By now, you’ve probably seen the now-famous video of alt-right (or, more correctly, neo-Nazi) leader Richard Spencer getting decked in the face by an anonymous anti-fascist. If you haven’t, CNN has a video of it here.
Spencer made headlines back in 2016 for concluding a speech with the words “Hail Trump! Hail our people! Hail victory!” - a clear allusion to the infamous Nazi cry. He is a white supremacist and the founder of the so-called “alt-right” movement, which is basically a cover for white nationalism and neo-Nazism. So it’s understandable why people across the internet are celebrating this situation.
What’s also interesting is a certain kind of liberal response that says “violence is never the answer, punching Nazis makes you just as bad as them.”
(Okay, sorry. We literally went to war against Nazis, and now you’re saying that violence against them is unjustified? Cool.)
On a more serious note, there’s literally nothing someone can do, short of advocating literal actual genocide (which the neo-Nazi alt-right people have done) that can make them “just as bad” as a Nazi. The neo-Nazi alt-right movement is one founded on the idea that the white race is superior to all and that ethnic cleansing is the correct route. This is an inherently violent rhetoric.
Here’s the thing. I, personally, do not advocate for punching random people in the face. But the thing is, when you take a situation like this, where someone stands up against a neo-Nazi - even if their methods are less than ideal - and then you make it about how the anti-fascist is in the wrong rather than looking at the actual rhetoric of the so-called alt-right movement and how incredibly horrifying it is - you’re literally playing into the neo-Nazis’ hands.
The scariest part of this situation isn’t that someone got punched, it’s the whole “alt-right” movement. Because it’s this insidious, evil thing that can be so easy to pass off as “normal”. Even the name, once you’ve heard it enough, starts to sound harmless. It’s easy to forget that the values and rhetoric and yes, even their “hail Trump” slogans, are taken right from Nazi Germany. I try to avoid using the term they’ve given themselves because it legitimizes them and their rhetoric in a way that makes me supremely uncomfortable and represents a threat to people of color and especially Jewish people across the country, because if we normalize them and their rhetoric by saying they have the right to say whatever they want, we normalize the idea of violence against other races and religions. (Which is why, in this article, I avoid saying “alt-right” without attaching the clarifying “neo-Nazi” in front of it.)
But back to the punching.
It is a unique privilege to be able to look at actual Nazi rhetoric and say “oh, no, their opinions are valid because free speech” and then move on with your life. If you’re able to do that, I’m willing to bet you aren’t Jewish, or black, or otherwise a group that the Nazis want to eradicate from the face of the earth. There are certain rhetorics that cannot be treated as valid (morally speaking, not legally speaking, I understand how free speech works) and Nazism is one of those. You can’t listen to what a Nazi says passively and then pat yourself on the back for being so tolerant, for respecting their right to spew forth their vile discourse.
There isn’t some binary of “violence is always the answer” and “violence is never the answer” - even legally speaking, violence is allowed in self-defense. Most people would agree that fighting back against someone who is beating you up is justifiable. Many would also agree that fighting back against violent rhetoric that represents a threat of bodily harm to you and people like you is also justified.
This is a morally grey area, so condemning the anti-fascist who did the punching is not so simple. When you are up against an inherently violent rhetoric, then it becomes easy to see why someone might want to react with violence. (Here’s a good explanation of why verbally reasoning with Nazis may be a lost cause, just to show that side of the debate.) I don’t fault the person who punched Spencer, because at the very least it’s a clear message to the neo-Nazis that their rhetoric will not be tolerated passively by people. I don’t know if I would have done the same thing in their place, but the good thing that’s come out of all of this is that whoever punched Spencer in the face has brought more negative attention to the neo-Nazi alt-right movement than anyone has in awhile.
So regardless of your opinion on whether Spencer getting punched was justified or not, one thing is clear: the growing neo-Nazi movement in this country (and across the world) needs to be seen as a threat to all of us. We need to stop normalizing neo-Nazi rhetoric in the media and on the internet. This is not simply another political stance that can be seen as valid, because a platform based on advocating the systematic elimination of entire races/religions cannot be validated. We cannot let that happen.
In other news, the neo-Nazi alt-right movement has now put a literal bounty on the head of the person who punched Spencer, so. Clearly they aren’t above killing someone extrajudicially. Remind me again why we should treat their opinions as a valid political viewpoint?