When not preoccupied with US President Donald Trump, public debate has been focused these last few days on the morality of punching a Nazi upside the head.
The Nazi in question, Richard Spencer, founder of the alt-right, was giving a television interview when a black-garbed assailant hit him and ran away.
The question, is violence ever acceptable, even when directed against someone who wants to eradicate you and yours for no reason other than that he or she doesn’t like who you are, is still bouncing round the internet and mainstream media. I’d assess the majority verdict thus far as no, violence is never acceptable.
So to those blessed with such moral certainty, I’d like to pose the following questions.
- You are a woman living with a violent partner. So far your partner has attacked only you, but suddenly you are witnessing him/her beating one of your children. You violently attack your partner to save your child. Are you wrong to do this?
- You witness an unconscious woman being raped. You physically attack the rapist, because talking to him nicely about why what he’s doing is unacceptable doesn’t seem a feasible option. Are you wrong to do this?
- You are a police officer attempting to prevent a crazed individual from mowing down pedestrians in a car he’s driving through a crowded shopping mall. You shoot this individual to stop him, and save others from death and injury. Are you wrong to do this?
I could go on, but you get the idea.
I doubt there is a more ludicrous statement than “violence is never acceptable.” There are situations in which violence is the only feasible option. The question is, was the situation in which the Nazi got punched one of those situations?
Knowing nothing of the history and motivation of the black-garbed assailant, it’s difficult to assess. If he or she had lost family in Nazi concentration camps, I can fully understand how he or she might attack Spencer for espousing the same vile dehumanising hatred that caused millions of family members to be calculatedly murdered.
I also think that if you are going to argue for the mass eradication of fellow humans because you don’t like who they are, you probably ought to expect the occasional smack in the head. Free speech is always risky.
I very much doubt that if faced with the loss of my family and an individual such as Spencer endorsing their slaughter I would be capable of thinking in the moment, how do we best go about dismantling the structures that permit the rise of fascism, as was suggested by one commentator. I imagine I’d be reacting from my gut and that gut reaction might be physical, even though I’m afraid of violence and don’t enjoy witnessing it.
Yes, we do have to apply our intelligence and imagination to this question, particularly in view of the US President’s fascist leanings and increasing signs of our own government’s tendencies in this area, however, fascism has never been defeated solely by intelligence and imagination: violence has always been necessary.
I’m not overly concerned with the fate of the Nazi. I do wish that even a fraction of the moral outrage surrounding the attack on the Nazi could be directed towards the global epidemic of violence against women. Imagine if every time a woman was punched somewhere in the world, the internet and mainstream media publicly shamed the perpetrator, and entered into vigorous debate on the immorality of punching women. Punching women has become normalised. Punching Nazis not so much, it would seem.
All I can say to those who unequivocally state that violence is never an option, is, use your imagination. Violence is not nice. Violence is frightening. Violence hurts. Only deeply disturbed people enjoy it. There are situations, however, in which it is the only option and if you aren’t willing to even consider the possibility of such a situation, you might find yourself part of the problem.