On Nazi-Punching, Moral and Otherwise
Reflections after Berkeley and Auburn
When an anonymous antifascist punched celebrity white supremacist Richard Spencer in the face on camera in January 2017, Americans of all stripes took notice. Rightists muttered darkly and polished their pistols. Leftists and liberals made memes.
Before long, there was an entire Twitter account devoted to videos of the Nazi-punch set to music. Meanwhile, Newsweek determined that enjoying the videos was permissible, but that Nazi-punching itself was beyond the pale.
You can savor watching a Nazi get punched on your screen, but don’t try it at home, they say.
Alternative voices, like Katherine Cross, made powerful arguments that punching Nazis was, in fact, a moral imperative. Others, like Tauriq Moosa, urged liberals to focus their limited stores of attention not on the ethics of punching Nazis, but rather on the violence and real, ongoing threat of white supremacism. But, as the meme ran its course and Richard Spencer faded off-screen, the notion that Nazi-punching is to be enjoyed as spectacle but also somewhat condemned as action seemed for most liberals to have carried the day. The violence of Nazis remained largely out of focus, relegated to history and not taken seriously as a force in the present.
Now, however, in the wake of ongoing clashes between antifascists and a rag-tag, militarized collection of neo-Nazis, so-called Proud Boys, “Oath Keeper” law enforcement personnel, and other white supremacists, the question of violence against Nazis is back on the agenda. The question is whether and to what extent private individuals should violently resist Nazis and other white supremacists when they claim public spaces. Unfortunately, the going agenda often still assumes that Nazism today is primarily about speech, while antifascist attacks on Nazis are by contrast primarily about violence.
What was crystallized in Richard Spencer getting cracked in the head remained largely at the level of entertainment, or at best catharsis. It was a spectacle, not a call to action, because Nazism wasn’t seen by many as a contemporary and actual threat of violence.
The events in Berkeley and at Auburn University this past week — which saw violent confrontations between antifascists and white supremacists — have felt like clearer calls to action. Nazism is, without parallel in modern history, an ideology committed to violence and to the dehumanization of others. These are its raison d’être. Whether going by this name or one of a dozen others, rightist rallies have increasingly frequently mobilized under the symbols of Nazism. Rightists themselves have come ready for violence. And everyday, regular people on both sides of the country have mobilized to reject the violence of this white supremacist ideology with violence of their own.
And that raises, now much more seriously for many, the question of where Nazi speech bleeds into Nazi violence, and of what our collective responsibility in the face of that pairing might be. In other words, should antifascists attempt, with violence, to shut down white supremacists? This is a tactical and strategic question, of course, but it is equally a question of practical morality. As an acquaintance recently asked, “Would you consider it morally justified to punch someone who declared themselves a Nazi?”
The rest of this essay addresses the morality-of-Nazi-punching question with a “Well, sort of.”
To be clear, I see all violence of any sort whatsoever as unjustifiable. That is to say, no violence is ever without moral injury to both the victim and the perpetrator. Violence is always morally wrong.
But, that’s at the level of the principle (since justification assumes a chain of reasoning that goes back up, from lived experience, to a governing principle). Ideal morality tells us what we ought to value, in an ideal world, and even what we ought to hope for in this world, but it can’t tell us what we ought to do in this world. What we ought to do is where things get messy.
I n the realm of lived moral tradeoffs that we helplessly do inhabit, where the absolute principle can’t hold sway, violence is sometimes less wrong than nonviolence. Most people, by their practice if not by their words, seem broadly to agree. If they did not, we would have no police, no wars, and no gun lobby. All these are institutionalized commitments to valuing violence. That doesn’t make violence right, of course; it just means that we habitually do condone many varieties of violence, so the invocation of the absolute principle of nonviolence as a response to the Nazi-punching question is disingenuous. What’s at stake here isn’t moral justification, but rather how to choose between bad options.
So, though I take punching Nazis to be morally unjustifiable, I also see doing so as sometimes clearly preferable to not punching Nazis, which I also take to be morally unjustifiable.
The reasoning follows:
- All violence is morally unjustifiable, so punching Nazis is morally unjustifiable.
- Complacence in the face of, or acquiescence to violence against others is also morally unjustifiable.
- From 1, there is a moral duty not to commit violence.
- From 2, there is a moral duty to prevent the commission of violence.
- Most people fulfill 3 well enough in their day-to-day lives, but fail horrifically on 4 (given the amount of violence that swirls through human experience, including lots and lots of both state and interpersonal violence alike, and the relative inactivity or acquiescence of most people to that violence, often including violence committed in their names and with the aid of their resources).
- Some forms of violence are worse than other forms of violence.
- Violence cannot always be prevented nonviolently.
- From 6 and 7, the moral duty to be nonviolent cannot automatically outweigh the moral duty to prevent violence; this has to be weighed on a case-by-case basis.
- Self-avowed Nazis espouse, personally contribute to, and provide resources for some of the worst forms of violence — violence by the stronger against the weaker, and with the intent of dehumanizing individuals and degrading social bonds so as to make that dehumanization easier and more prevalent — and Nazis, in their private commitments to violence, are often supported by mobilized state violence (police, etc.).
- To avow oneself a Nazi is to commit to a history and a future of one of the worst sorts of violence, and to do so in a way that refuses conversation about moral culpability and changes of course (since such public conversation has already occurred, and the avowal itself refuses the general conclusions arrived at in public conversation re the unacceptability of being a Nazi).
- Self-avowal of Nazism contributes both indirectly and directly to violence (since Nazism is an ideology whose bottom line is dehumanizing violence against others).
- State violence (at least in the U.S.; the matter stands otherwise in, for instance, Germany or Austria) is rarely mobilized against Nazi violence (relative to other mobilizations of state violence).
- From 12, individuals who do not punch Nazis (or at least acknowledge the relative permissibility of punching Nazis) must regard themselves as acquiescing to Nazi violence.
- From 6 and 7, and in the particular case of Nazi-punching, not all self-avowed Nazis should be punched, all of the time.
- When to punch a Nazi, and which Nazis to punch, is a complicated and difficult question, not resoluble in advance or by a clear general rule.
- This is so because punching a Nazi, while potentially contributing to the prevention of great violence, certainly is a commission of at least small violence; it is never morally justified.
- Although punching a Nazi is never morally justified, it is sometimes less wrong to do so than it is to fail to punch a Nazi.
- Like most morally murky decisions, the determination of which Nazis to punch, and when, should be made in solidaristic discussion with thoughtful comrades, rather than arrived at solo or undertaken on the spur of the moment and in rage.
- This is so because, on the whole, decisions that do not involve clear application of a moral rule must appeal to a sensus communis of some sort; we access that commonsense best in goodwilled conversation, argument, with others, rather than alone.
- This is so because, for most individuals, our ability to wholeheartedly pursue opposing lines of reasoning, testing them against each other to determine which seems best for now, is limited; we need one another for that.
Is it morally justifiable to punch a Nazi? No. Is it sometimes better to punch a Nazi — even a Nazi who isn’t literally this moment physically attacking Jews or other “degenerates” — than not to punch a Nazi? Yes.
My own sense is that the when and the who of punching Nazis have a lot to do with what is most likely to help Nazism remain marginal as a political ideology, clearly socially unacceptable. Maintaining social boundaries is the impact of some violence, some of the time. Richard Spencer, for instance, went from being given CNN airtime last November to question — parroted by the chyron in its naive seriousness —whether Jews are people to barely squeezing his way onto campus at that bastion of the south, Auburn University, and the latter only by judicial order.
Punching Richard Spencer doesn’t seem to have raised the public stock of his white supremacism, but lowered it instead.
And that white supremacism cashes out in violence every day. So, I think it is probably better to punch Richard Spencer than not to punch Richard Spencer. That is, as long as he pursues and publicly promotes an agenda of white supremacism that directly countenances and fosters violence against black and brown bodies. But, I still think it’s not justified to punch him. Morally preferable, maybe, but not morally justified.
If you’re reading this and you do decide to go punch a Nazi, remember to stay safe by looking out for yourself and others. And if you decide to go some other route, say, by throwing eggs at Nazis, please work on your aim. Somebody got me in the back of the head here in Berkeley last week, and it’s a real pain in the ass to clean.