We should keep punching Nazis.
That is the title, thesis, and summary of this post all in one. There’s more to it than just that, but if you take away only one thing from what I have to say, let it be that sentence.
This past weekend saw some disturbing and frustrating events take place in Charlottesville, VA — and believe me, “disturbing and frustrating” is putting it lightly. I’m not going to spend too much time going over exactly what happened (you can find pretty comprehensive summaries from the New York Times or Vox), but I’ll go over a few major points before moving on to what I really want to say.
This past weekend, a rally under the heading of “Unite the Right” took place in the city of Charlottesville, Virginia, superficially dedicated to opposing the removal of a local statue to confederate General Robert E. Lee. In actuality, this was more of a pretense for a variety of far-right (or alt-right, or whatever; more on terminology choices in the next paragraph) demonstrators to gather for a tiki torch march and myriad other displays of hatred and bigotry, mainly against people of colour. This led to counter-protesting from a number of groups, including anti-fascism movements, University of Virginia students, and others.
The Charlottesville mayor and Virginia governor both declared a state of emergency. Police deemed the “Unite the Right” rally an unlawful assembly and ordered protestors to disperse. There were quite a number of violent altercations between the various groups, peaking with the actions of one James Alex Fields, Jr., an alt-right demonstrator who drove a car into a group of counter-protesters, killing one and injuring 19.
Perhaps even more striking than so many white supremacists gathering in the streets and parks of Charlottesville, Virginia is the audacity and openness with which they did so. There was no fear, no shame. Most did nothing to hide their faces or identities. Many carried Nazi flags, chanted Nazi slogans, and raised their hands in Nazi salutes. The demonstrators seemed legitimately convinced that they were on the right side, that their beliefs have been vindicated. That they’re winning.
“We condemn in the strongest possible terms this egregious display of hatred, bigotry and violence on many sides, on many sides.”
— Donald Trump
The scariest part is that it can seem like they aren’t entirely wrong on that last point; at the very least, they’ve gained plenty of visibility in recent years and especially the months since Donald Trump was elected president. Trump himself has often been seen as supporting white supremacist movements, at least implicitly by his failure to directly condemn such movements and their hateful, violent actions. That pattern continued following the events in Charlottesville, as Trump held silent for hours before giving a brief statement and, again, declining to denounce the white supremacist groups in Charlottesville and instead condemning violence “on many sides.”
He offered an additional statement — including an actual condemnation — today, but by this point it seems like his intended message has already been sent. The President of the United States does not seem at all fazed by open demonstrations from white supremacist groups, violent attacks perpetrated by such groups, or even the fact that such groups often view themselves as aligned with Trump’s goals and beliefs.
I’m going to state the obvious here and say that this is all incredibly troubling.
The turmoil in Charlottesville ignited a debate that has been broiling among leftists, centrists, and basically anybody who isn’t a white supremacist since January: speaking as people who vehemently disagree with the views of these white supremacists and the alt-right in general, how should we show that disagreement? How should we visibly and forcefully condemn their words and actions?
Or, more specifically, is it okay to punch a Nazi?
The debate begin in January, when white nationalist and eminently punchable Nazi Richard Spencer was socked in the head during an interview.
There was a lot of discussion and plenty of jokes in the following days, but the key issue was this: is it ethically sound and effective to punch white supremacists, “stooping to their level” by using physical force, or should we be engaging in discussion to try and change their minds?
I will say that, prior to the events in Charlottesville this past weekend, I was uncertain on the question, but now I know definitively where I stand. We should keep punching Nazis.
There will always be some small percentage of the population that is determined to hate someone, and there is literally nothing that anyone can do to stop them from holding that opinion. To be quite honest, it’s actually none of our concern whether or not a person has racist beliefs. Our concern is whether they act on them.
Put another way, it’s not like the white supremacists in Charlottesville became white supremacists when Trump was elected. They had likely held those beliefs for years or even decades, but simply hadn’t shown their beliefs so publicly for fear of social ostracization, institutional censure, or other consequences that would have come about as a result.
And then Donald Trump was elected, riding on a surge of xenophobic rhetoric, isolationist campaign promises, and tacit or explicit endorsements from former KKK leaders. Suddenly, these white supremacists felt much of their fear dissipate. The threat of institutional punishment that had previously held them back seemed far less credible when the highest institution in the United States was held by “one of their own.” The remaining consequences were apparently not severe enough, as these Nazis came crawling out of the woodwork.
Discussion will not solve this issue and, in many cases, will only strengthen the white supremacists’ confidence in the legitimacy of their beliefs. What, then, is the solution?
We bolster the informal consequences. As a society, we make it clear that prejudice and discrimination will not be tolerated. We make it clear that voicing or acting on racist opinions could lead to social ostracization, loss of employment, and general condemnation and disdain from the larger society. And yes, if necessary, we punch some Nazis.
Note that none of the above solutions infringe upon the right to freedom of speech, as handily demonstrated by this xkcd comic:
We can also promote more cohesive and tolerant opinions through our education systems, even simply by increasing diversity and integration. There’s a decent (albeit flawed) blueprint for how to do so offered by the Robbers Cave experiment in psychology, which explored whether prejudice could be arbitrarily learned and, crucially, unlearned.
I have long believed that racism, sexism, ableism, and basically all forms of discriminatory hatred and prejudice will eventually die a quiet death (note that I refer here to individually held beliefs, not the institutional kind). There will always be that very small percentage of people who are dedicated to hatred, but many of those who now hold prejudiced and racist beliefs were not always that way. They learned those opinions at some point in their life. If we can interrupt the cycle through which those opinions are learned and passed on — if we can increase the consequences of active discrimination and prejudice while promoting tolerant beliefs from a young age — we can functionally eradicate racism.
It may be a long, arduous, and frustrating process, particularly when figures like Donald Trump come along and seem to undo years or decades of social change. But we can achieve it. If the current government of the United States isn’t willing to show that discrimination and prejudice have consequences, we as citizens can. We can choose not to condone racist jokes or actions. We can correct friends or acquaintances that unintentionally make harmful comments.
We can continue to punch Nazis right in their goddamn faces.
Note: this article deals primarily with the United States, as the events described herein took place in Virginia. Canada is also facing a similar problem with far-right extremism, which you can (and should!) read about here.