If only Martin Luther King Jr. had started knocking heads, imagine how much he would have accomplished.
Or so seems to be much of the most joyous thinking on the left in the wake of a viral video that grew out of the anti-Trump protests on Jan. 20.
If you haven’t seen it, a television reporter was interviewing Richard Spencer — who leads a white supremacist movement and not long ago headlined a conference in Washington, D.C., that ended with those assembled giving a classic Nazi “heil” salute — when suddenly someone lunged at Spencer from his right and sucker-punched him. Spencer staggered away, the attacker leaped back, and that was the end of it.
That brief video has been circulated widely and applauded. That celebration drew quick, but not wide, condemnation by others on both the left and right, which led to a question that also spread in a viral manner on social media:
Is it OK to punch a Nazi?
Those asking the question often answered it themselves in the affirmative, and most others chiming in said essentially that the answer was not only yes but hell yes. Those answers sometimes came attached to images of comic book hero Captain America punching Hitler and movie hero Indiana Jones punching a Nazi.
Those giving a contrary answer included Newsweek, which called ethicists and posed the question to them, prompting one, Randy Cohen, to say, “Do you really not know if it’s ethical to punch someone even though they have odious politics? I mean, should we call your mother?”
Apparently we should call a lot of people’s mothers. One response on Twitter that captured the overall sentiment was this:
Civility is not broken when you punch a Nazi
Civility was broken when you gave a forum to those that want the eradication of others
— Baronesa (@Baronesa1980) January 21, 2017
One hopes that if the person who wrote that thought about it a while she would change her position because she could easily find herself targeted by it.
The problem with saying you support punching Nazis is you take a step onto a slippery slope. For one thing, Spencer does not belong to the Nazi party; the label of “Nazi” has been applied to him because of his racist views. If it’s OK to punch someone who isn’t a Nazi but is labeled one, who then who determines what other people get that label applied to them?
Regardless of whether he is a Nazi, Spencer has not engaged in violence or called for it. Who gets to decide that a person’s views go far beyond what the person states and actually encompass “eradication” of other people? Spencer’s views are extreme, but who gets to decide that someone’s views are extreme enough to warrant violence? President Obama was labeled a socialist and extremist with long-term goals described at times in nearly apocolyptic terms. Would it be OK to punch Obama?
If it’s OK to punch someone, what is the goal of the punch? To change his mind? To punish him? If punching him won’t change his mind or change his ways, then what? Should he be killed?
The American Civil Liberties Union is perceived by many on the right as the ultimate liberal special interest group, but many liberals can’t stand that the ACLU will stand up for the free-speech rights of right-wing extremists. On both the left and the right, people want free speech for their own views, but any views that stray too far from theirs make them uneasy. Unfortunately, the First Amendment doesn’t come with an asterisk and a footnote saying that it doesn’t apply to racists, thugs and religious extremists.
The First Amendment right of free speech has repeatedly and frequently been interpreted by the courts as guaranteeing anyone the right to espouse even horrific views — not the right to do horrific things, but to talk about them. In other words, the First Amendment provides everyone a forum to talk about anything they wish.
Of course, the First Amendment says only that the government may not censor your views. It does not say that there will not be non-government repercussions for your views. What you say may, for instance, anger others enough that they want to punch you. That’s where we are now.
The irony is that this all happened less than a week after the day America remembers King, who met hate with love and met violence with peace and in 1964 won the Nobel Peace Prize. Spencer is a milk-fed, baby-faced poser compared to the people King had to deal with, vicious thugs with a badge such as Eugene “Bull” Connor, whose Birmingham police turned high-pressure fire hoses and attack dogs on African Americans. We don’t have to imagine how King would have answered the question “Is it OK to punch a Nazi?” because he answered it over and over. Just a few of those answers:
“The ultimate weakness of violence is that it is a descending spiral, begetting the very thing it seeks to destroy. Instead of diminishing evil, it multiplies it.”
“Man was born into barbarism when killing his fellow man was a normal condition of existence. He became endowed with a conscience. And he has now reached the day when violence toward another human being must become as abhorrent as eating another’s flesh.”
“Hate multiplies hate, violence multiplies violence, and toughness multiplies toughness in a descending spiral of destruction.”
Is it OK to punch someone hateful? I understand the impulse, but the answer is not just no, but hell no.