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Is it okay to punch a Nazi?

David Moseley considers punching a Nazi, musing over the ethics of such an act and its place in the current political climate

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While the sight of a white nationalist taking a sucker-punch to the face is probably what we all needed to get us through these tough times, we should be more critical of violent acts.

The video of white nationalist and Alt-Right leader Richard Spencer receiving a blow to the side of the head was a welcome sight for many. On Inauguration Day, Spencer was interviewed on a street corner explaining the significance of his Pepe the Frog pin when a masked figure blundered into the frame and landed a solid hit the suited neo-Nazi’s face.

The brief clip was immediately swallowed by the internet and, as one might expect, regurgitated in the form of various cuts and remixes. You can watch Richard Spencer punched in the face set to Phil Collins’ ‘In the Air Tonight’ or to Disney’s ‘Let it Go’. You can even watch Richard Spencer punched in the face set to Celine Dion’s ‘My Heart Will Go On’, which is a personal favourite. As former speech-writer for Obama, Jon Favreau tweeted, “I don’t care how many different songs you set Richard Spencer being punched to, I’ll laugh at every one.”

But amongst the cathartic release of the reviled Alt-Right leader being force-fed a fist, a more philosophical strain of conversation arose in the Twittosphere: the question being “is it okay to punch a Nazi?”

The obvious, and popular, answer seems to be an emphatic ‘yes’. Many have noted that punching Nazis is a time-honoured tradition in the US. Indiana Jones and Captain America number among pop culture icons who are renown for punching Nazis, or ‘fash-bashing’. One Twitter-user noted: “You know what WWII was? America collectively punching the Nazis”. Indeed, if confronted with, say, Hitler or an SS guard or an Imperial Storm Trooper, most of us would probably duff them on the nose — if not worse. It stands to reason that our response to a modern day Nazi would be the same.

If we accept that it is okay to punch Nazis, we are left with another difficult question: how do we decide who the Nazis are? In the case of Richard Spencer, the answer is quite definitive. He, of course, denies being a neo-Nazi, claiming that Nazism was specific to Germany in the 1930s and ‘40s. However, he chairs the National Policy Institute, a white nationalist think-tank based in Virginia which has run blog pieces such as ‘The Jewish Question And Some Answers’, in which the author claims “Jews have been pioneers of what has been termed ‘anti-Semitism’.” His position, as stated in a National Policy Institute column, has a certain Nazi-esque flavour: “Martin Luther King Jr., a fraud and degenerate in his life, has become the symbol and cynosure of White Dispossession and the deconstruction of Occidental civilization. We must overcome!”

He is also credited with coining the term ‘Alt-Right’ to describe the emerging extreme right wing populist movement in the US. Spencer has also called for ‘peaceful ethnic cleansing’ in order to maintain European heritage. He may not be a German National Socialist, but whichever you cut it his views smack of Nazi-ness.

Since Spencer conforms to the broad definition of Nazi, one may be excused for punching him in the face. Unfortunately, it isn’t always so easy to agree on an answer to the question; one person’s Nazi is another’s  freedom fighter, is another’s feminist, is another’s Obama. How can we decide whether or not it is okay to punch someone, if we can’t even work out which people we should be punching?

Socking a Nazi, then, is not always very pragmatic. It may also be damaging to the cause of fighting Nazism. On mic.com, ethicists and academics of political activism were asked for their opinion on the all-consuming “punch a Nazi” debate. Nitzan Lebovic, an academic of Holocaust Studies and Ethical Values, drew on the tradition of fascists justifying the expansion of their power on the basis that they have been attacked: “In any of the cases I know, it plays right into the hands of the regime, and is used as an excuse to harshen punitive measures against critics.” Unfortunately, attacking Nazis physically only contributes to a persecution complex, and deepens their sense of being wronged by the system.

Violence also has a nasty habit of begetting more violence. Even if it is morally defensible to punch a Nazi, and we are sure that they are indeed a Nazi, there’s a chance that they will punch back. It is likely that this will deteriorate into a fight where the person with the biggest stick wins, regardless of whether your initial sucker-punch was ethical or not.

Perhaps the whole fash-bashing debate is completely inane. Why, after all, should we second guess leathering someone with views as abhorrent as Richard Spencer? On the other hand, it raises the wider question of whether violence has a place in the political discourse of our liberal democracies. We would be wise to think twice before condoning acts of violence.

Nevertheless, if you yourself are not a white supremacist, watching one take a hit to the tune of ‘My Heart Will Go On’ will brighten your lunch break — just make sure the guy is definitely a Nazi before you bloody your knuckles.