Hey, remember 2016? When all those beloved celebrities kept dying and we couldn’t wait for the year to be over? We’re now less than a month into 2017 and a week into Donald Trump’s presidency, and the internet finds itself seriously conflicted over whether it’s ok to punch Nazis.
The dapper Backpfeifengesicht of the Alt-Right
He is also an ardent and wholly unrepentant white supremacist and ethnonationalist who advocates what he calls “peaceful ethnic cleansing” to achieve a “white homeland.” He says America belongs to white people, who he claims have higher average IQs than Hispanic and African Americans and that the latter are genetically predisposed to crime. He has called for eugenicist forced sterilisation (but it’s ok, you see, because “They could still enjoy sex. You are not ruining their life”). The nice suits are no accident: Spencer deliberately cultivates a ‘respectable’ facade from which to spout his grotesque racist ideology.
And he loves him some Trump. At an alt-right conference not long after Trump won the 2016 election, Spencer yelled “Hail Trump!” prompting some of his supporters to give the Nazi salute. He insisted that’s somehow acceptable because it was done in a spirit of “irony and exuberance.”
Some - Spencer himself, for one - insist Richard B. “Let’s party like it’s 1933” Spencer is not, in fact, a neo-Nazi. To some extent it’s a moot question, but for present purposes we’ll follow popular usage and use ‘Nazi’ as shorthand for ‘people who advocate the sort of views Richard Spencer advocates’ rather than anything more specific to the historical NSDAP.
On the day of Trump’s inauguration, Spencer was giving a street interview when a masked protester emerged from the crowd and punched him in the head. At least two video cameras captured the incident. And because we’re living in the future now, within hours Twitter was flooded with remixes of the punch video set to music.
There’s at least two ethically salient questions in play here: is it morally permissible to punch Nazis? And is it morally permissible to enjoy or exploit footage (or even the fact) of Nazis being punched?
Consequences of Nazi-Punching
One major line of reasoning against Nazi-punching runs like this: if you start punching Nazis, you thereby legitimate or encourage forms of political violence that can be used against you. This is not an argument about rights - it doesn’t say ‘if you punch Nazis they’re allowed to punch you back’ - or draw any false moral equivalence between Nazis and non-Nazis. It’s simply about consequences. Such reasoning is vulnerable to counter-arguments however: for instance, that Nazi-punching productively serves to make being a Nazi harder, and in any case, Nazis will, if given a chance, punch people anyway.
These are important inputs into our moral reasoning. But they’re not the whole story. Analogous arguments are sometimes offered against things like torture and capital punishment. “Torture doesn’t produce reliable information” or “the death penalty doesn’t act as a deterrant” are relevant facts when considering what’s wrong with such practices. But very often they don’t so much answer the moral question as try to put it out of play. They’re a way of saying “we don’t actually have to answer whether it’s morally wrong to punch Nazis because it’s strategically a bad idea.”
Political violence and the liberal state
A key feature of the liberal democratic state as it has emerged over the last two hundred years or so is that the State reserves the use of force for itself. Outside of consensual settings like boxing rings, private citizens are limited to using violence only in self-defense.
Political violence, according to this understanding, only becomes legitimate in contexts when the liberal democratic sphere, and the protections and freedoms it affords, has broken down - for instance, where tyranny makes certain forms of violent resistence effectively self-defense. That some such point exists seems hard to dispute. The difficulty is knowing when that point has been reached, such that politics legitimates the use of violence against others, and what sort of violence is thereby legitimated.
The US is still, at least at the time of writing, a more-or-less functional liberal democracy. That cannot be assumed to hold: given his attacks in the space of one week on the media, women, immigrants, science, and apparent threat to invade Chicago, it’s far from clear whether and how the US as we know it can survive Trump. But at least on January 20th, punching an unarmed Nazi in the street doesn’t appear to rise to the level of self-defense.
But then it’s easy for me to say that. I’m not American, and more importantly, I’m not a target of the genocidal. I’ve never felt what it is to be hated by someone who thinks people like me should not exist. And of course it’s much easier to insist the norms of civil society are still in place if you’re systematically less likely to be harassed or killed by agents of the State.
Breakdowns of the moral sphere
Still, if you want to say that punching Nazis is ok, the first step is to make a case that we find ourselves in one of those exceptional periods in which things have so broken down that the use of political violence has become temporarily legitimate. (Or, alternatively, argue for a very different understanding of legitimate political violence than that which holds in contemporary liberal democracies).
Under such conditions, even philosophers and theologians who put deferential love of others at the core of their ethics have been moved to assist in violent resistance. Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Knud Ejler Løgstrup were both Lutheran priests, and both ethicists centrally concerned with our love of others. During World War II Løgstrup took part in the Danish Resistance (which assassinated around 400 Nazi collaborators, some dubiously), while Bonhoeffer was involved with the Abwehr conspiractors who hatched the 20 July Plot to assassinate Hitler. Løgstrup was forced into hiding but survived; Bonhoeffer was imprisoned and executed at Flossenbürg concentration camp in the dying weeks of the war.
Violence and guilt
But Bonhoeffer did not think that necessity washed away the moral stain of violence:
when a man takes guilt upon himself in responsibility, he imputes his guilt to himself and no one else. He answers for it… Before other men he is justified by dire necessity; before himself he is acquitted by his conscience, but before God he hopes only for grace.
Political violence unavoidably reduces the life and body of another human being to a means to achieve a political end. There are desperate circumstances in which that becomes necessary. But in those instances one does not avoid guilt - rather one takes on the guilt of violence for the sake of preserving the moral life we share. Violence may become necessary, but that does not make it good, merely least-worst. It is not clear that punching Richard Spencer was the least-worst available option.
That brings us to the second question. Most of the people discussing the punching of the Nazi Spencer have not actually punched a Nazi and in most cases are unlikely to do so anytime soon. They’re simply commenting on and remediating images of someone else doing so.
That seems to be a long way removed from seeing political violence as a regrettable but sadly necessary means of repairing the fabric of ethical society. It’s just enjoying the sight of another - utterly repugnant - person being punched.
Ok, but don’t we cheer the punching of Nazis in other contexts? Don’t we cheer for Indiana Jones and Captain America when they’re doing just that?
Yes, but when we do so, we’re watching fiction. Moreover, we’re watching fictional violence offered in response to violent antagonism, and carried out for a clear purpose. We’re in different territory when we cheer not the purpose for which violence is done, but the act of violence itself. In that case we don’t regret an instance of necessary force, but simply revel in suffering.
Again, I speak from a position of privilege. I’ve never been threatened with violence in word or deed on the basis of who I am. I don’t presume to tell those who have how they should feel about Nazis like Spencer. But for people like me at least, deciding what to share and endorse, things look bleak enough without cheering on the darkness.