When to Start Punching: Notes on Defending Social Justice

Social Justice: The fair and proper administration of laws conforming to the natural law that all persons, irrespective of ethnic origin, gender, possessions, race, religion, etc., are to be treated equally and without prejudice. See also “civil rights.” — Dictionary Definition

In any argument with someone else, you have to start from some common ground. Before we engage in discourse here, for example, we have to agree to a few things. Fundamentally, we’ll both agree that the English language is suitable for our debate, and we’ll be working from the assumption that we have common knowledge on how to use it. We’ll also likely agree that there is such a thing as cause and effect, although we’ll likely further agree that, as a general rule, correlation does not necessarily mean causation. We’ll agree, most of the time, that some sources are more reliable than others. We’ll agree on basic definitions of most words, and we’ll probably agree that, however relevant or overused Godwin’s argument is, Hitler was a bad person.

And so on. In short, there is a long list of assumptions that you and I likely hold to be true before we ever begin to engage in discourse. The goal of argument is to take those assumptions we both hold as true and trace them out to logical conclusions that we both agree on.

Sometimes, as you likely know, accomplishing agreement is rather difficult. Some arguments and decisions may rely on assumptions that, possibly, are not based on the premises that we hold in common, and cannot be.

I say “may” because I’m not sure. There was a time, when I was a Christian who thought there was a basic truth that all people had in their hearts, that I thought there was a way to convince everyone of the truth. I’ve continued to carry this basic assumption as an atheist, as I’ve found myself thinking that if I just find the right way to convince people that God is not real, they’ll abandon belief in God. And though I still deeply think about several social justice issues, I’ve thought there, as well, that there is a clear Truth, and that proof it is true would come from people congregating around it.

To some extent, I think this is a necessary belief, even if it’s not true. I don’t mean that academically. I mean it in the sense of the Jewish woman begging for her family not to be forced into a Nazi Germany gas chamber. Even if it is likely impossible to convince the soldiers to change their minds, her heart for family may make giving up not an option. She will do anything necessary to save her family, up to her dying breath. She’ll argue to the guards, if she has to.

But what if that doesn’t work? Are the guards really going to care about reason?

And if she happens to have a grenade in her hand…at some point she will pull the pin if it means her family is alive. She will fight back, to borrow the words of Malcolm X (who was borrowing the words of Jean Paul Sartre) “By any means necessary.”

That’s where I disagree with my former view. Whether it is possible to convince the other side through reason or not, when the well-being of vulnerable people is at stake, reasoning with people often isn’t good enough, and may be impossible. “Reason” doesn’t work fast enough to help vulnerable people, and sometimes, I suspect, it may not work at all.

If we’re going to talk about the relevance of punching Nazis with whom we cannot engage in discourse, it would be remiss if I did not say that, ever since the Richard Spencer punching episode, I’ve been wondering whether it’s OK to punch Nazis. A big part of me says, “no.” I feel uncomfortable saying it’s OK to use violence to solve social problems. And the idea of doing something illegal like that viscerally goes against my personal, natural moral code.

But remember this…before the Hitler of the gas chambers became a meme, he was just a man. Before the Nazis became infamous, they were just a political party. You couldn’t point to them and say, “They’re just as bad as Hitler,” for example. There wasn’t really a way to figure out what was going on. And everything they did — everything — was legal in their country.

We tend to think that we would have seen what was happening and stopped it. Would we have, though? I mean…Hitler was in office for 12 years, or three Trump terms (as of this writing, we’re almost — but not quite — a third of the way through Trump’s first year, and already our country has drastically changed) before finally committing suicide. When would we have stopped? When would you have punched a Nazi? When Hitler was making nationalistic speeches? When the government demonized Jews like the far right demonizes Muslims? When the movies and the media put on a propaganda campaign that would have put Milo to shame? When the “lying press” was getting shut down? Would you really have spoken up by the time Auschwitz was set up, 7 years in, after being primed to hate that much? Really? Or would you be like the millions who didn’t even put the pieces together to know their were gas chambers and stop what was going on?

I watched an interview recently of one of Hitler’s maids, and as she talked about the prestige she felt, the privilege it was to work for Hitler — who was just a man, remember, and not taken for granted as a monster at the time — I found what she was saying touching, in context. The degree to which she was separated from all the destruction and horror of the Holocaust is unsettling, almost making Hitler seem human. I mean…Hitler even gave her a handwritten “thank you” note for Christmas that she has kept for years.

And you know what? Hitler’s speeches are STILL popular on YouTube. They’re STILL popular. Every one I go to, the “like” bar is high, and the comments are full of people zealously defending him. Check the “like” bar and comments here. And here. And here. And on just about every Hitler speech video on YouTube.

What good would “free speech” have done?

Nothing.

And the common pushback here is that “free speech” would have allowed us to push back against Hitler — that Hitler’s restriction of free speech was really the problem. Really? Hitler was one of the greatest orators of all time. He was captivating, and charismatic enough to put just about anyone who went toe-to-toe against him to shame.

He won the free speech war, and he was then in control of who spoke and who didn’t. And this is a thing that can happen. Free speech is not “natural.” It’s a made-up concept that is constantly under attack by the same people who take advantage of it. Saying that people should be allowed to say what they want without repercussions is like saying that people should be allowed to punch who they like without repercussions, and if you say it’s not…you CLEARLY have not paid attention in history class, in the slightest, to the disastrous damage words can do.

Have you ever wondered — why do we all think Hitler was evil? How did Hitler become a meme of someone who we all agree is terrible, even Germany? Free speech alone?

No. First, and most obviously, there was a vicious and bloody war.

Then, after the war, there wasy violence and ruthless censorship. The Allies came in and they performed “denazification.” They tore down Nazi symbols. They outlawed — that’s right, OUTLAWED — all Nazi speech. On May 13, 1946, the Allies began confiscating all media that could possibly contribute to Nazism, and they banned — BANNED — 30,000 books, with millions of copies, and the mere POSSESSION of these books became a criminal act. We ripped THOUSANDS of paintings and work off walls without a second thought. Soviets even gunned many Nazis down. And then we started a strong propaganda campaign, unrelenting, against Nazis with expert opinion-makers. The Soviet Union (which, with Stalin, obviously had its own problems) outright shot several Nazis. In 1950, many of these efforts had slowed, but it is still against the law to engage in speech that strongly encourages antisemitism, join the Socialist Reich Party, or use Nazi symbols. Now, Germany is a leader in free speech, but only after the Nazis lost a lot of their influence. For a time, the zero-tolerance standard seemed necessary.

It seems that, early on, free speech wouldn’t have been enough.

It was impossible to stomp out Nazis with Free Speech alone. It is probably STILL impossible to stomp out Nazis with Free Speech alone. Where there is Free Speech on YouTube, Nazis are STILL wildly popular. We stomped them out because we believed in human decency over and above free speech. We stomped them out because we were not going to hold debates about the basic dignity of human beings. We stomped them out because sometimes calm, rational debates do not solve problems, and I know that’s inconvenient, but it’s absolutely, 100%, true.

So that should give us pause. We had incompatible assumptions when it came to “debating” Nazis. The Nazis said that the Jews and the disabled and the homosexuals should not be part of society. Were they marginalized? Keep them marginalized. Where Aryans privileged? Bask in the privilege, to the full extent of the law (which you make yourself). When we saw the damage in concentration camps, the results of white privilege being fully indulged and embraced, of bigotry against LGBT individuals coming to its zenith, we realized that this view was incompatible — thoroughly — with our values.

Oh, sure, there was likely the opportunity to negotiate, to keep looking for ways to convince. But why, when people are dying and suffering and tortured and demeaned, and when the threat of Nazism crops up its head again? No, this was not something to play with or negotiate about. We had incompatible premises, and we were going to ensure social justice BY ANY MEANS NECESSARY because we saw it as our responsibility to protect our definition of humanity and human decency, and so that’s what we did.

Here’s the deal: We KNOW that the Nazi message is effective. We know it can spread a cancer through our society, that people will latch onto it, that if you start from certain premises it is a logically sound position that is virtually unassailable from the standpoint of pure reason. We know that science cannot defeat it, and can instead enhance it to come up with more effective, crueler methods for the realization of its darkest capaibilities. We know that the humanities cannot defeat it, but that the artists and the writers and the moviemakers and even the philosophers became part of one of the greatest propaganda campaigns of all time.

The only time we stamped out the virus of Nazism wholly and thoroughly, to the point where most today think it an abomination, was through choking the life out of it.

This reality shows me that there may be some places in society where free speech is not an option, where it is intolerable, where the debate ends — where, indeed, if you allow the debate to continue, you will lose, and humanity will lose, to a crueller, harsher view of who we are.

So…this whole context gives me pause when it comes to Richard Spencer. No, this is NOT false equivalency — Richard Spencer is advocating “peaceful” genocide of other races, and believes in white supremacy. He is a Nazi. And we did not get rid of the likes of him because his views were somehow ridiculous and immature. We got rid of the likes of him through brutal, unrelenting force, the squashing of free speech, and vicious censorship. And if he remotely becomes prominent again, history says that we may have to do that again, or we will repeat history. Perhaps the time is not yet. Perhaps it is premature. But we have to choose. We have to choose whether free speech is more important than human lives.

Because the notion that we have to protect human lives is not innately logical; it’s empathetic. It’s in the realm of the heart, not just the mind. And we have to make that choice — what is more important: universal human dignity, or the freedom for people to say what they think?

We’ve already seen that the two aren’t necessarily compatible.

What do you think?

No, I’m not advocating violence at this point in time. But I am saying that I realize we can have a raw, cruel view of the world, or we can fight for a kinder world, and the two may be incompatible.

If you start from the premises that we should not look out for each other, and that those sidelined in society belong there, then maybe we’re incompatible.

Now…about anti-SJWs. The anti-SJWs are full of people who want the right to say cruel things to people without any societal repercussions, even if there are repercussions for people they are cruel to. If someone gets death threats because they say something cruel to them, and they actively seem to encourage cruelty through their hundreds of followers, to the point where they silence the most vulnerable places in society…when is it time to shut them down? When does the value of human life trump their “right” to free speech? Remember, we have answered this question before…

Perhaps censorship is not necessary. Perhaps it’s too early. But now, in the age of Trump, we have to be aware that we are the ones who make history. Hitler would not be a meme if we hadn’t taken strong, strident action against him. He would have been even more intensely popular than he is, and his popularity seems, at the current moment, to be growing. How will we mold the way that people will look back on this moment tomorrow? How valuable do we decide the lives of the most vulnerable in society are?

That’s the choice we have to make. And again, it may not be based on reason. It’s based, fundamentally, on principled empathy, creating a starting point that is absolutely NOT open to negotiation. We can reason from it, but this assumption of the basic dignity of life is one that cannot and will not be denied, and should be protected by any means necessary. If we can agree on that, we can move forward. If we cannot, then eventually we will likely have to fight. Because that idea of human dignity and worth is absolutely non-negotiable.

Thank you for reading.

PS: I have a Patreon, in case you want to support this blog.

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