First of all: hell yes. It’s absolutely fucking fine to punch an actual Nazi in the actual face if you happen to be a Jew (or a prostitute or gay or black or mentally or physically challenged) and the year is 1943 and that Nazi is herding you into the ghetto, or lining you up for selection, or shoving you into a cattle car, or marching you to the gas chambers, or raping you, or holding a gun to your head. Or your mother’s. Or your daughter’s. Or if you happen to be a German or a Pole or a Slav or French or Greek or Hungarian and you see those Jews being tortured, eliminated, slaughtered. Correction: It’s not just absolutely fine—it’s your moral obligation.
Would that more Nazis were punched in the face in 1943.
Is it OK to punch Richard Spencer, popularizer of the term “alt-right,” in the face?
Despite what is making the rounds on the internet after a video was released of a stranger punching Spencer in the face, those are actually two different questions. Not because Spencer’s ideology is so different from Nazism—it isn’t, and that’s terrifying—but because the year isn’t 1943, and despite what he might wish to do, Spencer isn’t (yet) attempting to commit genocide. When Spencer was punched in the face, he wasn’t in the process of killing or torturing someone. Not in that moment. Despite the logical conclusion of his ideology, despite the very serious threat that he both represents and poses, he is not currently murdering people.
So it’s a different question, but it’s still a question: Is it OK to punch Richard Spencer (or his sympathizers) in the face, in 2017?
To put it another way: Can someone initiate an act of violence in protection or self-defense, and if so, is it OK?
My mother used to tell us that if we hit someone (usually but not always a sibling) first, we shouldn’t be surprised if that someone hits us back. She’d even go further and say that if we hit someone, we should expect to be hit back. She might have even said it was OK to hit back. (Sorry mum, but you did!) She was, I think, teaching us to defend ourselves alongside demonstrating that actions have direct consequences. She wanted us to learn to stand up for ourselves.
I get it. I just disagree: We’ve always taught our kids not to respond to violence with violence (or to frustration with violence, or to anger with violence, or even to cruelty or meanness—abundant in sibling interactions—with violence). We’ve told them that it doesn’t really matter who started it (whatever “it” is) but how it is finished. We’ve told them that violence hurts, and is wrong, and they shouldn’t respond to something wrong by doing the same thing. At that point, when both sides have done the same wrong thing, it’s pretty hard to tell the difference. For now (they are little still), they can find a grown-up to help them if they are hurt or feel unsafe or need to be protected or just don’t know what to do. I know many people disagree, but we think that getting a grown-up’s help is just fine: Violence is hard for anyone to handle on their own. Violence is hard for anyone to respond to rationally. Why do we call it tattling when kids seek help to enact the moral code they’ve been raised with?
That will change when they get older, maybe. I hope they won’t be in situations where they have to defend themselves physically, but they might. And then I hope they are able to hit back.
I also hope they don’t go around hitting anyone who expresses racist, sexist, homophobic, anti-Semitic, or Islamophobic views. (Sadly, we all have plenty of opportunities to do that right now, but we don’t. Partly to be doogma’ot—examples—for our children.) Not only would that be wrong (it would), it would be bad strategy. It would make those doing the hitting vulnerable, and it would add fuel to their attackers’ claims. Importantly, it would also ignore a far more powerful weapon from their arsenal: language.
While the question of hitting Richard Spencer is interesting and morally complicated, it is also the wrong one. The question should not be is it OK to hit Richard Spencer (it may or may not be), but, is it effective? One version of the ethics of hitting Spencer is contingent on whether it serves to ultimately protect the vulnerable people that he attacks. (Another would be focused on punishment of evil; that’s a different discussion.) I say there are better ways to do that. I say that resistance begins with words. With language. With policies and laws and institutions and structural change. With supporting people who are more vulnerable so that his language ultimately poses less threat, so that we don’t have to protect and defend with violence. We fight with our minds first, so that we don’t have to fight with our bodies.
But we might have to fight with our bodies, too. I know that. I honor those who have done it in the past and are doing it today. I don’t advocate pacifism as the ultimate strategy: There is a time and a place for violent struggle. There is a time and a place for hitting Nazis, or blowing them off the forking map. This (please God) is not (yet) the time. This (with the help of allies) is not (yet) the place.
It may be OK to hit a Nazi, but it’s not—yet—necessary. Let’s keep it that way.