Sunday, 19 February 2017

The question of punching Nazis

This blog tends to straggle a fortnight or so behind the news, but people haven’t stopped talking about this yet:

You know, if there were two propositions I’d always have thought were established beyond doubt, it’s that the world is round and that the Nazis were bad. But in the last year there have arisen fad movements questioning both. I imagine, though I admit I don’t have any data here, that there’s quite a large membership overlap between the two movements. I don’t intend to defend either proposition here. My question instead is whether it’s morally defensible to do what that guy in the GIF is doing, i.e., punching Richard Spencer in the face.

This is an interesting test case for the ethics around free speech; it’s so extreme, in two different ways. On the one hand, the usual defences for limiting speech do not apply. Spencer in that clip is not being argued with angrily, blocked from an internet forum, disinvited from a speaking engagement, or having a newspaper refuse to publish his letters – he’s getting punched in the face while trying to speak to a camera. We can’t say that he’s merely being “shown the door” or that the attacker is exercising his right to free speech. This was a violent act, an act of physical force. On that basis many people have condemned it, including Jerry Coyne:

If the Left is to keep the moral high ground, we simply can’t go around physically attacking those whose views we don’t like. In fact it’s ironic, because when progressives do this, they’re implicitly denying someone a real safe space: a space to be free to express your opinions and remain physically safe. “Safety” refers to freedom from physical attack or illegal harassment, not to freedom from hearing views you don’t like.
As a conscientious objector, I’ve always adhered to the nonviolent philosophies of Martin Luther King and Mahatma Gandhi, for if you start violence, you lose credibility.

But Coyne is misrepresenting the situation when he lumps Spencer under “those whose views we don’t like”. Elsewhere he has disputed the characterization of Spencer as a “Nazi”, since Spencer is not a formal member of a National Socialist party. Given that Spencer is on record as questioning whether Jews are people and proposing that Africans be exterminated, I’d call that hair-splitting. Coyne is Jewish; if he wants to forgive a man who denies his humanity, that’s his prerogative. But I think other Jewish and African people might want a say in the matter as well.

Spencer’s racist views constitute the second way in which this is an extreme case. The usual arguments for protecting offensive speech also do not apply here. Spencer is not speaking truth to power. He is not proposing a crackpot idea that just might be true, or even one whose falsehood offers us teaching opportunities in the effort of rebuttal. We already know what happens when the assumptions he is challenging cease to hold; that’s what the 1930s and 40s were all about. And the punch doesn’t set a precedent for violent state intervention against dissidents, because it wasn’t delivered by an agent of the state.

What about the moral high ground, as per Coyne’s objection? The moral high ground isn’t just a place to keep your own self-image squeaky-clean; it’s a critical strategic position which any resistance movement abandons at its peril. At some point, you must gain the support of the public or abandon your cause. To do that, you must inspire them either with sympathy or with fear. Fear has short-term advantages that make it tempting – not least that you control the media’s attention. But it is fatal in the long run. If the citizens sympathize, some of them may help you stay off the state’s radar; if they’re afraid, they’ll hold the state’s coat while it swats you like a fly. India is no longer a British colony because Gandhi didn’t terrorize people. Northern Ireland is still a British colony because the IRA did terrorize people.

(Worse still, you might buck the odds and win. The English Civil War, the French Revolution, and the Russian Revolution are examples. It’s no coincidence that these were followed by the tyrannies of, respectively, Oliver Cromwell, Napoleon Bonaparte, and Joseph Stalin. Power gained by fear can only be held by fear.)

But America is in an even sorrier state than I thought if one sucker-punch is all it’s going to take to divert the sympathy of the public to “alt-right” Nazis. Not many resistance movements can survive without being prepared to occasionally defend themselves, either. Martin Luther King didn’t riot, but he openly sympathized with those who did. The gay rights movement in the US began when the patrons of the Stonewall Inn fought back – yes, fought back – against police harassment. The boundary between sympathy and terror is not the same as the boundary between using force and not using force. Most people are not complete fools; they can tell the difference between hitting people to make them do what you say and hitting people to stop them kicking you around.

All in all, I can’t see that the person who punched Richard Spencer in the face did anything wrong. What does bother me is the idea some people seem to have that more punching is the way we’re going to win this thing. It’s not. This is one of the deep cognitive flaws in the human psyche: “Find out whose fault the problem is and hurt them until it goes away.” That very flaw is the core of Nazism and fascism, and for that reason Nazis and fascists are always going to be better at hurting people than we who oppose them. Force may sometimes be necessary, but if the decisive contest is our force against theirs, they will win.

What we’re better at doing than they are is telling the truth. (The Trump White House has already, in its first month, invented three non-existent terrorist attacks to justify Trump’s anti-Muslim measures.) The Nazis themselves are obviously not going to be listening, but other people are. They need to see that we have answers to every one of the fascists’ lies. I salute the brave scientists, reporters, judges, and bloggers who are standing up for the truth. We need more of you. Kia kaha.