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.