I've noticed left-wingers. both my friends and random people online, celebrate Dick's decking. Myself, I'm mildly amused by it. He's a hateful white nationalist bastard, and while I cannot condone the unidentified protester's action, I feel like he got what he deserved.
Until I saw this tweet:
Oh dear God.
The reason I am assaulted is that no one can defeat our ideas.— Richard 🐸 Spencer (@RichardBSpencer) January 22, 2017
(Hat tip to Spinosauruskin for pointing it out in his video.)
Leading ethicists have weighed in on whether it is acceptable to punch a Nazi:
—David Cohen, interviewed by Newsweek
Are you familiar with this video of Richard Spencer getting punched?
Yeah. Do you really not know if it's ethical to punch someone even though they have odious politics? I mean, should we call your mother? Or my mother? Or anybody's mother?
Some people have even argued that not punching Nazis leads to genocide:
Cohen went on to note that, while the act of punching is itself immoral, there's nothing wrong with laughing at the video and its various remixes (as I have done myself; my favourite remix is the one set to New Order's 'Blue Monday':
Let me read to you one comment that I saw on Twitter: “If you don't punch Nazis, Holocausts happen. That's what we learned from letting Nazis speak in public the last time. You have to punch them.”
That’s ridiculous. That's nonsensical. One does not flow from the other. Because one of the most monstrous catastrophes in human history occurred, it is not because people failed to punch Nazis. It simply doesn't follow. Nor does it follow that if you fail to punch Richard Spencer, there will be dire consequences. It would seem to me Gandhi's example or King's example are quite to the contrary. Where even allied against incredibly powerful armed opponents, genuine social change is possible without resorting to the gutter tactics of people like Spencer.
There are two different arguments here. One is: Is the behavior justified on its own terms? Is physical violence a morally justifiable response to the expression of odious ideas. In my view, it is not. The argument you're reading on Twitter is what's called a consequentialist argument. So this person is asserting that the only way to stop the rise of Nazism is with physical violence. And I think that's a quite dubious assertion. Even if one were doing a consequentialist analysis here, this is a dubious assertion. The assertion becomes: It is necessary to punch Richard Spencer in order to halt some impending Holocaust, and I just don't think that's true. It seems to me this fails both on the grounds of moral reasoning and on the grounds of political strategy.
This next question is not really an ethical question. But did you personally watch the video of Richard Spencer being punched?
I did not. It wasn't because I was averting my glance; I just didn't see it. I would make one other exception. I have read about images of Richard Spencer being punched set to music. That sort of thing. To delight in a kind of comeuppance when someone is hoisted by his own petard—when someone who advocates violence against others meets a kind of of nonlethal violence—to enjoy hearing about that, that's not a crime. That's not an ethical transgression. That's asking more of human beings than they can resist. When someone who's truly despicable gets punched in the nose, you commit no ethical transgression by enjoying that idea. Now we're describing—
Yes, yes. In the recesses of my heart, do I take any pleasure in this? Well, yes. Would I advocate this as an action or defend the action? Well, no. There are no thought crimes. If in your heart of hearts you're enjoying this, well, you do no one any harm. But no, you do not get to go out and respond to contemptible political ideas with physical ideas.
Now for me, as a lefty and an armchair philosopher, there are two main questions here: ethics and tactics.
I've already stated that my ethical position is one that I call rational extrapolated preference utilitarianism; essentially, everyone's preferences should be fulfilled unless they're in an irrational state, in which case their preferences if they were in a rational state should be extrapolated from circumstance and fulfilled.
It seems to me that Richard Spencer has a preference not to feel pain, and thus his preference to not feel pain was violated. This is unethical.
But there's also a tactical argument to be made here: Most people have no idea who the hell this Richard Spencer guy is. They don't know that he's a white nationalist and they don't know that he's called for a 'peaceful' ethnic cleansing of America. They don't know that he has refused to disavow people within his movement who have advocated violence.
But when Dick got decked, his name and face were plastered all over the media. It gives him a platform to spread his odious views and makes ordinary conservatives start to think that 'the intolerant left' is coming for them next. When Richard spencer gets branded (correctly) as alt-right, and people like Milo Yiannopoulos or Alex Jones are branded (incorrectly) as alt-right, it just muddies the waters and makes it seem that ordinary Trump-supporting conservatives are under attack.
And remember the tweet I embedded above? Well, guess what: he's right.
His being punched makes it seem that his ideas are valid and that the only possible response to them other than agreement is violence. It makes it seem that his 'race realism' is true and his white nationalism is just a normal political position that just happens to provoke 'the intolerant left' to irrational violence.
Let me tell you a little story:
In the 1980s and '90s, there was a Dutch MP named Hans Janmaat. He was vocal in his opposition to immigration based on economic reasons: with immigration having to be addressed, it was difficult to focus on unemployment and slow economic growth for the native population. He had a cordon sanitaire imposed on him by the majority of other MPs, which basically meant that they would walk out of the building when he began to speak and only return when he was finished.
In the early 2000s, Pim Fortuyn became a notable and controversial public figure in the Netherlands. He opposed immigration on cultural grounds, arguing that Muslim immigration into the Netherlands would end up reversing the rights of women and LGBTQ+ people and stated that Islam is a 'backward culture' (the Dutch word for 'backward' can also mean 'retarded'). He was assassinated by a mentally-ill schizoidal left-wing activist who believed he was going to 'save the Netherlands' from the right-wing.
In the late 2000s, Geert Wilders, an outright Islamophobe who has compared the Qur'an to Mein Kampf and advocated for its banning, believes that the European Union and Muslim organisations are conspiring to 'Islamise' Europe, and was convicted of hate speech last December, is now a major political force in Netherlands, having become the de facto leader of the populist right in the Netherlands. The aforementioned conviction has only led to more popularity, since Dutch right-wingers can now claim persecution.
Let me tell you another story:
Holocaust denier Bradley Smith took out a full-page advertisement promoting Holocaust denialism in multiple university newspapers in the United Kingdom. Rather than refusing to run them, those papers ran them alongside an editorial on the opposite page refuting every point made in Smith's advert. Today, his influence is negligible and his group, the Committee for Open Debate on the Holocaust is minuscule and its influence limited to the fringes of the far-right.
I know I won't convince some people with these examples, but banning or using violence against white nationalists is only going to expand their influence. It'll just help them thrive in the shadows and on the fringes until they can refine themselves enough to mainstream their views.
Violence is not the key. Effective debate is.