The New York Times asks:
Is it O.K. to punch a Nazi?
That is not a brainteaser or a hypothetical question posed by a magazine on Twitter. It is an actual question bouncing around the internet after an attack on a well-known far-right activist, Richard B. Spencer, in Washington after the inauguration of Donald J. Trump as president on Friday.
I must confess to being surprised that we’re debating this as earnestly as we are, and to being even more alarmed at how many self-described “liberals” are among those answering “yes.” Of course it’s not acceptable to punch non-violent actors in the face. This isn’t a matter of degree. It’s not a question of timing. It’s a matter of foundational Enlightenment principle.
It is uncontroversial to note that violence can be an acceptable response to violence. It is widely accepted, too, that if violence is imminent or guaranteed, some preemptive action can be warranted. But violence can never be an acceptable response to passive ideology. That goes for Richard Spencer as much as for anyone. As far as I can see, the most common “argument” in favor of punching Nazis rests upon some pretty brazen special pleading: To wit, that Nazism is “different” because a) it exists outside our accepted cultural tramlines and b) it has a shocking history when put into practice. But that’s always the argument for the violation of norms, which is precisely why we have those norms in the first instance. To prevent the government from deciding who is permitted to speak and who is “different,” we enjoy the First Amendment. To prevent private citizens from making the same determination, we have laws against assault and battery. In neither provision is there a lacuna-creating asterisk: “* Unless you really dislike them.”
“Different,” by definition is invariably in the eye of the beholder. Do I personally think that Richard Spencer’s views are illiberal and toxic? Yes, I do. Do I think that the ideology he espouses is inimical to the order that I cherish? Yes, I do. Does that give me the right to punch him in the face? No, it damn well does not. You don’t fight for liberalism by abandoning liberalism, and you can’t burnish your “anti-fascist” credentials by appropriating that which you hate. Richard Spencer is an American citizen. He’s as entitled to be as wrong and as destructive and as ugly and as doltish as is anybody else with that privilege.
This is not mere philosophy; it’s practically important, too. Why? Well, because those who would carve out an exception for Spencer and his ilk are, whether they know it or not, opening the door to a suicidal debate as to which ideologies can be deemed sufficiently threatening to lose civilizational protection. I will grant happily that Nazism is incompatible with American liberty. But there are a good many other doctrines that share that honor, among them communism and radical Islam. Does this mean I can punch Angela Davis in the face, or that my doing so would be fine? Should I have been given a free pass and a shrug of the shoulders if I’d clocked Eric Hobsbawm? And how much latitude should we give to individuals to draw up their own lists of Acceptable Punchees? I happen to believe that the half of Democrats who want to ban “hate speech” are enemies of liberty. Can I assault them?
A great test of any free country is how it treats its dissenters. The man who agrees with the majority is in no more need of protection than the man who parrots the talking points of the cultural and political establishment. But the heretic — the man who for better (Martin Luther King) or for worse (Richard Spencer) declines to endorse the tenets of the status quo? That’s the guy who you need to watch. Within the bounds of liberty he may be reviled or championed, ignored or followed, and shunned or emulated. But he should never, ever be punched in the face for his opinion.