Violent protest is not the answer

Donald Trump’s unexpected victory in the 2016 presidential election has galvanized an amorphous internet subculture called the alt-right. The group ranges from avowed white nationalists to sober reactionaries to pop reactionaries.

White nationalists seek a white ethno-state and endorse repatriation for non-whites. Some of them also believe that a Jewish establishment is trying to submerge western countries with third world immigration in order to precipitate a genocide of the white population. I wouldn’t invite them to my birthday parties. A reactionary is more sophisticated: he favours the benefits of cultural and ethnic homogeneity over pluralism; he favours protectionism over free trade; he favours nationalism over cosmopolitanism. He favours, most of all, social order and hierarchy over what he considers the illusory nature of egalitarianism and the destabilising consequences of social liberalism. Pop reactionaries favour pissing off establishment liberals and the vanguard of “social justice warriors” that occupy twitter. They are the tabloid iteration of reactionary politics. The now disgraced Milo Yiannopoulos is emblematic of pop reactionaries.The focus of this essay, however, will be on Richard Spencer — the white nationalist who claims he coined the term “alt-right”, and was punched on the day of Trump’s presidential inauguration whilst being interviewed on camera.

Richard Spencer heads a think-tank called the National Policy Institute. A native Texan, he started a PhD at Duke University which, like his interview, he didn’t finish. He likes to describe himself as an “identitarian”, and consciously co-opts the progressive left’s argument in favour of identity politics. The difference is he proudly supports identity politics for whites: which is another way of saying he supports white nationalism. The response from many people on the political left to the protester punching Spencer was delight — a fascist activist has no place in polite society, they argued. Fascists should be hounded out by any means necessary. Violent protest is a morally valid response to the presence of fascism.

The invocation of history is meant to serve as a moral lesson. The genocidal legacy of fascism is too potent to brush away as a historical memory. Fascism doesn’t respect the norms and values that underpin a liberal society: it celebrates violence and aggression; it rejects tolerance and peace; it is assertively anti-rational. Invoking liberal tolerance when talking about an intolerant belief-system is scandalously myopic, so the argument goes. If someone doesn’t recognise the basis by which you can articulate your liberal vision, denies the basis of black and Jewish and brown people’s claim to moral legitimacy, threatens the safety of minority groups through eliminationist rhetoric, this doesn’t constitute a mere disagreement — this is irreducibly dangerous rhetoric. It is thus justifiable to punch and to prevent, by any means necessary, people like Richard Spencer from speaking publicly. Let’s see if this argument stands up to scrutiny.

One defence of violent resistance to far-right politics comes with an invocation of the British National Front and its demise in the 1970s. Did the resistance to the National Front provide a historical basis for justifying violent resistance to far-right movements? Christopher Husbands, a sociologist at the London School of Economics, explains why the National Front’s mass appeal dissipated in an article published in 1979:

The fall in mass NF support from the extraordinary levels it was able to achieve in the special circumstances of 1976 might well have happened anyway, even if perhaps less quickly. It would never have been easy in a two-party system for a new party without deep historical resonances within the mass electorate to maintain such momentum. The view that such support may well have converted to the Conservatives with its racist motivation relatively unimpaired is consistent with available survey evidence. One study has shown, for example, that a larger proportion of Conservative than of Labour inner-city white voters would have been detached by the NF in the May General Election if the political climate had been propitious to the Front rather than the Conservatives.15 As most of the ANL’s protagonists well realise, the League may have successfully denigrated the NF but it has scarcely scratched the surface of native racist sentiment.

In other words, the National Front collapsed not mainly because of the effects of violent protesting but because National Front voters switched to the Tories. What explains the dissolution of far right parties is the internal in-fighting that typically characterise radical groups, their support base switching to more moderate parties, and general society becoming less racist. This excellent piece by Tim Wigmore explains why the BNP collapsed. He notes, for example, how society is becoming less racist, with “almost half of those born before 1950 oppose marriage between black and white people, only 14 per cent of those born since 1980 do”. But the main reason for their collapse was voters switching to less extreme parties.

Yet perhaps most important to the BNP’s collapse was the rise of Ukip. “Ukip are stealing our policies,” Squire says. He has previously called Ukip “an establishment safety valve”, while Griffin attacked Ukip as “plastic nationalists”….

There is a significant overlap between BNP and Ukip voters — both are older, poorer, whiter and more male-dominated than the population as a whole — and Ukip has wooed thousands of former BNP supporters. “There is a clear relationship between the rise of Ukip in local elections and the disintegration of the BNP,” says Matthew Goodwin, the author of UKIP: Inside the Campaign to Redraw the Map of British Politics. “The same social groups are underpinning both parties, as they are radical right parties across Europe.”

Nowhere in the article is violent resistance used as an explanation for the BNP’s demise. There is even evidence to suggest violent protest is counterproductive to anti-racist activism. A study that compares violent protests and nonviolent protests in the Civil Rights Revolutions finds:

In presidential elections, proximity to black-led nonviolent protests increased white Democratic voteshare whereas proximity to black-led violent protests caused substantively important declines and likely tipped the 1968 election from Hubert Humphrey to Richard Nixon.

In other words, violent protests played some role in discouraging Americans from supporting the candidate who was more sympathetic to the Civil Rights Act. So it’s not simply a case of violent protests not featuring as a key explanation for the demise of far-right in the past; there is some evidence it is counterproductive to anti-racist causes.

These historical invocations rest on consequentialist reasoning: punching fascists is the right thing to do because we know from the past it could lead to better outcomes. Unlike simply asserting whether the moral turpitude of fascists is sufficient justification for violent resistance, a consequentialist argument rests on empirical evidence in order for its outcomes to be measured. A corollary of this is that non-violent resistance is a less effective way of dealing with far-right politics. Since violence is unusual in a civilian context in western countries, the success of violent resistance must outweigh that of non-violent resistance for it be justified. The evidence does not support this conclusion. Indeed, one comprehensive study by Maria J. Stephan and Erica Chenoweth, of the International Center on Nonviolent Conflict and Wesleyan University respectively, compares the strategic effectiveness of violent campaigns with non-violent campaigns from 1900–2006 and argues:

Our findings show that major nonviolent campaigns have achieved success 53 percent of the time, compared with 26 percent for violent resistance campaigns. There are two reasons for this success. First, a campaign’s commitment to nonviolent methods enhances its domestic and international legitimacy and encourages more broad-based participation in the resistance, which translates into increased pressure being brought to bear on the target.

In other words, violent protests lead to worse outcomes than non-violent protests because they reduce general public support for the cause one is advocating. An interesting Pew Research Survey conducted in 2015 corroborates public disavowal of violent protests: whilst 95% of Americans support freedom of speech for criticising the Government, and 77% support freedom of speech that is offensive to religion, only 44% support freedom of speech that calls for violent protests. This only measures freedom of speech; It is possible to support freedom of speech for violent protest whilst still thinking it is wrong. This suggests that the majority of Americans categorically oppose violent protests. Of course this doesn’t necessarily imply violent protests are bad, but if the effectiveness of these protests is to be measured by public support — as the study above aptly demonstrates — then the fact that the majority of the public is categorically averse to violent protests implies it is counterproductive to endorse them.

A more recent and granular study, this time by sociologists at University of Toronto and Stanford University, examined public responses to recent extreme protests and concludes:

Although prior work has found extreme protest tactics help social movements gain attention and publicity (6–8, 19), thereby helping to raise awareness about the movement, our results highlight how such tactics can also impair a movement’s ability to recruit popular support. Studies 1–3 provide consistent evidence that the use of extreme protest tactics led observers to feel less social identification with the movement and, as a result, support the movement less.

This illustrates the consequentialist case for violent protest is weak. But one can surely think violent protest in general is not consequentially sound but violent protest against fascists in particular is justified. The case is still weak: the historical justifications rest on a misunderstanding of history, and the general justification rests on a disregard for the empirical evidence.

As the consequentialist argument for violent protest is weak, another avenue through which the political left can defend violence against far-right types is a deontological one. Punching fascists is good simply because fascists are evil. Several problems afflict this argument. For one, there is a tendency amongst the political left to define loosely who can described as a fascist. Although this tendency is acute amongst many relatively sober intellectual types, it is probably worse amongst people who actually do the punching. If punching a fascist is the right thing to do simply because fascists are bad, then it is vitally important that the term fascist is agreed upon by and is known intuitively by the general public. Some think Zionism a far-right belief system, and there have been calls for Zionist to be punched.

If punching someone that a lot of reasonable people agree is a fascist, a clearer case would be Richard Spencer. The major implication of this view, however, is that the norm against physically attacking someone is so weak that attacking a reprehensible person is permissible. It highlights the extent to which many on the political left don’t view the taboo as inviolable.

It is important to weigh the deontological case for punching fascists against the deontological case for not punching fascists: one of the very ways by which we demonstrate we are better than fascists is opposition to violence over ideological disagreement. There are certain cases when violent resistance to fascists is necessary. The context of an actual war is one example. This is why the meme of Indiana Jones punching a Nazi soldier is absurd. I think it is important to remind people they are not a fictional character fighting against a genocidal regime in a war; they are people on twitter celebrating punching a fascist in a country that is still a liberal democracy. A subtler case for punching fascists is the argument that the best way to defend the norms of liberal democracy is by sometimes subverting those norms. Fascists are a threat to liberal democracy therefore violent resistance to fascists is necessary for protecting liberal democracy. This is a sly consequentialist case: the best way to measure this is by measuring the outcomes of subverting these norms. Since the empirical data already disproves the idea that violent protests and violent resistance lead to good outcomes, it is a back-door consequentialist case that leads to a blind alley.

People endorse punching fascists because the sight of someone punching a fascist makes them feel good. Take this paragraph by Natasha Lennard in The Nation for example:

The transcendental experience of watching Roger Federer play tennis, David Foster Wallace wrote, was one of “kinetic beauty.” Federer’s balletic precision and mastering of time, on the very edge of what seems possible for a body to achieve, was a form of bodily genius. What Foster Wallace saw in a Federer Moment, I see in a video of neo-Nazi Richard Spencer getting punched in the face.

What explains the psychological pull of violence against one’s enemies? Contrary to the popular myth that evil is unique and aberrational, violence is a common feature of human psychology. There is what Steven Pinker calls in his magnum opus The Better Angels of Our Nature ‘the Moralization Gap’: the self-serving biases that present the violent acts we commit or support in a noble light. Drawing on Roy Baumeister’s critique of the myth of pure evil, Pinker argues:

The social defendant will emphasize the reasonableness or unavoidability of the action, and will minimize the plaintiff’s pain and suffering.

Punching fascists in the streets is an unavoidable outcome of the evilness of fascists. The important follow up question is to what extent the political left will describe anyone as fascist so they can furnish their desire for violence. Important to their justification of punching fascists is their sense of being on the right side of history. Being on the right side of history communicates an entitled sense of righteousness where the norms of civility and the principle of charity don’t apply. Affirming you are on the right side of history is another way of saying “god is on your side”. When the puritans lashed those they suspected of heresy and took pleasure in the ritual of public humiliation they too felt God was on their side.

Trump is the dream for the writer who has transitioned from writing dark comedy to writing tragedy; his hostility to the New York Times and the free press would be funny if he wasn’t the elected executive of the most powerful liberal democracy in the world; his humiliation of the social conservatives who have excused his wandering phallus and serial dishonesty would be funny if the victims of his predation and lies were not vulnerable women and ethnic minorities; his exposure of the liberal tendency to cry wolf at previous president’s alleged racism would be funny if he wasn’t the wolf stalking the forest. Some of the responses to him would be funny if he wasn’t manifestly a threat to the norms and institutions of liberal democracy. The seriousness of the threat he poses needs robust opposition, not one ready to celebrate vigilantism and the costs, both consequential and moral, that come with it.

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store