Richard Spencer has become the face of the burgeoning new, “cosmetically-improved” white supremacist movement–otherwise known as the alt-right. A resident of Whitefish, Montana, the UVA and UChicago-educated Spencer “advocates for an Aryan homeland for the supposedly dispossessed white race.” He also “calls for ‘peaceful ethnic cleansing’ to halt the ‘reconstruction’ of European culture,” says the website for The Southern Poverty Law Center.
After the election, Spencer made national headlines when he gave a chilling speech in Washington where he declared America a “white nation,” which only benefits from the contributions of white people. Above see him proclaim, to a hidden camera, ‘Hail Trump, hail our people, hail victory!,” and receive Nazi salutes in return. This week, he made news by celebrating the Trump administration’s de-judification of the Holocaust.
If you’re inclined to give Spencer a punch in the face, then you’re not alone. At recent inauguration festivities, a protester stepped out of a crowd and hit the supremacist squarely on the jaw. The video (top) went viral around the world.
For decades, audiences have laughed watching The Blues Brothers send Skokie Nazis scurrying off a bridge, down into a river below. I suspect there’s something even more satisfying about watching it happen in real life. No one feels sorry for Nazis when they take it on the chin.
And yet, after the visceral reaction subsides, there remains the real question: Is it right, ethically speaking, to punch a Nazi? (Just for the record, Spencer claims he’s not a Nazi.) That question has since been put to various philosophers and ethicists. Their answers we briefly highlight here.
When Quartz posed the question–“So, is it OK to punch a Nazi?–to the Slovenian psychoanalytic philosopher, Slavoj Žižek, he replied:
No! If there is violence needed, I’m more for Gandhian, passive violence.
I once made a statement, maybe you know it, which cost me dearly. I said the problem with Hitler was that he wasn’t violent enough. Then I said, in the same statement, that Gandhi was more violent than Hitler. All Hitler’s violence was reactive violence. He killed millions, but the ultimate goal was basically to keep the system the way it was—German capitalism and so on—while Gandhi really wanted to bring down the British state. But his violence was symbolic: peaceful demonstrations, general strikes and so on.
If a guy talks like that jerk [Richard Spencer], you should just ignore him. If he hits you, turn around. Don’t even acknowledge him as a person. That’s the type of violence I would call for. Not physical violence. Because, you know, people say symbolic violence can be even worse, but don’t underestimate physical violence. Something happens when you move to physical violence. I’m not saying we should greet everyone, embrace them. Be brutal at a different level. When you encounter a guy like the one who was punched, act in such a way that even hitting him, even slapping him is too much of a recognition. You should treat him or her or whoever as a nonperson, literally.
A very small number of people would really think that violence is always wrong. Most think it’s unpleasant, a regrettable last resort. Once you’re agreed on that then you can move on to individual instances. Spencer showed up on the streets at the inauguration and was happily doing a media interview. We want him and his ideas to disappear: Is it by punching? Is it by arguing? Is it by leaving him alone? From the protester’s point of view, he’s thinking ‘what’s going to achieve my goals best?’ A lot more people will have heard of Spencer after this, I suspect. The real question is what his supporters take him to be and what they think he’s advancing.
There may be good utilitarian reasons to exercise restraint. Sometimes non-action can be more effective, practically speaking, than violent action. What if nobody had showed up to see Milo Yiannopoulos speak in Berkeley? Would an empty room have been more effective than a protest that turns violent and gives easy headlines to Breitbart? Perhaps so. (Speaking of Breitbart, see this important article on how you can help break their business model.)
But beyond these utilitarian arguments, there are also more fundamentally moral reasons to reject this violence–reasons that go to the very moral foundations of our political system. That’s essentially how Randy Cohen, the former author of The Ethicist column in The New York Times Magazine, seems to look at it. He told Newsweek:
No, you do not get to punch people even though they’re ideologically despicable. You’re not the first person who’s asked me this! And it’s deeply disheartening, I have to say! I gather the rationale is that because Richard Spencer and his ilk would punch us, if I can use that pronoun, then therefore it’s OK to punch them? But Richard Spencer isn’t our moral teacher. We’re not supposed to imitate Richard Spencer’s behavior. Richard Spencer is despicable! We’re supposed to aspire to the decent values that we were raised on and that make us proud of our country. Martin Luther King and his cohort during the Civil Rights Movement had a profound commitment to nonviolence. They deserve our esteem and reverence! Even when they were being beaten with clubs, they would not physically fight back against those who assailed them. They set such a luminous example for us, that has come to this—that you’re asking if it’s OK to punch people!
Put simply, democracies run on one set of values (civility, tolerance, etc.), and fascist states run on another (violence, appeal to social frustration, etc). And we start to encounter real problems when democracies sacrifice their ideals and start trafficking in the violence that belongs to fascists. This idea gets crystallized by Sheri Berman, a poli sci professor at Columbia, when she writes at Vox:
[F]ascists embraced violence as a means and an end. Fascism was revolutionary: It aimed not to reform but to destroy the modern world — and for this, a constant and probably violent struggle would be necessary. Violence was not merely the method through which revolution would be accomplished; it was valuable in and of itself, providing supporters with powerful ‘bonding’ experiences and ‘cleansing’ the nation of its weaknesses and decadence.
Vox then adds to this thought: If we condemn Nazis for “their use of politically motivated violence and then turn around and punch someone in the face because he’s a Nazi — and bond over it online through memes and jokes — [it] seems hypocritical.” And it damages democracy.
I couldn’t find philosophers and ethicists willing to go on record and say, “It’s OK to punch someone with Nazi views.” (If we missed something, please add a link in the comments section below.) But if you’re looking for some potential arguments, read this piece in The Guardian.
Before signing off, let me answer two questions you might still have:
First, is it ever OK to punch someone with Nazi views? For Randy Cohen, the answer is:
Yes. In self-defense. But it has nothing to do with their Nazi views. You have an ethical right to defend yourself against a physical assault. But you do not have the right to respond to contemptible beliefs with physical violence. You organize politically. You struggle. You resist. You march. You vote. You run for office. We are not thugs and we don’t respond with thuggery!
Second, and perhaps more importantly, is it OK to feel good when you see a Nazi take a punch? To this Cohen says:
Well, yes. Would I advocate this as an action or defend the action? Well, no. There are no thought crimes. If in your heart of hearts you’re enjoying this, well, you do no one any harm. But no, you do not get to go out and respond to contemptible political ideas with physical ideas.
Now, I can get on with my day, not feeling entirely guilty.
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