Several months ago, Richard Spencer was punched in the head on camera. The internet had a lot of fun with this video and eventually the question began to go around on social media, “Is it ok to punch a Nazi?”
Of course, the follow up question is whether Richard Spencer is a Nazi. Despite the URL of this recent article, I’ve given it more thought, and I don’t believe that Richard Spencer is a Nazi in the sense of Hitler’s NSDAP and his vision of the Third Reich. However, he utilizes a lot of the same language and articulates a worldview that is consistent with the idea of totalitarianism. I also believe that his worldview is more consistent with the Nazi version of totalitarianism by trying to “speed up nature,” based on a hate-filled ideology that targets the other as tainting the world. Spencer believes that white people must win against … them … and that they will. But, he also prophesies that if white people don’t win, that they will be forever lost and no longer pure.
To Mr. Spencer’s credit, he doesn’t appear to be bound by a perversion of Norse mythology with a focus on a specific stock of white people, and he advocates for what he calls he a “soft ethnic cleansing,” by which he means not outright genocide, but a forced mass deportation of races he deems to be inferior. In this regard he appears, then, to be more progressive than Hitler. Neat. Set the bar high.
So, is Spencer a Nazi? Well, no. But he appears close enough for a stand-in. So, is it ok to punch him? Now we’re back to that question, only modified. Is it ok to punch a Nazi or someone who sounds enough and believes enough like one that it carries a similar danger?
Sure. I guess. I don’t suspect that you would find too many people who would argue against punching Nazis. So, with the modified question about punching Nazis, or a reasonable facsimile thereof, a new question emerges: When is it appropriate to punch a Nazi? Put another way, what are the limits to nonviolent resistance?
If, like many, you are of the mindset that punching Nazis is the right thing to do, and may be the only justifiable interaction with a Nazi, then you must also acknowledge that there is a limit to nonviolent resistance. If, like many, you favor diplomacy and take the give-peace-a-chance road, but you also argue for the Nazi punch, you at least imply the idea that violence is sometimes ok, if not necessary. This may not totally negate the idea of nonviolent resistance, but it at least suggests that there is a limit to passivity.
Now the question becomes: If there is a limit to passive resistance, at what point is it necessary to take action lest you become complicit in your non-activity?
So, is there is a limit on nonviolent resistance? If that’s the case, where is the line? At what point does nonviolence become ineffective and therefore become complicity in the systematic oppression of others?
Well, that’s a tough question. Spencer hasn’t really done anything, not yet anyway. And, we don’t really know what someone like Spencer is capable of. We do know what sort of thing it might entail, though. So, what to do? Do you punch Spencer now? Or do you wait until he’s done something other than just talk and contribute money to losing candidates? If it is ok to punch him, when is the right time to punch him?
Not to continue to go back to the well of Hitler, but I do think that for this particular conundrum it works. Because we all tend to think of Hitler as the benchmark for evil, to properly gauge when we punch Spencer we should recognize that he is not worse than Hitler. So, by trying to estimate when it is appropriate to punch Hitler, we can use that as a scale on when it’s appropriate to punch those who are not Hitler. Basically, if we wouldn’t punch Hitler for something, we shouldn’t punch someone else for it either. By the same token, this same scale could let us know when we would punch Hitler, based on whether we would punch someone else.
So, do we punch Hitler in 1945? Well, of course. By 1945 he had killed millions of people and ensured the destruction of Europe. Clearly, that’s way too late to think about punching Hitler. Everybody was thinking about killing him, let alone punching him. How about 1939 when he invaded Poland? No, that’s still too late. Surely, by 1933 someone would’ve slapped him and thrown him out, right?
The problem is it that even 1933 is probably too late. If you accept that violent resistance must be used, by the time he’s in power and started down the road of killing people is too late. So, what… 1923? Well, that may be too early. In 1923, Hitler was just a loudmouth rabble rouser with some truly abhorrent ideas, not unlike Spencer is now. If you’re going to punch him then, then the whole idea of passive resistance falls apart way too early, and you just end up being the person who escalated the situation.
None of this is to say, however, that I am advocating for or against the idea of punching Hitler, a generic Nazi, or even Richard Spencer. The whole point is that generally speaking, I prefer diplomacy and debate over fisticuffs and fighting. But, I do recognize that there are limits to passivity. So, if we accept that there is a line where violent reaction is the only proper course of action, where is that line? What is the threshold that must be crossed? What degrees of violence are acceptable in a given situation? Surely, this isn’t a binary issue where one must either be totally passive or one must start shooting. What happened to Steve Scalise recently was inexcusable, and shows us that there are lines that must be crossed before violent resistance is warranted. Merely disagreeing with a person’s rhetoric, no matter how vile, is not cause for violence.
But that gets us back to Spencer. Is it ok to punch Spencer because of his beliefs? I would argue, no, at least not yet. All Spencer is guilty of right now is hate and hateful rhetoric. While speech designed to incite violence, that is the speech creates an imminent danger of lawless action, is not protected under the First Amendment, hate speech on its own is protected. Now, just because it is protected that doesn’t mean that anyone has to listen to Spencer. It does not guarantee Spencer a platform and a megaphone for making his speech. And, it only protects Spencer from someone punching him in the head in so far as that punching someone in the head is battery. One could perhaps make the case that Spencer’s speech amounts to fighting words, but I doubt that would hold up under scrutiny as Spencer is not directing his speech towards any one person with the intent of picking a fight with that person. Spencer’s speech seems to fit the mold of Brandenburg v. Ohio.
Nonetheless, reasoned debate and civilized discourse suggests itself as something that is not going to be effective with Spencer or very many of the like minded. But, then again, debates are not held with the purpose of convincing the opponent, they are held to convince the audience. In this brave new world, we must hope that debate and discourse will be sufficient to sway the audience, to show that these views are not rooted in any objective reality. Ideally, the audience, that is the American people writ large, will understand this and use their other powers to punish people like Spencer by not giving him an audience, or a platform and a megaphone. Don’t go to his engagements, don’t invite him to speak, don’t buy his books, and so forth.
If one accepts that there is a limit, that there is a threshold that must be crossed before nonviolent resistance is useless, we must hold fast to the idea and hope that this line has not already been crossed. I remain optimistic that we have no stepped over the threshold, yet.
Photo Credit: ABC News Australia