On January 20, 2017, the inauguration day of America's 46th president, Donald Trump, the alt-right leader Richard B. Spencer was giving an on-camera interview when he was sucker punched. The hoodie-clad protestor then fled the scene. Over the weekend, amidst many other debates, the internet considered whether it was, or was not, ethically acceptable to launch an unprovoked physical assault on a "neo-nazi." The brief clip of the assault itself was widely viewed and became viral in many different incarnations.
The central point of debate is not whether Richard Spencer's "identitarian" philosophies are odious. Accepting that they are is table stakes for the discussion about whether there are, or are not, bounds past which one may take physical action against another without acting in immediate self-defense.
One camp opines that it is, indeed, OK to commit this particular assault. They argue that our desire to be accepting and tolerant of other viewpoints need not extend to those who would, as a overt matter of policy, deny the basic human rights of others. Nazis are clearly so far over the decency line that we need not allow them to feel that it is safe to participate overtly in society. The unprovoked punch only seems disproportionate in isolation, for we know all too well from history what a Nazi first strike looks like: Kristallnacht. Warren Ellis puts it this way:
Their agenda is always, always, extermination. Nazis need a punch in the face.
The basic counter-argument is that freedom of speech is a basic right, and that freedom from arbitrary assault applies equally to everyone. Richard Spencer's views may be unacceptable to most of us, but they are not a crime in and of themselves. He has the right to personal security in public, and the right to express his views, subject to laws about hate speech. It is never appropriate for vigilante justice to be condoned.
What strikes me about the arguments for and against is that they assume that the decision to strike, even impulsive as it seemingly was, was at least somewhat rational. The debate then attempts to distill the decision tree for future nazi-punching opportunities into a clean yes/no decision.
It interests me not just generally as as study in ethics, but also in relation to an experience I had in December. I was aboard a municipal bus in a heavy snowstorm during the evening commute. The bus was full and the ride was very slow as the bus and cars fought the elements. I had managed to slide into a single seat about 1/3 of the way back from the driver. From about 4 seats behind me I could hear a male voice speaking. I could not see him at the time. He sounded sober, and was relating a story about his recent experience on the subway. He repeated it loudly, in several variations, as we rode along. I think he was talking on his mobile phone, though I was never able to be sure. I paraphrase one iteration as follows
So the guy was watching ISIS videos on his phone. Fucking ISIS videos. I don't want to watch fucking ISIS videos, so I tell him, shut that shit off. You can't watch that shit, it's disgusting. And he keeps on watching ISIS videos, sitting right beside me. So I fuckin' hit him. I still have blood on my hands, yeah. Yeah, they stopped the train and everything. Two transit cops came, and the guy, he doesn't want to press charges, he just wants to go home. So they let me go. Now I'm on the bus. Fucking ISIS videos, on his phone.
This went on for a a good half hour. One passenger tried to get the man to stop, and was harangued for his trouble. I wondered if I would have to get up and intercede, and if I was up to doing it, but it fizzled out quickly. Not long after the bus emptied a bit at a major intersection, and I took a good look at the guy. White, mid-20s, bearded like a lumberjack, beefy but not fat. Not someone I would want to tangle with. We exchanged a look that made me think I was not up to a confrontation that day. A few blocks later I was able to escape, having elected not to speak up. (I should note in passing that I have interceded on the subway in other situations.)
I've been thinking about how my erstwhile bus mate decided he was seeing "ISIS videos." He did not strike me as someone who was well-equipped to make that determination. Maybe he was back from a tour in Afghanistan, or otherwise could actually tell, but it didn't sound like an informed opinion. It seemed far more likely that he saw some Arabic script and leapt to conclusions. I think it more likely than not that an innocent person was assaulted. Until the weekend my musing was mostly about what I might have done had I been on the subway when the incident occurred.
Now I also see it as an interesting frame for the "Can I punch a Nazi?" debate. I can see some appeal in saying that Nazis and their enablers are on the wrong side of every line, that they seem to feel it's safe to come into the light, and that they should be pushed back into the dark, even with force if need be. Warren Ellis' take is not totally without merit, and everyone wants to be the Batman. But it's a short step from there to swapping in "terrorist" for "Nazi" and another from there to punching people in the subway for watching "ISIS videos." And even if I were to conclude that it's OK to punch a Nazi, how would I convince my bearded fellow traveller that he was in the wrong? He was proud of his bloody knuckles and oblivious to the possibility that he might have erred.
So, it's wrong to punch the Nazi. It's wrong to be the Batman. Not because you'd do it wrong, paragon of virtue and clear thinking that you are. But because enabling everyone to be the Batman seems likely to cause a lot of harm and precious little good. The precedent that condoning the act would establish far outweighs anything that it might accomplish.
By all means, stand up to injustice, shout in the face of fascism, mock and expose those who would trample the rights of others. Remain vigilant. But respect the laws and the mores of common behavior. Protest using non-violent means. Because an army of self-appointed Batmen is not the answer, even while "identitarians" and their ilk are temporarily emboldened.
Warren Ellis quote via Bleeding Cool