On Punching Nazis

One of the big debates over the weekend surprisingly was whether it’s ethical to punch Nazis. I know people already have an endless supply of thought pieces on the topic. So I’ll be brief.

The issue isn’t whether it’s justifiable to punch a particular Nazi. It’s what gets normalized when many people tend to apply the Nazi label broadly. When Mitt Romney, Paul Ryan and many others have regularly been called Nazis it makes one a little worried about just who people think are OK to punch.

Of course almost no one loves Nazis. They are genocidal fanatics. However there’s an other group who has a rather long history of genocide, mass murder and are often considered fanatics: communists. To put the shoe on the other foot, do you think punching communists should be normalized? Again, before you answer, think through who often gets called communists.

The problem with most thinking on these issues is they always conceive of the issue in cases where everything is clear. The problem is that most social rules we make tend to get enacted in situations that aren’t clear. Make a rule about torture when an atomic bomb is about to go off and people will apply it to far less clear situations like trying to find Osama bin Laden. Make a rule about punching Nazis and most likely anyone some group considers an extremist will suffer violence.

Liberalism (classically defined) sees pluralism and free speech rights as so important precisely because no one agrees upon where the limits of acceptability are. Traditionally that means we have tried to make the public sphere as free from restriction as possible. It’s very easy to think your case is unique. But realize not everyone will agree with you. They’ll see that your exception means their exception is also justified. Before long, we lose the ability to have any common ground of openness at all.[1]

What we should fear is that once people like Richard Spencer are fair game then people will think other extremists like “jihadists” are also fair game. Problem is they may not be so choosey about who is or isn’t an jihadist. Suddenly there’s much more violence than I think defenders of violence against neo-Nazis anticipated.

[1] This especially seems true on college campuses where a tradition of illiberalism has sprung up that has eerie echoes of the beginnings of violence from the late 60’s and early 70’s.

27 comments for “On Punching Nazis

  1. Clark, my response to you then is what should be the non-violent response to those who espouse policies of ethnic cleansing. They are being taken seriously and their views are becoming more widespread and tolerated. In your opinion is the only ethical response to wait to respond with violence only when their violent policies are actually enacted?

  2. Yup, that’s my policy. Also we’re talking about the leader of a tiny group (around 200 people came to their convention).

    Again let me turn it around. If you think people who espouse policies of violence should be met with violence before they are violent, do you want that done universally? Say people who say apostates should be stoned even if they don’t do it?

    Also consider the slippery slope you are on. Some people think Zionists are doing what you just outlined. So what you espouse justifies anti-semite attacks for those people. Likewise there’s no shortage of groups who think Israel should be ended. Your comments would justify violence against all those groups because of their views on Israel.

  3. Should merchants inside of the temple grounds be physically attacked when what they are doing is perfectly legal and sanctioned by official authorities? They weren’t even espousing or encouraging violence, yet Christ responded violently.

    If analyzed at the individual event level, then yes, an act of violence against someone is nearly always unethical. However in sight of the larger context, in my opinion those who espouse extra-judicial violence open themselves for extra-judicial violence in return.

    So yes, I think those who advocate that apostates should be stoned open themselves up as legitimate targets for violence.

    If liberalism (classically defined) sees pluralism and free speech rights as the paramount good, it cannot tolerate those who reject pluralism and seek to take away the free speech rights of their fellow citizens. If it does, then liberalism commits suicide.

  4. Christ lived before the enlightenment and in Roman occupied Palestine with those laws and not a modern liberal democracy.

    The problem is that of course you are now advocating violence against most of Islam. Which some would see as genocidal and thus justify violence against you.

  5. Well said. There is a difference between rhetoric and action; speech has to be free (with certain very narrow exceptions such as direct threats). Only when it becomes action can it lawfully be punished. Otherwise, we’ll all kill each other.

    (Favorite book on topic: Kindly Inquisitors, by Jonathan Rauch. IMO should be required reading for high-school graduation.)

  6. What is so radical about Clark’s position that it is treated as controversial here? Some of us, at least, pride ourselves on being a civilized people, a nation under the rule of law. Such people don’t punch Nazis just because they can, anymore than they walk off with an unattended laptop or rape a woman just because they can — even if the woman is a Nazi, even if the laptop belonged to a Nazi.

    I intend to continue as I have always lived, not punching Nazis or anyone else, as a matter of course. If I’m ever in the extraordinary situation where punching a Nazi saves an innocent person from the imminent threat of harm, then I’ll reconsider — just as I ordinarily don’t push little old ladies into the gutter, but I might do it in the extraordinary situation when it might save one from being hit by a bus.

    And please lay off the “Christ was violent that one time, so I’m entitled to be violent whenever, too” business. There are a lot of other things Christ did that you’ve not even trying to do; violence is not the place to start following him.

  7. Except that it’s not “most of Islam”. Indonesia is 87% Muslim and functions just fine without the stoning of apostates. I also specifically referred to extra-judicial violence. If the laws and authorities of the country allow it, then it’s not extra-judicial. Then it becomes a matter of international diplomacy, which sometimes includes war.

    I also specified that those who advocate for extra-judicial violence open themselves up for receiving violence in return. By that I did not say that they SHOULD be responded to violently. Only that in my view it is no longer unethical to do so.

    Clark, in your view how does liberalism respond to those who would destroy it at its very foundations of pluralism and free speech? Should it go gently into that good night? Or should it rage against the dying of the light?

  8. Ardis,

    Please explain to me how my comment at all approached “Christ was violent that one time, so I’m entitled to be violent whenever, too”. My example was to emphasize the point that Christ was not completely non-violent. He showed that violence is at times an acceptable course of action. I did not try to justify wanton violence. I am not advocating wanton violence.

    But if I am to take Clark, Ardis, and Jean all at face value, what you are advocating is that violence is never justified. Ever. Full stop. Which is likewise baffling.

  9. Jared in Indonesia 48% of the population favors stoning for adultery. But you are right that only 18% favor death for apostasy. Malaysia is higher with 62% favoring killing those who leave Islam. The figures in the middle east are of course much higher. 86% in Egypt for instance.

    As to how to respond, education is the wisest position and punishing those who do violence. Sending in FBI shock troops to attack members of the KKK or neo-Nazi groups in the US not only seems immoral but counterproductive.

    Note that I’m not saying violence is always unjustified. Far from it. I’m fine with violence to protect someone from immediate harm.

  10. The death took place recently of Graham Taylor, coach to the unsuccessful England football team of the 1990s. At the time of England being knocked out of one of the big international competitions, Taylor, a thoroughly decent man who had put in great effort for the national team, was depicted on the front page of one of the tabloid newspapers as a turnip. (England had been defeated by Sweden and the score line read Swedes 2 Turnips 0). Taylor subsequently resigned. Years later he claimed to have felt physically in danger from people who would start off by calling him a turnip. When we demean someone in that way, we invariably make them a target. Turkeys, confined in a restricted cage, are known often to pick on the least strong bird, and literally peck it to death. Sadly human society often works that way. Far be it from me to defend Nazis, but if anyone is labelled as an eccentric, it potentially makes them vulnerable. Mormons ought to know this!.

  11. Jared: “But if I am to take Clark, Ardis, and Jean all at face value, what you are advocating is that violence is never justified. Ever.”

    What?? That’s not what they just said. Evidently you believe in alternative facts.

  12. I said that when people commit actions, they can be lawfully punished. We have laws against assault and violence; we even have laws against threats and direct incitement to violence. But I cannot commit pre-emptive violence against someone using ugly rhetoric. I have to wait until they actually do something. And then I can have them arrested and sent to jail.

    The cute irony of free speech and pluralism is that we have to put up with people advocating against free speech and pluralism, which somebody or other is doing all the time. But when they actually start trying to DO something, we have to stop them through legal means. It’s a bit precarious, yep, but it’s better than turning into violent oppressors in the name of anti-oppression.

  13. Need citation,

    I was returning their strawman of my arguments that I was advocating wanton violence by demonstrating that the strawman of theirs is that they are advocating universal pacifism. Neither is a correct portrayal of the views being expressed, so everyone please don’t reduce my argument down to somehow arguing for indiscriminate violence.


    If I may try to reframe the issue to move past our apparent impasse:

    What would be the ethical and moral response to the passage of a law that disenfranchises (in other words, removes the right to vote) all who have been baptized into the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, regardless of their current status of practice or belief? I don’t have to remind you that this isn’t even hypothetical, since it has actually happened in the history of this country.

    What would be the ethical and moral response to the passage of a law that requires the revocation of citizenship and forced deportation of that same group of people?

    These actions would be completely non-violent in the physical sense, but very violent to the rights of that group. In your opinion is there no way to ethically resort to violent resistance?

    What if something Trump has actually advocated during the campaign comes up? What if laws pass requiring the registration of every Muslim regardless of citizenship? What if interment camps similar to the Japanese interment camps from WWII are revived, this time aimed at Muslims? These mandatory relocations wouId not be physically violent themselves, but would carry the threat of state-sanctioned violence if one attempts to resist. Is violent resistance still not justified?

  14. The ethical response to such a law is to sue for redress in the courts and seek democratic change. If those fail to leave the country. (All of which were done) Violence admittedly was done in the Utah War but I’d say that much of that violence while understandable was unethical. Further the violence seemed quite unlike punching Nazis who haven’t done violence. Now when violence is attempted on groups I think they have the right to defend themselves of course. But that’s not punching Nazis for giving an interview.

    As to Trump there are of course checks and balances in our system. I can’t see the courts allowing a repetition of FDR’s actions with internment camps. Further there are democratic checks such as the Senate and House not to mention the ability of impeachment. So I confess I don’t see how these relate to violence since there are so many things that could be done first.

  15. Clark,

    Most couldn’t see the courts allowing Gay Marriage to actually become a thing either, yet here we are.

    My point in the above questions was to probe to try to find the line for you where violence becomes an acceptable, ethical, moral choice. From the sounds of it, your line really is the immanent threat of physical violence. The only ethical choice is to submit like the Anti-Nephi-Lehis or to flee and become a refugee. Completely and honestly – that would probably be my choice as well. I’m not a violent person and I think I would rather be harmed or killed than harm or kill another. Where it appears we differ is that I believe that others can act differently than I would choose and still act ethically and morally.

    For curiosity’s sake only – I am not trying to get you into some kind of catch-22 or something – since you find the violence that was committed during the Utah War unethical, do you also find that the American Revolution was unethical? What of the relatively recent American interventions in Vietnam or Iraq? The United States has a long history of military interventions in the name of “freedom” and “liberalism”. Do you feel that all of these interventions were unethical?

  16. Jared, then you deal with that when it happens. If you want to say eventually there may be a case for justifying violence I’d agree. I’d say that is at best a long way off and unlikely. Dealing just with the situation here and now I think what I said applied.

    To the Book of Mormon example I confess I’m a bit flummoxed since they were in danger of invasion. Certainly in that case I’d think violence is justified. The anti-Nephi-Lehi’s didn’t submit because they feared what would happen were they to take up their weapons given their past acts they had repented of. Since I assume neither you nor I were in our past blood thirsty killers I don’t see how that applies.

    The American Revolution is a bit tricky since the question is when is revolution justified. I honestly don’t have trouble with the general succession nor defending oneself. I think a lot of violence against Loyalist civilians was unjustified. I also think the reasons for why some wanted to leave were unjustified (say those who wanted permission to invade Indian lands which King George was prohibiting) I’d say even wars that are justified often involve a lot of unethical behavior by people.

    But again given that we’re not in a state where states want to leave the union I’m not sure how this is relevant. (The Civil War was different precisely because slaves were not allowed a say in all this – although there are arguments that Lincoln was less ethical than usually portrayed – also see the excellent Econtalk podcast on the topic)

    In any case you’re now quite far removed from punching want to be Nazis being interviewed by the press.

  17. I wouldn’t punch a Nazi, but if I were in a rugby game against Nazis, I’d probably hit them a lot harder, a lot higher, and be less judicious about taking cheap shots in a scrum when the ref couldn’t see. Other than that, I’m a perfect gentleman.

    P.S. If anyone wants to put together an Old Boys game against some Republican senators, I’m in. I would so love to put Paul Ryan in the hospital to see how good his health care plan is.

    Just bringing the conversation down to a less rarified level… :-)

  18. I have no ethical problems with someone punching another who openly favors ethnic cleansing (plus, did Spencer really suffer that much of a violent attack? Come on.) I also have no problem with people punching others who push extremist narratives such as radical communism and jihadism. The problem is that the act, as entertaining as it was, may not have been effective at extinguishing the narrative of white supremacy in the US. In fact, it could very well have backfired. Spencer can now cast himself as a victim of small violence, and the narrative of victimhood can often attract more followers than the narrative of justified aggression. It would have been preferable for someone to have goaded Spencer into punching a black person, Muslim, or Latino and then catching the footage on tape.

    So a note to those hoping to exterminate extreme narratives. You’ll probably get more points if you can produce evidence of them committing an act of small violence against you than by punching them.

  19. I do think it is ironic that an advocate for the “alt-right” wandered into an anti-fascism rally while giving an interview. Luckily for Spencer, he only got punched.

    Also, let’s not think that free speech is an absolute right. Every right has limits.

  20. Man: “I heard you quit your job?”

    Isaac: “Yeah, a real self-destructive impulse. You know, I want
    to write a book, so I, so I … Has anybody read that
    nazis are going to march in New Jersey, you know? I
    read this in the newspaper, we should go down there, get
    some guys together, you know, get some bricks and
    baseball bats and really explain things to them.”

    Man: “There was this devastating satirical piece on that on the op-ed
    page of the Times. It is devastating.”

    Isaac: “Well, well, a satirical piece in the Times is one thing, but
    bricks and baseball bats really gets right to the

    Woman: “Oh, but really biting satire is always better than physical

    Isaac: “No, physical force is always better with nazis. Cos
    it’s hard to satirize a guy with shiny boots.”

    MANHATTAN Woody Allen

  21. When I was young, America was taught that one of the prices of freedom is to accept disgusting opinions you disagree with.

    The famous Fire in a crowded theater decision laid out the rationale of the dangerous speech needing to have a clear and imminent threat to safety.

    Regardless, vigilante social justice violence is in danger of destroying our society.

    Every person who espouses racists rhetoric is now thinking about carrying a gun. When you punch the next one and they shoot back, you’ll probably blame them and say the they had no right to defend themselves.

    Nazism is not on the rise. It’s not a real threat to public safety but hyped for political reasons. It’s much more of a threat for everyone to go around punching Nazis. The erosion of civil discourse into violence can not be justified.

    I’d willing stand against anyone who threatens such an action. Will you punch me too? Better bring more than a knife to this fight if you want to start threatening violence against me.

  22. Tim, honest question, but are there more neo-Nazis in the US today than in the past? From all I could see their numbers were significantly lower. From what I could see the numbers are in the hundreds not even thousands. If you’re aware of other numbers than what were in the press when that Spencer guy came to prominence I’d love to see them. Even that ‘big rally’ that Spencer put on when Trump won had something like 200 people at it.

    I think there’s a worry by fixating on such a tiny group of people the press is actually helping them. I wish they’d just leave them in obscurity.

  23. I like this comparison between Nazis and Communists. I honestly don’t know which I hate more (ideology, not followers).
    But using pre-emptive violence against their followers? If that’s the standard, where else can I apply it?
    I could swear that the D&C had some advice on this, and that it involved abiding threats three times, or some such. Might be relevant in this discussion.
    As far as the threat of Nazis in the US today, my own guess is that Communists are a greater threat. There are people who openly take the Communist label that have meaningful power in the US. There are no influential, self-proclaimed Nazis in the US.
    And no, Trump is not a Nazi.

  24. No, Bannon isn’t a Nazi. He’s just alt-right. Like this fine fellow here:

    A request to form an “alt-right” student group at the University of Wisconsin at Madison led the chancellor, Rebecca Blank, on Thursday to issue a campuswide letter informing students and faculty members that the student who made the request has a criminal record of arson attacks on black churches.

  25. We all know association with unsavory characters is proof of guilt, which is why the left-wing blogosphere commentariat has been excoriating Obama for the past eight years.

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