Richard Spencer — a known racist and genocide advocate — got punched on video and publicly humiliated and it was funny and satisfying to watch. It was an effective way to weaken his public platform, both in an immediate sense (it silenced him mid-sentence) and in a long-term sense (he will always be the person with silly music behind videos of him being hurt). This has started a wave of public speech alternately condemning the specific act or advocating for eagerly and proactively punching more Nazis.
While there’s certainly been a range of viewpoints in this discussion, two common ways these ethics are being framed are1: “violence as political action is never acceptable” and “punching Nazis is always great so let’s do more of it.” I disagree with both of these ideas.
Violence is sometimes justified and even necessary. But it is a serious, severe, and indeed sacred act. When you commit violence in the defense of virtue, you are causing a feeling person pain, potentially permanently injuring or killing them, and you are taking the poison of that violence into yourself. It’s a transformative act, a sacrifice, and to take it lightly is not only reckless: it is sacrilege that minimizes that sacrifice.
Violence is Justifiable
If anyone deserves to be hit, Spencer and his ilk do: he is a vocal advocate for perspectives and policies that will hurt and kill people and is very good at framing his views in a way that is innocuous to the most ignorant and gives others plausible deniability to look the other way. Worse, this seems to be working. White supremacy seems to be openly growing. From a utilitarian perspective, causing Spencer some pain in exchange for ending his advocacy is a good trade-off.
I’ve long been a pacifist. I despise violence as a tactic. Still, I recognize that violence is often an effective way to directly prevent worse violence in an actively violent situation. An fact that is more uncomfortable to me is that, in a situation where there is no clear ethical approach, inaction serves to reinforce the status quo and the existing vectors of power. If you don’t confront the Nazis, they grow in power. We’ve dismissed white supremacists as fringe wackos for decades and now they’re in the White House.2 How, then, do I act in alignment with my values of pacifism and of justice? How do I form my praxis, my system of behavior by which I manifest my morals?
I’m thinking hard about something that my partner Melissa tweeted out earlier: “at what point is it okay for killing to start?” It’s very well to encourage people to find Nazis and punch them. And if punching is effective, surely murder is more effective. I’m not pulling a slippery slope fallacy3 here: I am saying that there is some level of egregiousness that justifies hurting people and that picking that point is very, very important and more difficult than the Nazi-punching discourse is implying.
Kelsey Piper is someone whose words and thoughts I hold in great respect. She writes very insightfully on difficult moral problems and shows patience and empathy toward some often-hateful messages. She wrote on a similar topic just after the elections in November, specifically on the antifa “make Nazis scared” rhetoric of the time. She wrote “[the argument] ‘violence against fascists is always justified’ is horrifying and terrible, especially since in practice it will inevitably shake out to ‘violence against people who have been labeled fascists is always justified.'”
This is so important. Violence is justified to prevent worse violence, but you must be pretty damn sure of two things: that there is actually risk of violence and that your violence will stop it.
Finding the Nazis to Punch
I watched Gamergate happen. I escaped any direct harm: I was obscure and white and male-passing and straight-passing enough that I didn’t become a target in the heights of its fury. But I watched it closely starting at its beginning in August 2014 and did what I thought I could4 to advocate for its victims. One thing I saw during that is how eagerly people, with righteous fury, will believe any nonsense that fits their worldview and offers them a cathartic target.
We see a nebulous haze of unreliability around any current event these days. For example, most facts about the Women’s March on Washington in late January are clear: it happened, it was enormous, it was impressively intersectional and well-organized. Still, there have been occasional images of older protests conflated with recent ones or confusion over who is collecting data on attendees and for what purpose. These issues are typically cleared up within hours and can be identified with a bit of media literacy. But in the moment it can be hard to spot a mistake or a lie.
If we establish a praxis by which Nazi-punching is encouraged outside of a sacred context, we leave ourselves open to striking out at any shout of “Nazi!” At the recent Berkeley protests, a Muslim was reportedly attacked with the simple excuse of “You look like a Nazi.” Could the assault be the act of a fascist sympathizer trying to paint activists as violent?5 Or the act of someone who just wanted to hurt someone and was using the protest as an excuse? Certainly.
But regardless of whether this Berkeley punching was an earnest anti-fascist act, it was an attack against an undeserving target, enabled by an atmosphere that encourages punching “Nazis” early and often. Also note that, as usual, it is the more marginalized people in society that tend to suffer the effects of violence.
“Punch all Nazis” is a dangerous and hurtful rallying cry. “Punch certain Nazis” is far better. Some people labelled as Nazis simply aren’t Nazis. Others are radicalized youths who, when cared for properly, will look back on their current perspectives with horror.6 Others are powerless or disorganized enough that hitting them would be a waste of time. Given a limited amount of fists, time, and public acceptance, choose your targets well.
The risk here isn’t something silly like “perpetuating the cycle of violence.” Any violence committed by Nazis and other oppressors is their own responsibility. The risk is of punching someone innocent (someone who isn’t a Nazi) or someone reachable (someone who can feasibly be changed and not just fought). We must take care in how we choose our targets. We can never be sure that we are punching the right people, and that ethical struggle is good. Questioning our choices is what makes us moral beings.
And Punching Them Properly
A popular joke after the Spencer punching had a setup like, “Before you punch a Nazi, think of the harm you’re doing,” then included excerpts from guides like this one on proper punching form. I’ve taken martial arts; there’s more to punching than you can learn from that article, not to mention a single isolated image from it.
Yes, yes, it’s a joke.7 But not only can punching hurt your wrist, it can also have a number of other consequences. Is your goal to kill, to maim, or to hurt? Better punch someone in the way that corresponds with your intention. After the punch, what will you do? Will you need to escape the other Nazis before they beat you to death? Do you plan to flee any nearby police, or are you willing to go to jail in exchange for punching a Nazi? Are you attacking in a way that will actually make a difference, or are you taking on extreme risk for little advantage?
The person who attacked Spencer was likely a member of an antifa group. Anti-fascist organizations meet, train, and learn together. They pick their battles and, hopefully, act deliberately and with purpose. Even the people who practiced civil disobedience in the 60’s US civil rights movement underwent a gauntlet of training that seems almost paramilitary in rigor. Violence in defense of justice is not as simple as spotting a Nazi and throwing a punch.
Note, especially, that Spencer was punched twice that day. The first one didn’t take. Wasn’t caught on video. Those who punch Nazis must be prepared to hit a person, evade consequences, stalk them until the right moment, punch them again, harder, flee, and evade the inevitable wave of Nazi sympathizers and legitimate law enforcement trying to track them down, identify them, and punish them for their violence.
When I hear the argument that torture should be legal because it could save thousands of lives, my usual response is “then you should be willing to go to jail for torture if it saves thousands.” It’s not so simple in this case; the US justice system is profoundly white-supremacist and exists mostly to maintain the status quo. Nazi-punchers have little hope for a fair trial or a reasonable punishment. Still, in general: if it is worth committing violence, it is worth accepting the cost of that violence.
Even if you escape death, injury, or imprisonment, committing deliberate violence will take a toll on you. You risk becoming inured to violence, ignoring the fraught and dangerous nature of it; or you risk guilt, finding difficulty accepting your actions and moving on. For your emotional health, you must measure how much violence you can commit before you must recover from it.
When hateful people like Spencer are hurt, the impulse to crow and celebrate is entirely understandable. Those feelings of elation and satisfaction are valid and important. However, it is a mistake to channel those feelings into a public delight in pain or an ongoing environment that encourages physical violence as the first or the best response to all oppression. Sometimes violence is the best response; sometimes it’s not. To call for caution is not to condone Naziism. But caution has limits.
Violence in defense of life and peace and joy is sacred. It is risky. It is extreme. It hurts people. It takes a toll on the one who commits violence. It should never be taken lightly. It should never be done recklessly. It should be done when it furthers a society with less violence, more joy, and justice for everyone.
Punching Nazis is a sacred act. Violence is justifiable. But find the right Nazis to punch, if they are available, and make sure you punch them properly.
- along with disingenuous arguments that do things like evoke Martin Luther King without understanding his work or proposing elaborate counterfactuals ↩
- Specifically Steve Bannon, but there are others. ↩
- It’s an error in reasoning to believe that a small step in a direction necessarily leads to going all the way down that path. More on Wikipedia. ↩
- Probably not as much as I actually could have. ↩
- Cries of “false flag” operations should be taken as a warning sign of possible conspiratorial fantasies, although of course such operations do occur. ↩
- I’m not saying “boo hoo poor young Nazis” here. I’m saying that an environment of justice and care, plus a lot of education from people with privilege and understanding, can pull people back from being advocates for atrocity. See Sarah Nyberg’s harrowing “I Was a Teenage Edgelord” (CW: hate speech, sexual abuse, et al) for more insight. ↩
- It’s never just a joke. ↩