Friday, February 3, 2017

Nazi punching probably doesn't matter either way

Controversy over the ethics and politics of Nazi-punching continues - re-ignited, this time around, by the macing of a young fascist woman. Fredrik deBoer thinks that this was bad on the grounds that she is a woman. @ItsTonyNow has tweeted out a more common line of criticism:


Meanwhile, a pretty significant faction of leftists (and even liberals) continue to support Nazi punching as an unmitigated good no matter who the Nazi happens to be, a perspective that I'm personally sympathetic to but that I also suspect is beside the point.

The point I would make here is that it probably doesn't matter either way. 

You can make fun propaganda-of-the-deed type arguments that punching Nazis is a good way to make racists afraid again, but while that may work on the specific person you happen to punch, it's pretty unlikely that leftists will actually be able to successfully engineer an enduring national climate of effective intimidation against Nazis.

Similarly, you can make all kinds of arguments that Nazi-punching is counterproductive:
Want his ideas popular? Physically assault him in front of a camera. His support base will grow simply by people sympathetic to thoughtcriminals...[And] if there ever is a crackdown, the more people you attack for what they believe or say, the more supporters will claim you deserve every bit of the treatment the fascist state gives you.
But realistically, both of these consequences would probably happen either way. If you are seriously willing to entertain sympathy for a Nazi for any reason, it was probably just a matter of time until you found an excuse; by the same token, Trump is probably already begun drafting whatever draconian anti-left executive order you can imagine, and if he can get away with rolling it out, he will whether you punch someone or not.

To me, these attempts to justify or object to Nazi-punching on consequentialist grounds read like a proxy debate for what is really a disagreement about irreconcilable principles. If your real objection to Nazi-punching is that you are a pacifist, you'll probably need to come up with a different argument against it, since most people aren't pacifists; so you'll probably try to look for pragmatic or procedural objections to Nazi-punching instead. If on the other hand you think that discourse, argumentation, ridicule and such are inadequate mediums for vying with Nazis, then you are going to have trouble communicating with people who think that the discourse is basically adequate for dealing with them. In that case, you're going to be tempted to come up with additional rationales for punching Nazis, like the theory that you'll be able to intimidate Nazis into silence.

If there's any good coming out of Nazi-punching, it's the simple fact that we're having a debate about it: long-unexamined assumptions about discourse, violence, and power are very close to the surface right now, and I think that they deserve to be examined. But as far as practical and political consequences go, I don't think it likely that any of this really matters. This is mostly a moral debate, not a strategic one.