This article is written by Danthropology writer Matthew O’Neil. A counter argument made by Dan Arel can be found here.
On January 20, 2017, a madman became the 45th president of the United States. A man that, upon his election, gave the perception that it was okay to be openly prejudiced against various groups of people. The Southern Poverty Law Center reported 867 cases of hate based harassment, intimidation, and violence in the ten days following Trump’s election, according to a CNN article from December of 2016 titled “Make America White Again.”
What’s worse is that, on the day Trump was inaugurated into office, a man known as Richard Spencer, who is credited for creating the label “alt-right,” who was let go from the American Conservative magazine for having views that were too “extreme,” and was recorded saying “Hail Trump, hail our people, hail victory,” at a speaking event, was assaulted in Washington D.C. The instance was caught on camera, broadcast to a national audience, and has since been made into dozens of memes available online. In addition, a debate has been waging over whether this attack was appropriate or not.
What world are we living in when we are truly arguing, and becoming divided over, whether physically assaulting someone is permissible?
To start, I am no Nazi sympathizer. And there is no debating Spencer’s position. According to the Southern Poverty Law Center, Spencer has advocated for peaceful ethnic cleansing. The Anti-Defamation League noted that Spencer rejected conservatism specifically because they “can’t or won’t represent explicitly white interests.” And though he rejects white supremacy and slavery of non-whites, Slate interviewed Spencer to discover that he wanted to establish the US as a white ethnostate. Spencer also made a not-so-veiled reference to the Nazi-era propaganda film “Triumph of the Will” when he stated that Trump’s victory will be the “victory of the will.” Spencer is a Nazi, in no uncertain terms. I do not condone his positions and I never will. However, despite my position, I also do not advocate for violence against him. The notions of violence and disapproval of a position do not exist alongside one another. Similarly to how I do not act violently against protesters outside of Planned Parenthood, despite knowing how much damage they cause simply by being there, violence does not make the problem go away or even solve it.
Part of my education was in mediation and applied conflict studies, and a large part of my work involves catering to individuals who are often violent, antagonistic, and completely opposed to change. I cannot go into work and demand my clients change, or insist that they have to. To put it in perspective, I offer a section from Understanding Conflict and War: Volume 5, chapter 10.
Violent conquest is usually wrong…Forcibly imposing one’s values and goals on another, aside from its general immorality, can create smoldering resentment, grievance, and hostility that later may burst into greater conflict and violence.
From an Atlantic article titled “Violence Doesn’t Work (Most of the Time),” it was reported that political scientists had studied the effects of violence in political movements in terms of creating change, and it turns out that (on average) nonviolence creates more productive results than violence. In a different analysis, others have discovered that terrorist movements dissipate without achieving their primary goals. This is as opposed to non-violent movements that achieve around 75% of their goals
After the passing of Nelson Mandela in 2013, Harvard Law School held a conference to discuss Mandela’s legacy and the notion of non-violent protest. To the question of whether violence is ever necessary or justified, HLS professor Randall Kennedy responded,
“ …violence is justifiable when one can confidently predict that the violence that one is deploying will eliminate a greater evil, but that’s always a very difficult judgement to make…Because violence is a tainting thing, one always has to consider — even if one thinks one can prevail — what will be the price one pays for doing that?”
And what is the price to pay for lashing out at Spencer? Despite the fact that Spencer has been quoted as feeling fearful of being out in public, concerned that another attack may come, what does this mean for the alt-right movement?
First, it means they now have ammo to use against the mainstream. Not just liberals, as Spencer does not think Conservatives do enough for white interests. In a Southern Poverty Law Center article titled “Why Do They Join?” Sociologist Pete Simi shared that violence isn’t even considered an option by people who join hate groups. Remember how I had mentioned Spencer wanted a peaceful ethnic cleansing? That is because, as Simi states, violence is viewed as counterproductive. And with that one example on TV, now Spencer has made his case. Violence is used by the opposition. Worse, he likely has inspired a few new recruits that may join and feel a sense of bonding and camaraderie over the fact that they are the more grown up group.
What’s worse? They now think they have the moral high ground. A number of people went to the voting booth in November voting against Clinton and for Trump, because they viewed Trump as an outsider, an underdog, someone who was not sitting in the ivory tower of politics looking down at the peasants of the middle and lower classes. Clinton was caught in lies, Trump preached dishonesty in the media, a bias in the polls, and now repeats that there was voter fraud like a broken record. The message, in essence, was “everyone is against us, and liberals are elitists.” How better to have that demonstrated than repeating the image of Spencer getting punched the day of Donald Trump’s inauguration?
And where does that leave us with freedom of speech? Violence against those we disagree with? As Natalie and Dan asked on A Science Enthusiast, where does the beating stop? How many bones are we permitted to break? Can we kick? What happens if the person being assaulted dies? Furthering the question, what other laws are we permitted to overlook when assaulting someone whose ideology we disagree with? Is murder permitted? Can we steal their wallet after punching them? Is sodomizing them with foreign objects permitted? What about setting them on fire?
And what about other ideologies we disagree with? As noted before, I am not in favor of protesters outside of Planned Parenthood, as the Guttmacher Institute has discovered that they cause more emotional harm than the actual abortion does that they are entering the facility for. Am I permitted to assault them? What about anti-vaccine advocates? They put their children in danger and indeed cause long-term harm and even death to their children. Should we assault them? Do people who find my political, philosophical, and religious views offensive get a “Get Out of Jail Free” card so they can assault me? Do the people advocating that assaulting a Nazi is okay get the opportunity to assault those who disagree?
And I use the word “assault” because that is what people are championing here. People are applauding violence, a criminal act, to take place because they dislike a person. Perhaps next we are free to commit arson to start burning down houses. Maybe vandalizing their property first? Slashing their car tires? Throwing bricks through their windows? Is terrorism really terrorism if it’s done against a Nazi? The answer is YES! These are still crimes! These are still illegal! And we have these laws in place specifically to protect citizens from vigilantism and to keep them from harm.
People in the circles I associate with have shared another meme that I think is on point with this discussion. “You don’t need religion to have morals. If you can’t determine right from wrong then you lack empathy, not religion.” Well, the same is applied to people we disagree with. If you can’t understand why it’s important to not lash out at someone, even if they profess an idea that is filled with hate and advocates harm against a group of people, then you have no empathy for the person. And while ideas have no rights, people still do.