Strike back: is punching Nazis acceptable?

Strike back: is punching Nazis acceptable?

Wednesday 8 November 2017 - Sam Edgington

In January this year, a debate was opened when a video of Richard Spencer, a prominent American Nazi, being punched in the face by an anti-fascist protester went viral. While few felt sympathy for Spencer, a man who has called for “peaceful ethnic cleansing” and whose movement has been associated with sending strobe lighting to a Jewish epileptic journalist, some understandably felt uneasy about physically attacking one’s ideological enemies.

Despite what Donald Trump claims, ‘both sides’ were not equally responsible for the violence at Charlottesville nor is there any moral equivalency between Nazis and those who oppose them.  Having said that, I do not support violence against Nazis unless it is in self-defence (this article objects to anti-fascists throwing the first punch rather than arguing for non-violence under any circumstances). I take this view partly for moral and philosophical reasons; I fully support free speech, even for hateful opinions, and fully oppose unprovoked violence. Additionally, it seems to me that if this behaviour became accepted it would further harden political debate (which has already become toxic enough) by legitimising violence against ones political enemies. These objections are indeed vital.

Moreover, in a democracy, using violence against one’s opponents is almost always counterproductive; in this case it allows the far-right to portray their opponents as the thugs (despite one of their number driving a car into a crowd of counter-protesters, killing one and injuring many more) which wins sympathy to their cause. The hysterical reaction to the ‘Antifa’ movement among conservative journalists like those on Fox News and politicians (including the president) is testament to this. Americans as a whole appear to support this narrative; only 24% have a favourable view of the Antifa movement while 58% see them unfavourably.[1] The fact some are now claiming moral equivalency between men like Spencer and Antifa only serves to fuel the extremist fire.

Secondly, violence often begets violence. Using violence against the far-right may well instill even more of a ‘siege mentality’ among their movement. It is reasonable to assume that those targeted will develop an even greater hatred for their opponents and may well become more violent in response. This could translate into demonstrations becoming even more violent, perhaps even becoming large-scale riots, and a further intensification of attacks on minorities and those on the left. It is also likely that members of the extreme right will be less likely to change their views if they have been subjected to violence. Former neo-Nazis who later renounce their views are some of the most powerful propganda tools available to anti-fascists- there is now even an organisation, ‘Exit’, dedicated to helping former neo-Nazis reintegrate into mainstream society.[2] Admittedly, many on the far-right will never change their opinions regardless of the response of their opponents but adding unnecessarily to this number is dangerously counter-productive.

The third problem with this violence is the legal trouble which will inevitably ensue. Assault remains a crime regardless of who the victim is. When it is the anti-fascists who end up in court, the neo-Nazis may consider this a victory of sorts- both as a propaganda coup for them and by ruining the lives of some of their opponents. Additionally, if they continue to use violence, necessary groups such as antifa may well become outlawed (there are already some in the U.S. who would like to to be proscribed as a terrorist organisation). Such action, while unlikely for now, would weaken the opposition to the far-right as many would be loath to join an illegal group and risk the wrath of the law.

Of course, there are many who disagree with me on this issue. Some may suggest that assaulting these people demonstrates that society will not tolerate such hateful opinions. Punching these people certainly does send that message. However, it seems to me that neo-Nazi opinions are not currently tolerated by society anyway. Such people are, quite rightly, ostracised by most people and the political process generally. The problem is that the message sent by attacking such people is the one which right-wing tabloid news loves to portray; that of a hysterical left which is afraid of debate and free speech. It is possible to robustly oppose racism without resorting to unprovoked violence.

Therefore, even if one does not find ethical reasons convincing, there are practical reasons to oppose unprovoked violence against the extreme right too. As difficult (and perhaps dull) as it may seem, the best response to these hateful views is to robustly yet peacefully oppose them and to let the extreme right make a fool of themselves all by themselves.

[1] ‘Voters See ‘Antifa’ Protesters Chiefly as Troublemakers’, Rasmussen Reports, 18th September 2017 (http://www.rasmussenreports.com/public_content/politics/general_politics/september_2017/voters_see_antifa_protesters_chiefly_as_troublemakers)

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Author: Sam Edgington