilty of a mortal crime. But since the Red Guards often took contradictory positions – and had grudges to repay one another -- the result was a circular firing squad that left the entire nation broken.
The episode, however, is not a historical anomaly. The same dynamics are at play in movements today. Consider one organizer’s account of the fall of Occupy Wall Street:
[P]eople demonstrate how radical they are by destroying one another. It felt like walking into a high school locker room. In this universe, we insist on perfect politics and perfect language, to the exclusion of experimentation, learning, or constructive critique. No one is ever good enough for us. We tear down rather than teach each other, and pick apart instead of building on top of what we have.
And the vast majority of people — those great many on whom this system relies and the very same ones we will need to organize to make it come to a screeching halt — grow tired. So they go home. And we lose.
The failed Politics of Punishment have afflicted every major social movement in history. The anti-war movement, LGBTQ rights, the Civil Rights Movement, Women's Suffrage... all have been pushed to the brink by a Politics of Punishment gone astray, as activists deployed their righteous anger against former allies. (In contrast, in over 15 years of study, I have not come across a single example of a movement that stumbled because movement adherents suffered from “too much reconciliation or compassion” in resolving internal conflict. The score against a Politics of Punishment, in short, is roughly 100% to zero.) In a Politics of Punishment, there is no call for compassion or reconciliation or compromise. Instead, the language of victimization is transformed into a tool to victimize others. Compassion for adversaries is a weakness, a moral failing, even a crime. And, ironically, it is the most marginalized within a movement – those who have the least education, or speak a different language, or who are simply unpopular – who suffer the most from these fits of identity politics, hatred, and violence.
I know this because it is my family’s experience. Nearly 50 years after my grandfather fled the only home he knew, he returned to China to find his family decimated. Because my grandfather was a young soldier in the losing army, his family was among the first to be targeted by the Red Guards. His younger brother, like so many others who were young or infirm, did not have the ability to flee. So he was left behind. And while my grandfather rose through poverty to become a general in the Taiwanese army, his younger brother lived his entire life in suspicion, denied even the most basic human rights, such as the right to learn, to move, or to pray. Indeed, he was lucky to have even survived.
When my grandfather and his brother were finally reunited, my grandfather (a hard man who had never shown me any weakness) broke down openly in tears, burdened by a half-century of guilt.
The story is now a part of my family’s – my people’s – lore. And there are three lessons we can learn from it to this day.
First, if you find yourself following a group into a Politics of Punishment, step back. The markers are clear. Vague and unspecific accusations, often from a figure of unquestioned authority. Immediate and public condemnation of any dissent. (Look for emotionally charged personal attacks like “disgusting,” “horrifying,” or “appalling” which shame anyone who dares to ask a question or disagree.) Demands for “heads to roll” or other punishment. When you find yourself in such a situation, no matter how righteous you believe the cause to be, step back and ask for a moment, “What exactly did the bad people do?” and “Who, exactly, does the punishment protect?” and most importantly “Who am I hurting if I join?”
Second, after rejecting a Politics of Punishment, find resolution – and personal strength – in compassion and nonviolence. The most tragic aspect of the Cultural Revolution is that the Red Guards, in many ways, had it right. The rigid pre-revolutionary class system of China oppressed those at the bottom. But the Red Guards – and in particular the leaders of the movement such as Mao Zedong – attempted (in Audre Lorde’s immortal words) to use the master’s tools to dismantle the master’s house. They were animated by power, hate and animosity rather than compassion, love and liberation. The result is that they replicated the systems of abuse that they hoped to demolish, and lost their ability to appeal to the masses in the process. They wasted China’s revolutionary moment in an uncontrolled fit of punishment.
What should they have done instead? One hundred years of scholarship (including groundbreaking figures such as Prof. Erica Chenoweth) and experience (from Gandhi to Martin Luther King) show us the transformative power of nonviolence – “confront the system, love the individual.” Successful movements must make this principle a part of their heart, their foundation, their DNA. That starts with each of us individually. Resolve your conflicts, and find strength, not in punishment but nonviolence.
Third, we have to collectively fight to overcome the Politics of Punishment, and replace it with a Politics of Liberation. When we recognize that the Politics of Punishment is the norm (rather than the exception), we can properly see the challenge before us – replacing recrimination with restoration. But, as scholars after Milgram have found, this can only happen if we come together actively and strongly for nonviolence.
My grandfather was just one man. He lacked the power to fight an entire nation of Red Guards. He lacked the training and discipline to forgive his enemies and stop the cycles of violence. (To his last day, he hated Communists.) He lacked the ability to even save his little brother from a life of pain.
But a movement can achieve what one man cannot. So if you see someone standing for nonviolence, don’t let them stand alone. Remember, that a Politics of Punishment must be actively challenged, not ignored; that nonviolence is a lifelong practice -- like a martial art -- that takes continued development and discipline; and that a Politics of Liberation can be born only when the people undertake that practice together.
At DxE, we steadfastly meet the Politics of Punishment with nonviolence. Indeed, it is written into our DNA. We do this not only because it's the right thing to do but because it's the only thing to do. And we're asking you to join us.
Step back from the cruelty of the internet. Find personal strength and resolution in compassion. And take a stand, collectively, for nonviolence. Because, with nonviolence, we will change the world.