Punching Nazis is very much en vogue at the moment because a Nazi got punched and people loved it. You will have seen a variety of answers to “should you punch a Nazi?” floating about recently, the answer being mainly YES, YES , it looks great set to music and also:
When you post anything like the above, the comments flower with “Oh, so we should just punch people we disagree with?” Your glee at a Nazi being punched has been made invalid by a sensible centrist, the kind of person for whom the prospect of genocide, trampled rights and mass deportation really is just an intellectual exercise, something that only happens to other people (because as a matter of fact it does only happen to other people) – or, in that safest place in the world, history.
But Nazism (and I use the word here as a shorthand for a range of fascist, far-right ideologies) is not a question of opinion or mere disagreement. This is not cats vs. dogs, Ford vs. Holden. Nazism is a fundamental betrayal of the core principles of human civilisation, and to entertain the prospect of reasoned debate is to state that those core principles are up for discussion in the first place – and given the gold standard for any intelligent discussant is their ability to compromise, reason will take us to terrifying places.
Go on, you try it. Mount a logical argument. Genocide is bad because… what? The economy? Remember to whip out some proper stats, don’t fall back on wishy-washy ideological positions about the inherent and unmeasurable value of human life. Be objective. Collect your credible sources and your iron-clad argument for why mass extermination is a bad thing – the contributions to society we would stand to lose, the hit the tourism sector would take, oh and do remember to mention the unwritten books and the music we would never hear! Then we can start the debate. How much of a contribution would a group – statistically – have to make to society to be spared? (Note that there will always have to be statistics) What if the music isn’t very good, what then? Listen, what if we don’t kill anyone but just… move them? That wouldn’t be so bad, would it?
This is where we arrive at the limits of reason. Don’t get me wrong, we’ve had a good run with the legacy of the Enlightenment, but the fetishisation of rational debate at all cost is dangerous.* As a species we are capable of terrifyingly respectable horrors, and they all begin with allowing debate where there should have been a punch.
“If you punch a Nazi you become just as bad as them,” goes the next rebuttal.
But this isn’t some kind of reverse vampire scenario. Fascism isn’t an ideology you absorb through the knuckles. Yes, violence is bad and there is a very good reason punching people is illegal. However. One punch does not a genocide make.
Let’s talk about that gold standard intelligent discussant, the one who wants to hear “both sides” of a story before deciding that everyone was probably a little bit right, maybe. This person is closely related to the Ideal Leftist. The most important thing about leftists in general – certainly if you ask anyone who isn’t one – is that they pride themselves on their tolerance**. They go about the place tolerating all sorts of things, immigrants and vaginas and secular education and pangender bathrooms. Tolerance is very much their thing. It also follows that leftists are massive hypocrites, because there is a bunch of stuff they don’t tolerate, like locker room talk and climate change denial. Also, they go on about how fossil fuels are bad but some of them own cars. Amazing, right?
People who don’t like immigrants and vaginas and secular education and pangender bathrooms like to measure all leftists against the Ideal Leftist, a personification of tolerance and ideological purity. “In a way, they’re the truly intolerant ones,” they muse of real life lefties, aceing the logic exam. Only by tolerating everything and by never compromising can you have credibility. This is a position that makes perfect sense to someone who thinks ‘tolerance’ is a fact without context, a game you win by finding the greatest number of things unobjectionable.
No, you do not lose all credibility or moral high ground as a rational, peace-loving lefty if you punch a Nazi. You merely lose the ability to be the Ideal Leftist, living on a slippery slope of the Möbius strip of tolerance.
And the thing about punching Nazis is that it works:
“They didn’t expect this at all. The Right are so accustomed to sneering at the non-violent methods of protest that the left employ (while still labelling them as eco-terrorists, of course) that they had no idea how to respond to this. […] Richard Spencer [the punchee] has since claimed he is afraid to be seen in public.”
This is all good news. But we’re missing something important. When does punching Nazis work the best? When it is televised. This is crucial.
When the punch first happened Spencer lamented that it would become “the meme to end all memes”. Remember that these right-wing weirdoes have particularly flaccid ideas about masculinity – they throw words like ‘cuck’ around as if they were genuine insults fercrissakes! To be punched by a leftist, by definition of course a touchy-feely tree-hugging limp-wristed pinko, is embarrassing to them in a way it just isn’t to other people. To be so assaulted publically – globally! – while trying to claim a greater slice of the air time pie is humiliating.
“Should you punch a Nazi?” is an ethical question which makes us engage in a theoretical resistance – and for me punching Nazis will remain an intellectual exercise. I know I am not going to do it myself, and you will see me wear my respectability politics daily in my unbroken fingers. You may be in the same boat. The good news is that we don’t need everyone to punch Nazis to get them where it hurts.***
So, on that note, I solemnly swear to continue posting quality #punchingnazis content. I will grasp my weak latte in my tiny girly clicktivist hands and I will meme the bejesus out of every such golden moment, and I will respect all relevant pronouns while I do it.
*I’m aware of the irony of arriving at this position while we are also all riding the #alternativefacts wave, but questioning the primacy of ‘respectful debate’ is not about denying the true state of the world, but of refusing to have our actions within that world defined by the caricatures others hold of us.
** They really, really do not.
*** It is also worth acknowledging that we would be having a different kind of conversation entirely had Spencer died in the incident, or been set upon by several people, instead of just staggering around a bit looking stunned. The punch was the perfect storm: maximum impact, minimum injury.