On Punching Nazis

Many people expressed delight when footage emerged, a few days ago, of the American white supremacist and Trump sympathiser, Richard Spencer, being punched by a passer-by during an on-street interview. In some quarters, it’s been suggested that a failure to show sufficient jubilation at the incident is tantamount to expressing sympathy with his repellent views.

I say the opposite is true: that rejecting violence wherever possible is, in itself, a rejection of all that Spencer stands for.

Let’s be clear about what this was not. It was not an act of war in an existing armed conflict. Without going too far into the debate about whether there ever can be a “just war”, when George Orwell and Laurie Lee volunteered to fight Franco, and when my grandfathers fought Hitler, no other tactic but armed opposition seemed to have a chance of preventing totalitarian regimes from expanding their territory. Punching Spencer was not like that. It was not an act of self-defence nor a necessary response to a threat faced by another person, because, on this occasion, nobody was being physically threatened. The violence was instigated by the puncher.

Which begs the question of what the assailant hoped to achieve by his actions. One very natural human reaction is to say, “He deserved it, the bastard.” But the idea of retribution, and “paying someone back,” is problematic. It is a truism that “two wrongs don’t make a right.” No amount of punching can make Spencer’s repellent utterances unsaid. If he has initiated violence, that violence will always have occurred, even if he suffers as well. Additional violence heals nothing; it only adds to the total amount of pain and anger in this world.

Moreover, what the notion of retribution says is that the violence committed by A, while reprehensible in itself, is justifiable if perpetrated by B upon A. That just doesn’t make sense. If Spencer’s opponents were to retaliate by visiting upon him the same sort of prejudiced and hateful comments that he has dished out himself, then they would, I hope, be censured for it.

If the aim of the punch is not so much to punish Spencer, but to silence him, that’s even more problematic. Silencing by force, or the threat of it, has been a favourite tactic of totalitarian regimes throughout history. It means that the viewpoints that are heard are not the most defensible, but the ones expressed by the strongest.

What’s more, we shouldn’t need to silence people who are manifestly wrong. It ought, even in this difficult and dangerous political environment, to be more effective to refute them, and a desire to silence someone indicates a lack of confidence about doing so. Heretics weren’t laughed at as madmen, but burnt as threats. Trump isn’t silencing the scientists of the EPA and the National Parks because he can refute the science of climate change. He hates them, because he can’t.

Of course, it is more than possible that a Nazi, on being punched, might not accept it either as justified retribution or a warning to amend his ways. Being, himself, fond of violence and his own views, he might be less likely to say “It’s a fair cop, guv” (did anyone ever say that, in real life?) as to punch the assailant back. On a practical level, this could lead to an escalation of violence – street fights and worse. It also means that violence, whether to punish or to silence, will generally only be initiated by those who believe they are likely to win – that is, by and large, by strong men in their prime. A man (and it mostly has been men) saying how wonderful it is to punch Nazis is unconsciously demonstrating the privilege of his own physical strength.

I’m a woman in my 40s; I’m a shade under 5’4″, eight-and-a-half stone or so. Insurance statistics show that women are more risk-averse than men, and crime statistics show that we are less inclined to violence. In any philosophical debate whose outcome is determined by a physical fight, people like me will lose.

That, in fact, has been one of the most significant factors shaping the opportunities and rights of women throughout much of humanity’s history – and the way in which they have been regarded. Where it is possible for one group to subjugate another by force, the aggressors justify it to themselves by developing a concept of the natural, and global, inferiority of the oppressed. Thus, the class system, in part, developed because of mediaeval barons’ ability to suppress the underfed and outgunned peasantry; and white-on-black racism is a consequence of the fact that European traders, happening to possess, as Jared Diamond puts it, “guns, germs and steel,” were able to suppress native Americans and Africans. Societies which use violence beget prejudice, because they need it in order to justify themselves.

And, though etymology isn’t meaning, isn’t the term “fascist” a deliberate reference to the fasces, the rods of authority held by Roman magistrates? The symbol of exerting authority by force? Violence to control what is said isn’t just “what fascists do.” It’s what they believe.

The Suffragettes, who were being systematically discriminated against at every point, did not, by and large, punch people in the street. They acted by making their cause as visible as possible. They shouted, and marched, and smashed windows. They suffered assault, imprisonment, and forcible feeding, but eventually they prevailed. They prevailed not because men were scared, but because they were both the product and the beneficiaries of a society that had at last begun to distinguish might from right.

We should march, as women did on Saturday, against Spencer and all of his kind. We should refute his arguments wherever we see them. And, of course, we should leap to the defence of anyone who is physically attacked by anyone like him. But, if we really mean to oppose fascism, that cannot be done by espousing its tactics and attitudes. Punching Spencer may well be the only language he understands; but it shouldn’t be the language the rest of us sink to.

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The Other Way of Seeing: a spooky story

Susanna could remember, very vaguely, a time when she thought she was normal, but the memories were fragmentary.

Once, she thought, she had been somewhere green and spacious – probably nothing more exotic than the local park. She was conscious of the unfamiliar feel of her new shoes – emerald green, with a little leather flower opposite each buckle. Enjoying the novelty of it, she skipped alongside the wheels of her brother’s pushchair, running ahead to jump into puddles.

“Stop that, now,” her mother said, “you’ll spoil Millie’s lovely shoes.”
Susanna desisted – she was a good child – and returned to her mother’s side. She didn’t even ask why they were Millie’s shoes when they’d been given to her. As it happened, at that moment she saw Millie herself, just ahead of her, holding her mother’s hand.

“Look,” she said, pointing, “there’s Millie, there.”
To her surprise, instead of rushing to greet Millie’s mother, her own mother laughed and said, “Silly billy! She’ll be at school, now.”

More dreadful was the time when Susanna told her mother that she could see Grandma in a box. She expected some sort of approval, of the kind she got when she drew a picture of Grandma or made her a birthday card. But her mother’s face twisted so that it looked angrier and sadder than Susanna had ever seen it, and she said, in an odd sort of voice, “You must never – never say things like that again.”

Things like what? Things about Grandma, or about people being in boxes? Only a little while later, Susanna’s mother took her to a place where everyone was dressed in black, and they all stood around a box with Grandma in it, so it couldn’t be that. But Susanna could tell that the – way she’d seen Grandma in the box, and Millie in the park, and things like that, was different to the way she saw other things. It was like your reflection in a window compared with the view through it. You could talk about reflections but it must be really, really naughty to talk about the sort-of-reflected people that you sometimes saw. So Susanna never did again.

As she grew older, she came to realise that this other way of seeing wasn’t something that everyone shared. But, since she had learnt early on not to speak of it, she made quite a good show of being normal; and, as her teens progressed, she became, rather to her surprise, accepted as such. It turned out that if she pretended to be like everyone else then they would let her hang around with them in the schoolyard, and if she told her mother that she was going to watch a film at her friend Christina’s that she would be allowed to stay out late, even though they were actually going to join the others in the park.

What were they doing there? Not much. It was the days before smartphones. They didn’t play games. They didn’t so much converse as issue verbal nudges. They were young animals who simply needed to herd together. And they watched each other: the boys watched Chris, who always looked so sleek; and Susanna watched Duncan Fraser.

He was the year above her; they weren’t in the same group at school. In subsequent years she could only remember him in shadow. His hair, cropped short, might have been anything from dark blonde to dark brown. Perhaps he was a little taller and broader than average. She remembered snapshots: the angles of his nose and cheekbone lit up by a cigarette lighter as he leant into it; his broad-shouldered silhouette disappearing into the darkness at the end of the night. He lived near to her, but they never walked home together.

It was an evening in June, and it barely felt late, because the air, smelling of grass-clippings, was so warm, and because it had only just got dark. However, there was school tomorrow and people had begun to slip away homewards.

As Susanna reached the park gates, the ones with “1882” in cast-iron, a voice said, “Susie!” And there, as if he’d been waiting, was Duncan – the lit end of his cigarette glowing. She had no need to see his face to know it was him.
“I’ve come in the car,” he said, “I’ll give you a lift home.”

“Thanks!” she said, unable to stop the grin from spreading across her face. “It’s just round the corner,” he said, and they walked on together. Presently he put his arm, heavy in his coat, around her shoulders, and she settled into the side of his body. Their feet fell into step.

A few yards further on, there was a high, stone-pillared gateway, set back slightly from the road – the entrance to a Victorian Gentleman’s Residence. They paused; then Duncan half lifted, half pushed her into the gateway, and kissed her.

For an instant there was nothing but the warmth of his arms around her body, and his lips on her cold face, and his smell of boy and Lynx and cigarettes.

And then. She saw hands on a steering wheel, tense and knuckly under street-lights, and his body in the driver’s seat, braced against the brake pedal. She heard a scream and a sickening crunch of scraping metal, and saw it crumpling and lurching like geological strata.

“‘C’mon,” he said, “it’s just round here.”
“Let’s walk!”
“It’s getting cold. C’mon.” And she followed.

As they crossed the road to the car-park, Susanna heard her own name again: “Susie! Soo-seeee!” She turned; it was Chris, almost trotting to catch them up.

“Hi, Chris,” said Duncan, as if nothing had happened. “Fancy a lift?”
“Don’t!” cried Susanna, caught off-guard.
The others looked at her. “Why not?” said Duncan, and Chris’s eyes said, “I know why not.”
“We can walk,” said Susanna, “it’s a nice night.”
You can walk!” said Chris.
“What’s wrong? C’mon!” said Duncan again, keys at the ready.
“Don’t!” repeated Susanna. “I can’t explain, just..”

But she had already lost them, she knew. They were high on the midsummer night and on their youth and beauty and their sense of endless possibility. She had no more right to ask them not to go, and no more hope of being obeyed, than if she’d asked Duncan not to smoke. And she couldn’t go with them: she tried stepping nearer to the car and it made her stomach lurch and her head spin, as if she were standing on a clifftop looking down at rough seas.

The next morning, her anxious eyes scanned the schoolyard for him; but she knew, first of all, that this was nothing but habit, retained after it could be any use; and, secondly, that it was delusional – seeking a refutation of something that she knew to be true.

Miss Bryant entered the classroom, her face set into a mask of noble suffering. Sit down, she said, be quiet, I’m afraid I’ve got some bad news for you. But Susanna barely listened while the others heard that Duncan and Chris were dead, because we don’t want to hear bad news twice. As some of the other girls cried and hugged one another, their hair entangling, she held herself poised in her grief, as she had done throughout the whole of the previous, dreadful night.