by Sam Bliss
Whether or not it is okay to punch a Nazi is the wrong question. Even those who say, No, it is not okay to punch a Nazi, would probably support waging all-out war against Nazis in certain situations. World War Two comes to mind.
The twittersphere hasn’t produced many interesting, intelligent discussions on the topic firstly because a social network of one-line postings never really hosts deliberative democracy, but also because the disagreeing factions are not necessarily arguing about the same thing. Of course it is okay to punch a Nazi, sometimes.
The more interesting question is this one: When is it okay to attack Nazis in what ways?
The person who socked well-known white nationalist leader Richard Spencer while he was being interviewed by a journalist in D.C. after the inauguration last Friday did not punch him just to punch him. If the black-clad individual had merely wanted to whack the bigot who coined the term “alt-right,” they would have done so at a moment when Spencer was not on camera surrounded by a small crowd.
The goal was to interfere with the interview, to stop Spencer from disseminating his anti-immigrant, anti-feminist, anti-Semitic hatred. Or rather, to stop the ignorant, click-hungry media from enabling the self-identified “identitarian” from spewing his anti-immigrant, anti-feminist, Semitic vitriol. The goal may also have been to humiliate him, and to get some laughs from those who agree that Spencer’s clean-shaven, contemptible face deserves a good, hard right hook to the face.
My opinion is that yes, it was a defensible punch. It shut Spencer up. Spencer states that the United States belongs to white men. He openly advocates black genocide and does not deserve a chance to speak. More on that in a minute.
This brings me to another interesting question: did the punch backfire? Some non-violence advocates insist that it makes anti-racists and anti-fascists look bad. We should not use the disrespectful tactics of the enemy, so the argument goes. Violence only breeds more violence. It is never justified, according to these anti-violence voices.
This is naïve—and possibly dangerous. From India’s independence from Britain to the end of U.S. slavery, racism has not been defeated with words, but by direct opposition. Anger may lead to the dark side, but Jedis do use light sabers. Non-violent anti-racism looks bad—when racists win.
To me, the punch might have backfired because now many more people have watched the interview than ever would have if not for the blow to the jaw. Giving airspace to people like Spencer gives them power. Look at what happened with President Trump. Or Adolf Hitler, for that matter. Repetitively communicating their despicable message is how people like them end up in the position to order the rest of us around. Both good press and bad press reward them with public attention.
From this perspective, the media should not have been interviewing Spencer in the first place. It will take a lot of restraint for the media to sacrifice traffic – and thus advertising revenue – by passing up click-worthy opportunities to shine the light on far-right extremists who feel empowered to organize and speak up in the age of Trump.
On the other hand, I learned that the alt-right is basically Nazism thanks to this incident. The popularity of the video—the internet has now set The Punch to various epic songs—has exposed people to the ridiculous racism of the alt-right. Because of it, we are more aware that this scary movement is gaining momentum. The chances have increased that we can stop the alt-right before we are forced to resort to violence much more serious than a sucker punch.
If the media ignores Nazis and Trump completely, then they can go about their evil ways hidden from public sight. But if the media gives them too much attention, it spreads their message.
So the question then becomes: when do we ignore Nazis, when do we report on them, and when do we punch them in the face? The media and non-media need to think hard about this one, every time. All three courses of action have their proper time and place.
Sam Bliss is a PhD student at the University of Vermont in the Economics for the Anthropocene research initiative. He loves reading, singing, and slow travel and strongly dislikes post-environmentalism.