CN: discusses racism, genocide, violence, hate speech, literal Nazism, also the Holocaust.
With thanks to my excellent friends for the discussions which prompted this.
Unless you live under a rock, you’re probably aware that a protestor punched Nazi Richard Spencer in the face as he gave an interview to a news outlet at Trump’s inaugration. Spencer, who was responsible for ‘Heil Trump!’, for advocating genocide and for armed Neo-Nazis marching on the Jewish community in his hometown with ‘high-powered rifles’, is as close to a cartoon Nazi as one can get without actually being Hitler. We are not talking about political disagreement, or even casual racism, we are talking about someone whose website published an article by his cofounder calling for ‘black genocide‘, and expressed the desire to make America an all-white country at all ‘horribly bloody and terrible’ cost. I’m Jewish, although I pass for goy – I’m pretty sure Spencer wants me dead.
Anyway, no sooner had this happened than some people started celebrating it, and other people started criticising them for celebrating it. And I wanted to unpack it all a bit, because I think it’s a bit more complicated than either side (particularly the progressive, lefty, how-dare-you-glorify-violence side) is suggesting.
Firstly, as one friend memorably posted on Facebook, equating punching Spencer with punching anyone you politically disagree with is a straw man argument, and neither of us are here for it. That said, I completely appreciate the school of thought that says to be compatible with liberal politics you need to not punch anybody in the face, ever, because you respect personhood and bodily autonomy. It doesn’t matter whether or not Nazis agonise about the rightness or wrongness of punching people they politically disagree with in the face (i suspect they probably don’t, and violence against minorities is practically as well as ideologically endorsed) because the whole point of being lefty and progressive is to be Better Than That. Which I subscribe to, pretty much.
However. I also remember vividly a conversation I had when I was eight or nine with my Holocaust survivor grandmother. I’d been reading about pacifism (my parents never edited my reading, with the result that you see before you), and announced that I was a pacifist, because violence was always wrong and wars were terrible. She looked at me with her head on one side and said ‘I think some wars are worth fighting, and some things are worth fighting about.’ I was pretty abashed – by that stage I was pretty up on what had happened during the Second World War, including to her – and apologised and said she was right, and I still think she is. (NB. I don’t think most of the wars we are currently fighting come into that category, but I think it’s a category that exists.)
If anyone is going to be punched in the face for their political beliefs, people who advocate the genocide of an entire race (see above), in fact all non-white races, are pretty high on my personal hitlist. I can’t help thinking that if expressing those views socially resulted in more face-punching and fewer interviews with major news outlets, the world as a whole and minority groups in particular might be safer. I can’t help thinking that disrupting that transmission – making it clear that the repeated expression of fascist views is sufficiently unacceptable to deserve a punch in the face – is actually an important social shift. I don’t think most Nazis are particularly susceptible to reasoned arguments or appeals to empathy, but I do think at least some of them might shut the fuck up, or at least think more carefully about spreading their poison, if doing so publicly resulted in widespread social opprobium and the odd punch in the face.
Spencer himself has spoken about how awful he finds the thought of his humiliation being replicated indefinitely online, so it’s clear that physical resistance has made an impact (hah) that reasoned debate has failed to so far. He occupies a position of wealth and social privilege – how else could you form and maintain such absurd ideas – and face-punching challenges that privilege in a way that opens up space to consider the possibility of one’s vulnerability. The visceral challenge of being punched in the face, and the resultant shock, is an intense and invasive personal experience of the sort that often results in instinctive avoidance, which I will frankly take in this instance. Moreover, in Spencer’s case, the very public nature of that particular act undermines both his right to a platform and his privilege, assumption of authority and thus also the authority of the message in a way that challenges its acceptability also. By giving him a platform, the news outlet interviewing him was implicitly constructing his position as acceptable, worth hearing and politically credible. By punching him in the face, the protestor denied, undermined and destroyed that in a way that the peaceful protestors waving socialist signs behind him didn’t manage to do.
There are a few crucial things simmering away beneath the surface here.
- Sometimes violence is necessary. Sometimes it is the only available method of resistance. Cf., obviously, the Second World War. Some views are so dangerous and destructive – Spencer’s among them – that their propagation risks, and costs, people’s lives. Maybe that punch in the face saved a life.
- Violent resistance works. Cf., the Battle of Cable Street (so memorably referenced by Pterry in Night Watch). Sometimes physical resistance is the only thing that will do. We’ve been arguing reasonably that racism is bad and genocide is bad and Hitler was bad and the Holocaust was bad Spencer’s entire.fucking.life. It doesn’t appear to have slowed him down much.
- People who’ve lived through fascist regimes have spoken movingly and convincingly of the need to resist early, resist hard, and resist physically. Spencer is in the forefront of a movement that has already made people physically unsafe, and he has made it quite clear that he’s not interested in reasoned debate of his views. Quoting yet another friend, because my friends are awesome: Nazis never come in peace. You can’t have a peaceful divergence of views with someone who is advocating genocide and whose views are inherently violent. You can’t have a reasoned exchange of views with someone who advocates marching on Jewish communities with machine guns. Maybe now is the time to resist.
- Violence is already present and happening. People are already dying. There is an absolute swamp here of structural and systemic violence, and its victims are almost exclusively people from marginalised communities or minority groups with far less wealth, privilege and platform than Spencer. If we are talking about wars, and defining them as ‘people are dying’, or more specifically ‘people are dying because of the deliberate actions or inaction of factions in power’ (thank you Marcus) then wars are already being waged against people of colour in America, against LGBT* people worldwide, against sick and disabled people in America, and denying the left any right to physical resistance against anyone under any circumstances is implicitly colluding with and enabling this structural and systemic violence.
- A lot of the violence present is a) prompted by fascism and b) directed at people with much less social cache, privilege and platform than Spencer. Upending those systems in the act of face-punching is always-already an act of resistance, and a far-reaching one at that. I imagine it’s nice to watch someone’s invulnerability being shattered if that person has been advocating the mass murder of you and your friends and family.
I think that anonymous punch has energised the left, because watching people who won’t listen to reason being rewarded for spreading hate gets despair-inducing after a while, especially when you feel that reason is the only weapon at your disposal. I gather from yet another excellent friend that the assumption that progressive politics essentially meaning non-violent at all costs is a fairly recent one, and I think it’s essentially flawed. In an imperfect and inherently violent world, facing adversaries that advocate violence, there is more space for nuanced arguments that regard some kinds of violence under some circumstances (like the creeping advent of fascism and the need to resist it) as necessary than for blanket advocacy of non-violence at all costs. I don’t think people pushing for genocide deserve a fair hearing, or a platform, or peace. I think there comes a point where violent resistance becomes necessary. I think they deserve a punch in the face, and if they get it on camera, that is an important and powerful tool with far-reaching implications for all kinds of opposition.
Vive la resistance.
Some wars are worth fighting, and some things are worth fighting about.