Yet another Nazi-punching video is making the rounds on the Internet, to cheers from quite a few people on the left. The clip, shot in Seattle, shows a man in a swastika armband getting knocked down with a punch to the face as he tries to talk to the assailant. Using violence to stop someone who espouses a violent ideology, many say, is legitimate self-defense. The man in the clip may or may not have been acting aggressively before the start of the video. It’s also unclear whether he is an actual neo-Nazi or simply mentally ill.
Regardless, both the video and the applause for it on social media are disturbing signs of the times. “Well done, Seattle. A+,” went a typical comment. Another tweeter, a writer with 23,600 followers, declared, “Yes, I enjoyed video of the Seattle Nazi [getting] punched in the face. Very much. Freedom of speech is not freedom from consequences.”
Twitter talk is cheap. But such gleeful casual endorsements of violence are still worrisome, especially in light of what’s happening in the offline world. One can feel no sympathy for Nazis and still realize that approval of Nazi-punching is likely to lead to escalation of political violence across the board.
Last February, “antifa” activists who unleashed a riot on the University of California-Berkeley campus to stop a talk by professional right-wing troll Milo Yiannopoulos invoked “self-defense” as their justification, citing Yiannopoulos’s history of insulting comments about transgender people, illegal immigrants, and other groups. At Middlebury College in Vermont, a violent protest targeted Charles Murray, a conservative scholar who has argued that there may be innate racial differences in intelligence; a female professor escorting Murray was injured in the melee.
What is behind this new love affair with violence? Partly, it’s the resurgence of a very old love affair. The view of violence for a good cause as noble and heroic has existed in virtually every known human culture. Paradoxically, life in a comfortable, affluent society with historically low levels of violence may bolster the temptation to romanticize “noble” violence — whether it’s fantasizing about revolution or fantasizing about patriotic defense of the republic.
Political polarization, and the growing tendency to demonize the opposition, plays a role as well: If people with a different political outlook are not just fellow citizens who disagree with you but the enemy, trying to bridge difference or seek compromise is pointless. And once you’ve decided that it’s OK, even desirable, to punch Nazis, your definition of who qualifies as a Nazi or a fascist is bound to keep expanding.
In England, whose cultural politics often echo our own, the “self-defense against fascism” excuse was used the other day to justify the beating of a 60-year-old feminist. The disturbing incident, also caught on video, took place in London’s Hyde Park as a few dozen women waited to find out the location of a controversial debate between transgender activists and “gender-critical feminists” who believe biological sex determines who is a woman. (The location had been kept secret due to concerns about violence.) The victim, who was filming arguments between the would-be attendees and protesters, was set upon by four people, hit in the face, and thrown to the ground; the attackers also smashed her camera phone and destroyed the memory card.
Despite the shocking video, some activists were unapologetic. “Violence against TERFs is always self-defense,” said a tweet from the Edinburgh chapter of Action for Trans Health, using the derogatory acronym for “trans-exclusionary radical feminists.” It “does not matter who ‘instigated’ a particular altercation, fascism is inherently violent.” The British LGBT acceptance group Stonewall issued a condemnation of the violence but also condemned “dehumanizing discussion.”
In the United States, the trend toward the legitimation of political violence started long before Trump’s election. The belief that words and ideas deemed offensive or hurtful to “marginalized” groups are a form of violence and injury has been increasingly common on the left. From this, it’s only a short step to the view that it is moral and right to use actual physical violence to fight back against the more indirect, camouflaged violence of the oppressor. The idea that violence is an appropriate response to grievances has been on the rise as well: In the last several years, many progressives have been sympathetic to riots in response to the deaths of African-Americans at the hands of police. (Criticism of riots has even been decried as “riot-shaming.”)
These trends have escalated with the rise of Trump, who is widely seen as a menace to the disadvantaged — and the rise of the white nationalist “alt right,” which makes its own claims about multiracial culture as violence toward the white race.
The result is a climate in which the specter of violence is present on America’s public square in America in a way mostly unseen in a generation. Last month’s tragedy in Charlottesville, where clashes between far-right demonstrators and their opponents culminated in a neo-Nazi ramming his car into counterprotesters, killing one woman and injuring 19 other people, shocked the nation; but it came on the heels of many other violent incidents. Trump rallies were marked by violence (which, it is only fair to say, was indeed on both sides) during the campaign. Campuses resemble war zones when controversial speakers visit. At both extremes of the political spectrum, an increasingly visible fringe is openly admiring and emulating totalitarian death cults: swastikas and other Nazi or fascist symbolism on the far right, Communist flags on the far left.
We are also witnessing, all across the political spectrum, a loss of confidence in the moral authority of government, to the point where government institutions are often perceived as illegitimate or barely legitimate — at least when run by “the other side.” An essential part of civilization is that we agree to abstain from violence except in self-defense and to give the government a monopoly on use of force, trusting it and its agents to use it only when appropriate. What happens when that trust is gone?
There has been much finger-pointing on the question of who’s more to blame for political violence. Liberals often point out that, in recent decades, deadly violence at least partly motivated by political extremism has come overwhelmingly from the right: neo-Nazis, antigovernment radicals, and white supremacists. But that could easily change. In the 1970s, most extremism-related murders came from the left. Last year, according to the Anti-Defamation League, saw a spike in killings driven by black nationalism. And it’s only by sheer luck that there were no fatalities when a left-wing activist shot Congressman Steve Scalise, a Republican, and three other people in June.
Is there hope for de-escalation? For starters, we can reject the conflation of words and violence and of violent “self-defense” against emotional injuries. We can stop demonizing opponents. And we must, no matter what our political views, repudiate and condemn violence by “our own” instead of trying to prove that the other tribe is worse.