In the days following the violence in Charlottesville, people from across the political spectrum united to condemn the abomination that is white supremacy. White nationalism is a disgusting ideology, and there’s no reason to doubt this truth. Yet its public presence has prompted the question: Do people have the right to punch white supremacists, even if they have not initiated violence?
A not insignificant portion of the population seems to think so. Antifa and their ilk have repeatedly demonstrated a willingness to use preemptive physical aggression as a tactic of protest. This violence is justified via the “It’s okay to punch Nazis” meme that has won the endorsement of a significant number of people on the Left. If you haven’t noticed the prominence of this sentiment, then you just haven’t bothered to look:
- The Guardian: “The ‘punch a Nazi’ meme: what are the ethics of punching a Nazi?”
- Salon: “The new national debate: Is it ever OK to punch a Nazi?”
- Vice: “We asked an ethicist if it’s OK to Punch Nazis in the Face”
Note: These publications aren’t endorsing the behavior. They just illustrate the popularity of the Nazi-punching discussion.
I believe that punching individuals for their beliefs is wrong, no matter how evil those beliefs are. White supremacists are bad people, but you can’t just go around attacking them. I devised a thought-experiment to elucidate just how insane this mindset really is. Warning: The following content is based on a counterfactual, and I categorically reject the conclusions drawn.
Who Else Can We Punch? Let’s See
Let’s, for the sake of argument, agree that it is alright to punch Nazis wherever we see them, even if the Nazi being punched hasn’t been known to be violent. If we assume that punching Nazis is okay, then who else deserves a hearty knuckle sandwich?
Well, one could make a cogent argument for punching any of the participants in the infamous “We want dead cops” rally that occurred in New York City in 2014. Considering the 2015 anti-cop rampage in Dallas and the 167 percent increase in ambush-style killings of police officers in 2016, I’d say that cop-killing advocacy is definitely nefarious. If it’s okay to punch Nazis, then it would be alright to punch those who openly condone cold-blooded murder.
What about fans of the Islamic State? This is a softball: of course it’s okay to punch ISIS sympathizers. ISIS openly takes sex slaves, crucifies Christians, and throws gay people off buildings. But, according to a poll by the Doha Institute, around 13 percent of Syrian refugees support ISIS. Pew reports that 9 percent of Pakistanis have favorable views of ISIS. Is there a possibility that punching a random Syrian refugee (excluding children—for now) at customs results in an approximately 1 in 7 chance of doing good by pro-Nazi-punching ethics?
What about those who support sharia law, which typically manifests in legal systems that punish homosexuals, apostates, and adulterers with imprisonment and death? Well this handy 2013 report from the highly reputable Pew Research Center claims that 84 percent, 74 percent, 91 percent, and 99 percent of people in Pakistan, Egypt, Iraq, and Afghanistan, respectively, favor making sharia the law of the land. Sounds like open season for some good punching.
However, general support for sharia law doesn’t necessarily imply that you support its most inhumane forms. Fortunately for those who are just aching to punch some brown people, the aforementioned 2013 Pew polls indicate that more than 81 percent of Egyptian Muslims support stoning adulterers.
Similarly, 88 percent of Egyptians Muslims believe in killing those who leave the religion. These numbers are similarly high in Jordan, Pakistan, and a host of other Muslim countries. So next time you go to your local Middle Eastern market for some tahini paste, know there’s a decent probability that a quick left jab-right hook to the friendly Arab guy behind the counter might in fact be a moral good.
So, Let’s Snap Back to Civilization
If the idea of punching random Egyptians for having backwards views makes you squeamish, then I have good news for you: your moral compass is not completely dysfunctional. The problem is twofold. First, vigilantism is a notoriously dangerous practice. If a beating is meant to punish or deter racists and Islamists, then we’re giving the authority of judge, jury, and executioner to whoever sees themselves fit to exact justice on whomever they find criminal.
Second, hate speech is still free speech, and Antifa militants are as justified in resorting to violence at a rally as a civilian anti-Islamist group would be in aggressing upon a local mosque with a known hate-preacher.
So, you either both accept that punching Nazis is justified and accept the absurd conclusions outlined above, or you call it all out for what it is: pure thuggery masquerading as justice and virtue. Attacking a non-violent person, even if that person holds detestable views, is among the most fundamentally anti-liberal and anti-American things that one can do.
It goes both ways, of course. You don’t punch an Islamist, or a communist, or a black supremacist just because he is publically espousing beliefs that you find abhorrent. This isn’t difficult stuff, and the fact that we have to spell out the obvious (that free speech is protected in America) reflects the sad decline in our country’s liberal values.