Philosophers (Including Slavoj Žižek) and Ethicists Answer the Question: Is It OK to Punch Nazis?

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.

Tom Stern, a philosophy lecturer at University College London, took a somewhat similar stance, urging restraint and a refusal to give recognition. He told SBTV:

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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  • kzen says:

    Would have been far more effective, legal, and hilarious had said “protester” stood there with a sign saying “why are you interviewing this idiot?” or some such.

    Back in my day it was said, and believed, that the way to counter speech you didn’t agree with was to speak out against it.

    Now it seems in certain quarters that they believe the way to counter speech you don’t agree with is to pound the speakers supporters faces.

  • Jerr says:

    Waiting and hoping for the iron fist of reaction to take direct action against the snowflakes and anarchists.

  • DB says:

    This article only presents arguments that end up in the same conclusion. Tauriq Moosa, for example, has some interesting thoughts that should also be taken into consideration: https://www.theguardian.com/science/brain-flapping/2017/jan/31/the-punch-a-nazi-meme-what-are-the-ethics-of-punching-nazis

    • Dan Colman says:

      DB,

      I did already mention/link to that article. I didn’t dwell on it, however, because he comes around to conclude, “Maybe we shouldn’t punch Nazis, but we should certainly be working to create societies where their views never gain a foothold.”

      In other words, he gives possible reasons to punch Nazis, but ultimately steps away from them in the end. But it’s a good article overall.

      Thanks,
      Dan

  • Bill W. says:

    When you do so, you lose the moral high-ground. You BECOME them. Love your neighbor as yourself, and turn-the-other-cheek as Christ commanded us. Non-violent resistance works.

  • Seriously Mike says:

    I have to be the devil’s advocate here.
    Is it okay to punch a nazi? The question is, what kind of a nazi. A mindless, indoctrinated thug? It’s okay if it makes you feel better, but it doesn’t change a thing in the long run. Hell, the propaganda gets a martyr this way. But an ideologue, a leader, any kind of Nazi top brass? You don’t punch those guys. You make them disappear. Physically. As quickly and efficiently as possible. Then, you go on and take control of the confused mob suddenly left without a leader. Bribe them, deprogram them, find their vices and weaknesses and exploit them. And, first and most importantly, do not make the noble yet completely mistaken assumption they can think for themselves. If they could, they wouldn’t join the nazis!

  • Brad Bell says:

    While in principle one should never punch a nazi, once they assume control of the country, it’s a different story. Like the question of whether black people can be racist, a lot rides on who has power. If you come across a nazi speechifying in the 1980s, it is probably wrong to punch him. If it is 2017 and he is one of the top nazis in gov, and it’s at an anti-nazi protest, it’s probably good if someone punches him – but not everyone at once.

    We should have tolerance for everyone except those who are intolerant to others and have the power to back up the intolerance – with a Muslim ban for example. We honour all with freedom of speech except those who would deny others speech – and have the power and authority to silence them.

    Once nazis start rounding up immigrants, disabled, natives, leftists, free-choice feminists, jews, muslims, gays, lesbians and brown people of every shade, it may be too late to resist. But keep in mind, even if you face a bullet in the head, we each get some choice, most of the time, about how we die. Under such circumstances punching a nazi is probably one of the most heroic actions you can take. Better than just standing there waiting to passively fall into the pit as a bullet slices through your brain.

    It should be as dangerous being a nazi as it is to be any of their victims.

    Having said that, I think protests and protesters should be largely non-violent when standing against government authority like the police – even fascist police. I do believe it is a more successful strategy. Self defence is not really an option when facing the police. People just have to take the armed violence. Document the broken bones and bullet holes. But when facing nazi gangs on the street, demonstrators might want the fighters among them to fight back and protect the group. But beware if you end up killing somebody – like the British cops killed Ian Tomlinson – all is lost.

  • Michael Powe says:

    Everyone should go read Orwell’s essay on Gandhi. Orwell dealt with real totalitarian and fascist regimes firsthand. While planting one on the snout in an offhand manner is egregious, it’s the summit of Mt Folly to imagine that “taking the moral high ground” is an effective response to violent revolution. They WANT you to do that, because you’re handing them the rope and climbing up on the chair.

    Gandhi succeeded because his fundamental values were shared by the regime he fought. The modern totalitarian will just roll out the 50-cals and mow down a few thousand. Problem solved, you’re dead.

    People like Spencer must, MUST believe that we will punch back. Discussion like this is telling him the opposite.

  • Anar says:

    Is it okay to punch all the Leftwing journalists who give Specer a platform?

  • Roy Niles says:

    If you punch me, or my wife, or my children, I will punch you back. Further, If I’m aware that you are about to punch me, or those that I have an obligation to protect, I will punch you first.
    We live in a world where cooperation and competition have made a set of rules where those involved can work together. Punching those who have trusted you to cooperate is against the rules. Punching them back is a not. Punching them first as a preventive measure follows an even better rule,

  • Danny says:

    It is definitely a sign of our declining country when liberals do not live up to their principles. There is much intolerance and close-mindedness when someone disagrees with their accepted tenets.

    Since the election, there has been anger which quickly gave way to rage. Liberals verbally assaulted family and friends who did not vote for Hillary. During the violence in Washington six policemen were injured. This violence was condoned online comparing the violence to the Boston Tea Party saying that violence is part of our history. There was another instance of violence at Berkeley. A woman in social media said that Trump should be assassinated. Another woman said the army should overthrow Trump. This is all sad and shameful.

    Even if there are people reading here who condone the violence including punching Spencer, consider this point. During the 30s communists battled Nazis in Germany. If violence by liberals continues to continue, the authorities will stop them, and who would complain?

    You know, it is pretty bad, when the alt-right are behaving better than liberals. They look like gentlemen. Liberals are acting like bullies. This is not a good perception for ordinary people to see.

  • Tommy says:

    Punching Nazis is self-defense. If Nazis are enabled to organize in our communities with impunity (i.e. without fear of potentially violent reactions) then they can build the power they need to start murder and ethnic cleansing. At the risk of sounding redundant, this has happened before. (Godwin’s Law cannot really be invoked here, because the conversation was already about Nazis…) Making Nazis afraid to organize IS self-defense. The briefly-mentioned case of Milo is a case-in-point. Had violent protests not stopped him Milo had been planning to publicly name illegal immigrants (which he has done before). Stopping him WAS self-defense against far-right violence.

  • Carla Hughes says:

    I would add Karl Popper’s thoughts on the paradox of tolerance found in The Open Society and Its Enemies.

  • Randy says:

    It’s worth noting that the man just denied being a Nazi, and was talking about a cartoon frog, before being punched.

    If you’re going to punch a Nazi, punch a real Nazi, and show your face if you feel it’s genuinely OK to do.

  • Rook says:

    Casteist and racist gandhi coming out of a degraded society had nothing to do with non violence. It’s a myth weaved by effete Indian elite to gain credibility

  • kzen says:

    To wit…

    Google defines fascism as, “an authoritarian and nationalistic right-wing system of government and social organization.” (emphasis added)

    The secondary definition is, “(in general use) extreme right-wing, authoritarian, or intolerant views or practice.”

    For decades the following definition was used:

    Merriam-Webster defines the word “fascism” as “a political philosophy, movement, or regime (as that of the Fascisti) that exalts nation and often race above the individual and that stands for a centralized autocratic government headed by a dictatorial leader, severe economic and social regimentation, and forcible suppression of opposition.” The secondary definition is “a tendency toward or actual exercise of strong autocratic or dictatorial control.”

    … as such, I’ll take with a grain of salt when people say it’s OK to punch a Nazi, when they genuinely don’t have a clue what is being talked about.

    So far, in the past few years, the only people using force to suppress opposition has been the leftists.

  • kzen says:

    Well, so far, there is no evidence of who committed that act. But go ahead and jump to conclusions.

    ****

    How about that black church in Greenville, Miss burnt down that had “Vote Trump” spray painted on the outside…

    Oh wait, that was a black man who did that, despite all the opining about how it is a sign of right wing radicalism.

    “We do not believe it was politically motivated. There may have been some efforts to make it appear politically motivated,” Mississippi Insurance Commissioner Mike Chaney, who is also the fire marshal, told AP.

    ****

    That shooting outside the yiannopoulos in Seattle, likely committed against a Sanders supporter, not a neo-nazi. Again, no evidence made public about the persons behind the act.

    A whole lot of hate is being ginned up and propagated before evidence is offered.

  • kzen says:

    So, according to some on this thread then, communists and their supporters ought to be exterminated forthwith, since communist regimes have killed far more people than Nazi’s did…

  • Tibor Sallai says:

    Then when all “snowflakes” will gone, you will be the next on their list.

  • Tibor Sallai says:

    “We should have tolerance for everyone except…” – Than it’s all the same. Decide. Tolerance or not. There aren’t exeptions.

  • Sophie says:

    The Nazi party is an outgrowth of capitalism in its racist reality. Is it not easier to fight against a physical person than against a system in which everyone lives.

  • shna says:

    Nazis are in control, they’re the ones that believe in informing on people who have opposing political ideologies, no uni in UK is free of them. They are the ones these philosophers are too scared to say they are Nazis, not behaving like Nazis – they ARE NAZIS. Nobody has a right ideology or a wrong one just different but when you see others as wrong and less than yourself you have become a NAZI. West is one large Nazi state.

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