Even if they deserve the term
Not long ago, disreputable Right-winger Richard Spencer was attacked on live television. Spencer is often accused of being a Nazi though he disputes that label.
|A man attacks Richard Spencer during the ABC's live interview.|
He is undoubtedly a purveyor of white identity politics, however, and is notable for coining the term "alt-right". At the time he was attacked he was being interviewed on the street during the Trump presidential inauguration. A man came up, smashed him in the side of the face and ran off.
A punch directly to the head is serious business. A blow to the cranium – even a relatively restrained one – can cause lasting damage. Spencer could have been seriously hurt or even killed.
Nevertheless, for many "liberals" in the United States and elsewhere, the sight of such a villainous personage being clocked caused much glee. The offender was compared to Indiana Jones, Captain America, the Blues Brothers and other pop-culture icons who were famous for their (fictional) assaults on Nazis. Videos of the incident set to music went viral, with a former Obama administration speechwriter tweeting that, "I don't care how many different songs you set Richard Spencer being punched to, I'll laugh at every one."
Since then, it has become clear that the idea of using violence against alleged fascists has gained some respectability.
In the last week, Trump supporter and internet troll Milo Yiannopoulos went to speak at the University of California, Berkeley. When protests from pro-censorship students, faculty and activists turned into a destructive rampage, the event was canned. Trump supporters were reportedly attacked and video emerged of a young woman in a red hat being assaulted with pepper spray by one of the rioters.
Shortly afterwards, Gavin McInnes, a comedian and another prominent Trump supporter, was set upon by a mob outside New York University, where he had been invited to speak. McInnes, who co-founded Vice Media, had to be sheltered by the police after being burned by pepper spray. The fact that the police protected him outraged one of the university's professors, who was filmed shrieking and swearing at the cops that they should be beating him up instead.
There are all sorts of reasons why it is a bad idea to justify or encourage violence against those who hold repugnant views. Here are a few of them.
The first problem is one of definition. The word "fascism" has been robbed of all meaning through years of overuse. In fact, as long ago as 1946, no less than George Orwell wrote that, "the word fascism has now no meaning except in so far as it signifies 'something not desirable'".
To listen to the activists of the Left and Right, both John Key and Barack Obama were fascists. No doubt Bill English will get the same treatment. When the man who attacked John Banks with animal excrement was convicted for assault, he responded by throwing more excrement at the judge, saying she was a "fascist judge".
When everybody calls everybody else a fascist at the drop of a hat and violence against fascists is justified, how are you not inviting violence by all against all?
Secondly, the history of actual fascism shows that it thrives when fists start flying. The Nazis rose to power in an environment where physical brawling was part of the culture. When it comes to fighting in the street, ideologies committed to thuggery and passionate intolerance tend to have the advantage over the gentler forces of moderation and liberalism.
So if you are really concerned that fascism may rise again, it doesn't make a lot of sense to applaud behaviour that recreates the conditions that enabled it to grab power in the first place. Don't throw Brer Rabbit into the briar patch.
Then there's the simple fact that it's immoral to physically assault people on the basis of their political views – however gross they happen to be.
In the aftermath of the Spencer attack, it was truly weird to see outlets like The New York Times, Washington Post and Vox Media wrestle with this notion like it was a serious ethical question. Even popular comedy site Cracked weighed in, asking, "So are we allowed to just punch Nazis now?" Their answer? "It's complicated."
It really isn't.
The whole point of liberal democracy is that political questions are resolved through votes and laws and not mobs and violence. People have the right to be grievously wrong and, as long as they do not call for the illegal overthrow of the state, to voice their wayward views. We really have no choice but to trust the public and our governing institutions.
Because if you think it's OK to punch someone in the head because you think they're a fascist, then you might be one yourself.