To punch Nazis, or not to punch Nazis: that is the question

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Flickr, Mike Licht. OED Definition

Free speech, in an ironic twist of fate, is one of those topics that has become highly contentious recently. To allow the expression of opinion is an important freedom, one which constitutes a democratic society. But the issue on the table has become this: at what point, if any, do we police this right, if the views in question are controversial and dangerous?

To be blunt, I’m talking about Neo-Nazis, or the ‘Alt-Right’, as they are known in polite society. In the past year, we have seen this ideology take flight in a way it hasn’t in many, many years. Suddenly, discussion of Nazism has become common place, and many people may even know someone who identifies with the movement to some degree. What is interesting, however, is how the movement has chosen to characterise itself. Rising up from the deep web, with memes as their weapon of choice, participants have flooded social media with racist jokes, personal attacks, and a fervent repetition of the word ‘cuck’. It would be comical if it weren’t so bizarre and disturbing.

Though they have distinct political ideologies, their preferred method of debate seems to be none at all. Personally, I have seen that when confronted, their speech often devolves into mockery or complete denial. This is not to dehumanize them; these are real people, with real experiences informing their world views. And yet, the inner-mechanisms of their minds are still a mystery to me.

The debate as I interpret it is how to confront this. I have heard from many that it would be hypocritical to give them anything less than a conversation or debate, and to deny their right to speech would be totalitarian and deeply immoral. And I agree! However, I would also point out that while they may say what they like, they must expect public backlash and counterargument should people be offended by their words.

And this brings me to Richard Spencer, a man people outside of America may not have heard about, but who has made waves in his home country. Spencer is the self-proclaimed inventor of the term Alt-Right.  He is a man who has publicly called for “peaceful ethnic cleansing”, and who has coincidentally, I am happy to say, been punched in the face multiple times by anti-fascist demonstrators. (For those curious, I am also pleased to announce that all three incidents have been caught on camera.)  Deported from Hungary for helping organize a white supremacist march, leader of a “Heil Trump” cry and salute at an alt-right Trump rally, renounced by conservatives, and disarmingly normal-looking, Spencer is the new and dangerous face of the Alt-Right movement.

In interviews, Spencer is calm, collected, and well spoken.  He insists that his views are not born from hatred, but rather reason and intelligence.  His sympathetic spiel  about the silencing of his movement endears him to many like-minded people, who feel that within today’s liberal climate, they are under attack.

So what do we do with a man like this? Do we punch him? Do we punch people like him? The world seems as if it does not remember what happened the last time ideas like this held power.  So often we swear that if we had only been there, in the 1930s-40s, we would have done something, that we would have stepped up.  Yet when we are confronted with the issue, we back off, and give people like Spencer the benefit of the doubt.

I am not a violent person. I do not believe violence is a solution to many problems in this world. It alienates the people we are locked in opposition with. But I must admit, the idea of Nazis being comfortable acting upon their beliefs in public unsettles me.

There can be no propagation of the mantra “peaceful ethnic cleansing”. And so maybe, just maybe, I’d punch a Nazi.

 

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