Punching Nazis: Yay or Nay?

The year is 2017, and voicing your concerns at the idea that vigilantes can just punch people they disagree with, makes you slightly worse than Adolf Hitler.

This whole discussion started on Twitter. Now summing-up and continuing in a medium where every nuanced argument does not have to fit in a neat 140 characters1.

“Why do you love Nazis so much?”

If you remotely know me and utter that statement, you are being a glib arsehole. If you don’t know me at all, you are still favouring ad hominem while completely missing the point. Either way, I am afraid there is just no point discussing further.

“You aren’t a Nazi. You are way worse: you are an appeaser !”

Remember when Bush Jr used that term to attack people who opposed the war in Iraq? Congratulations, you have just used a Dick Cheney talking point to justify the use of gratuitous violence.

“Appeasing” does not mean what you think it means. Appeasement was the cowardly policy of letting Hitler murder his people and invade neighbouring countries, in the hope that he would enjoy his victories and stop there. The farthest victories enjoyed by our 21st century nazi so far, has been the ability to broadcast his spiteful bile to a bunch of basement-dwelling internet trolls and talking to the occasional moron journalist (more on that in a minute). Your problem is with free speech and its limits, not “appeasement”.

“Calling for genocide is not free speech.”

We are finally in somewhat-sane debating territory. And you are right: even the US’ extremely permissive free speech laws prohibit incitement. That’s great news: someone ought to drag this muppet to court and make an example out of him.

Except: chances are, he never outright called for genocide, because like most semi-successful scumbags, he is smart enough to know how far he legally can go.

Most of his statements, however, would easily land him in a European court, where people are understandably more touchy about the whole nazi-speech thing. I happen to lean with Chomsky and against this attempt at legislating hate away, but I would not necessarily think that people on either side of that debate are freedom-haters or nazi-lovers…

The crucial word in all the above is “legal”. That bit of nazi-punching occurred in a country that enjoys a reasonably sturdy (if imperfect) legal framework that offers some decent amounts of protection from physical oppression by civilians2. If you object to speech: you have legal recourses. If these recourses are lacking, you still have many options to fight back without resorting to punching. But the fact you don’t have legal recourses in a lawful state would be a good indication that you are not being directly threatened physically, and that’s where most people consider punching a no-no.

“As a non-oppressed person, you are not entitled to have a position on this”

First, this is a comically bad application for this argument. As a very-white, cis, hetero, able-bodied, financially-secure guy, there are very few discourses I could legitimately cry oppression about, and yet as it happens this is the one instance where I am fairly sure I have a lot more personal skin in that game than the sheltered black-bloc teenager with anger issues who socked our nazi3.

Moreover, that is an incredibly silly thing to respond to someone voicing concern about the legitimisation of violence in a civilian context: it might be relevant if I was defending his right to free speech, but I am not. I am defending his right to not be punched, as long as he does not present a clear and present danger to anyone.

“If punching people is off-limits, I guess you’d rather we engage nazis and be nice to them”

Actually no. There is a huge array of options between “engaging” (or even “tolerating”), and punching. My preferred option by far, would be to completely shun and ignore that sort of abhorrent but fringe views, and instead focus on the much more concrete danger of a toxic authoritarian moron (and his cronies) heading one of the most powerful country on Earth. But I realise this is a lot more difficult than reposting cool memes of a hateful leech getting repeatedly elbowed in the face, to a cool beat.

“That nazi is now a walking joke who has gone into hiding and lives in fear: Punching Works!”

Ignoring the whole “end-justifies-means” angle for a second, even this tiny achievement is verifiably false: never has there been more mentions of him in my social media feeds, the guy is now giving interviews left and right and featured in every single news outlet. Congratulations on giving a piece-of-shit nazi the kind of media exposure he could only ever dream of a week ago. Hope that meme was worth it.

Most importantly: assuming it even achieved any measurably positive result, what is the end game here? Do we go around punching every nazi sympathisers until not one dares speak up in public4? Obviously, we next have to do the same to every racist arsehole out there5. Or perhaps we start with all the homophobic scumbags freely spouting their hate on TV?

Guess you have a lot of punching to do. Off you go then. Good luck and remember: thumb always on the outside.

“Whatever… It won’t achieve much but at least it felt good watching a nazi getting punched.”

… is probably where that debate should start, if everyone was honest with themselves.

And yes: it did feel good watching that spiteful piece-of-shit getting sucker-punched mid-sentence. It still feels good after repeat viewing, and some of these nazi-punching memes are outright hilarious.

But there’s a major difference between having a positive visceral reaction to an act of violence, and intellectually condoning and defending it. That difference is the essence of modern democratic societies: the idea that might does not make right6.

Once this is acknowledged, feel free to accept the use of extra-legal civilian violence in times of peace as an agent of social change, but do not be surprised when you find yourself in the company of the very people you claim to be fighting.

“OK. Maybe not a great idea. But really not worth fretting about.”

Because when a populist authoritarian xenophobe just became President of the USA and is pushing to keep his own privately-ran militia, what could go wrong with the legitimisation of unsanctioned violence committed by private citizens?

How much do you want to bet, that this video will soon resurface, reframed as an example of the lawlessness of the land and the need for more authoritarian control? When your grandma from Kansas sees the video of a nicely-dressed gentleman with a friendly demeanour, speaking in a reassuringly calm tone, getting suddenly knocked out by a masked assaillant, do you think she will think “that nazi scum had it coming”? And if you just said “screw stupid grandma and her Fox News-bred ignorance”, congratulations: you are a perfect example of how a populist moron with marginal support managed to win that election.

The main reason punching nazis is bad7, is that, on top of achieving no measurable positive long-term result, it will likely bolster the moral and PR position of said nazis and other, less cartoonishly evil but no less despicable, people.

“Had there been more nazi-punching in the 1930s, maybe things would have turned better”

… is what you might say, if you have never opened a history book describing the ascension to power of the German Nazi party in the 1930s.

One of the main reasons Hitler was able to transform a thin electoral victory within a weak-but-functioning democracy, into complete totalitarian control, in a matter of years, was precisely the perception that public order was no longer assured and that social norms had broken down. A perception mostly orchestrated by nazi propaganda, but conveniently supported by a decade of street violence by post-spartakist KPD and other radical leftwing movements. It did not matter how morally justified or isolated these acts of civilian violence may have been: they were propped up as examples of the failings of democracy and, by the time the Reichstag burnt down, enough Germans were fine with a dictatorship.

To be very clear: the vast majority of that nazi punching was entirely justified, and you would have hopefully found me cheering on the punching if not outright participating. But never use it as an argument that pre-emptively punching nazis in the street is how you prevent nazis from gaining power, because that’s demonstrably false.

“Shut up already… Alt-right stooge…”

At the end of the day, I do not think this incident is either the next Reichstag Fire, nor as innocuous and laugh-inducing as some would want it to be. I am fairly confident that the vast majority of people who disagree with me on this somewhat-academic issue are not bloodthirsty beasts. I may also be completely blind to the very real and impending risk of that nazi’s ruthlessly organised online paramilitary organisation taking over the country tomorrow and putting his unfathomably horrid ideas into practice. Maybe that black-bloc guy was actually a time-traveller who prevented the next Hitler. In any case, I think it is a debate where it is perfectly possible to hold either opinion and still be a very decent person one might enjoy a cup of coffee with8.

Interestingly enough, that is not the position of many people on the opposite side of this debate. Apparently, merely questioning whether punching people is OK, automatically moves me from the cozy near-radical leftwing views I always foolishly thought I held, to the outer fringes of Pepe-loving foaming Rightwing Twitter trolls. At least based on some of the lovely measured reactions I got on Twitter on occasions where the topic came up9.

And that, (not so) ironically, is a good example of why allowing the free punching of nazis without due process, is a dangerous idea.

  1. This other post gave a good summary of my own thoughts on the matter. Unfortunately, with a needless anti-intellectual, leftwing-strawmaning tangent in point 4. []
  2. Yes: with many systemic oppression issues. But the sources of that oppression are overwhelmingly agents of authority, not sociopathic weirdos wearing a frog lapel pin. []
  3. Before you howl at my reductive characterisation of typical black-block protesters, you better make sure you know what you are talking about. Because I was a stupid teenager once, and I have a pretty good first-hand idea. []
  4. Good thing they don’t have any worldwide network that would let them anonymously share their despicable ideas and organise from the comfort of their home, safe from punching, huh? []
  5. Unless you think it is acceptable to only wish black people dead, as opposed to both blacks and Jews. But you don’t, do you? []
  6. And for the love of Hobbes, spare me your arguments about State violence, and resistance to it. This particular internet-forum nazi was most definitely not an agent of the State nor exercising violence in its name. []
  7. Assuming you live in 2017 DC, and not in some alternate dimension where the Reich controls the Eastern seaboard… []
  8. By comparison, I doubt I could even enjoy a post-apocalyptic survival meal with a Trump supporter. []
  9. I would bet a tenner that this guy, for example, is busy patting himself on the back for telling off one of them Trump-loving nazis… []