With the election of Donald J. Trump as President of the United States, a lot of hateful people have made themselves more visible. White supremacy groups are on the rise on college campuses and throughout the country in general. Thinking they have a friend in the White House, these hateful bigots are marching out of the shadows. Obviously, this is disturbing and it is important for every American to speak out against their type of hateful rhetoric. But as disturbing as this is, what I find more surprising is the rise of hate on the left in reaction to this situation.
January 21, 2017 – White Supremacist and “alt-right” leader, Richard Spencer was punched in the face on camera while giving an interview. Sure, we can all laugh and take some pleasure from seeing someone so deplorable getting punched in the face on camera. However, I also realized that as pleasurable as that might be to watch, we should all understand that it was wrong and we should denounce such acts of violence vigorously. Spencer maybe a hateful bigot who supports and propagates Nazi ideals, but his speech is still just speech. It is rightfully protected under the First Amendment and creating an environment of fear through violence isn’t all that much different from the Nazi goals he seeks to propagate in the first place.
Sadly, this incident has given rise to a surprisingly large number of my fellow liberals who imagine themselves Indiana Jones. They think it is awesome to go around and talk the tough talk of “punching Nazis.” How many Nazis have they actually punched? Well, that number ranges anywhere between zero and zip. That’s right — these brave warriors are on the front lines of their social media doing the hard work of re-fighting World War II some 80 after the fact by championing violence against those who say things they find hateful and who are not at present an imminent threat. These Indiana Jones wannabes truly are the Greatest Generation.
Sure, it is easy to hate on Nazis. We can never forget Nazis believed that anyone who was different from themselves should be wiped from the face of the Earth. They threw people (including children) into ovens and censored any and all decent under punishment of death, among other atrocities. That’s why they make such great villains in movies like the Indiana Jones series.
And while there are still people like Spencer who believe and propagate the ideology of Aryan superiority (or as he calls it now “European Pride”), the Nazis are gone. In America today, no one is throwing people in ovens. Could that idea “catch fire” again someday? Sure. But the way we prevent that isn’t by becoming fascists ourselves or by creating an environment of fear in which people are afraid to speak. No, that isn’t the answer. We fight bad ideas with better ideas. We talk openly about the virtues and values of diversity and freedom. And yes, diversity and freedom often means that we have to live with people we don’t like and who say hateful things. It sucks sometimes; but that is the American way.
As hateful as I think people like Richard Spencer are, I have to defend his right to speak. There is a famous quote often misattributed to Voltaire that many of my fellow humanist liberals used to quote but has since fallen out of fashion. In her book, “The Friends of Voltaire,” Evelyn Beatrice Hall wrote, “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.” This pretty much sums up my view on free speech. And while I strongly disapprove (to put it mildly) of what Richard Spencer and people like him say, I support their right to say what they say. This is why I have always defended the right of groups like the KKK to march peacefully in various cities around the country. But I have also encouraged people to point and laugh at them. Humor has always been our best weapon against hate groups.
And that brings me to my next quote for the day. “Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.” – Martin Luther King, Jr.
It’s funny; people praise Dr. King and yet ignore everything he stood for. When confronted with bigotry and hate, Dr. King championed non-violence. That doesn’t mean he was a pacifist or that he was somehow appeasing the bigots (which is often the criticism I get when I defend the right of people like Spencer to speak freely). No, he understood that unless the situation becomes violent, people should act non-violently. Right now, these white supremacists are largely not acting violently. Don’t get me wrong, there are of course incidents where they are actively planning violence or have actually committed violence. When those plots/situations are known, law enforcement should absolutely respond appropriately. But that doesn’t mean that private citizens should start punching people out in the streets for voicing hate, bigotry, and support for genocide. If there is an imminent threat, then we are having a very different conversation. But as long as this crap remains in the realm speech, then violence is not the moral choice.
Why not? These people are professing support for the Nazi ideology and we all know where that leads. It leads to gas chambers and human ovens. Okay, we all know where a lot of things lead. I mean think about where Republican climate denialism leads. It leads to a planet that will no longer be able to support human life. That’s not just genocide; it’s human extinction! Does that mean we should start punching Republicans on the street whenever they speak publicly? Should we make them afraid to speak? Sure, we all might get that brief sense of pleasure if Speaker Paul Ryan got punched in the face on camera, but hopefully we would all also recognize that it wasn’t the moral thing to do and we should denounce such violence.
But while we are talking about where things lead, let’s talk about where the actions of punching white supremacists merely for exercising their free speech might lead. We view these people as not just hateful, but dangerous. Well guess what? There are many people who perceive other groups (rightly or wrongly) as dangerous. For example, some Christians make the case that atheists are putting people’s immortal souls in danger of eternal torture. Does that give them the right to punch atheists for expressing our lack of belief in deities? What about Muslims? Trump supporters are being fed propaganda that tells them that all Muslims are dangerous. Does that give them the right to punch anyone they think might be a Muslim? Before you know it, almost anyone would start to feel terrorized. Make no mistake, we are talking about terrorism here. It may not be ISIS beheadings, but when people become afraid to speak out of fear of being punched in the face, that is a form of terrorism. That’s a problem with appointing oneself as the judge, jury, and executioner. That’s why we have a legal system in the first place. Granted it isn’t a perfect legal system, but like Democracy, it is the best there is.
But wait a minute. No one is saying that it should be illegal for Nazis to speak, just that there are “consequences” for their speech… such as being punched in the face. I disagree; people have the freedom of speech and they also have the freedom not to get assaulted for exercising that freedom speech. There are still plenty of valid consequences for hateful speech. Private companies can fire people for hurting the image of the company. These can be messy legal battles sometimes, but it is a possible consequence people have to consider when voicing any controversial opinion in the workplace and sometimes even in public or private spaces too. Of course the biggest consequence people will suffer for voicing Nazi style propaganda is that people will start to label you a Nazi and no one will take you seriously ever again.
Threats of physical assault, on the other hand, is not a valid “consequence.” It is a form of terrorism designed to create an environment of fear around voicing certain opinions. Let’s call it what it is, because it is even worse than terrorism. It is a form of fascism. In advocating violence toward people who are exercising their right to free speech, these Nazi puncher advocates are becoming the very thing they wish to fight against. If they truly valued freedom and diversity, then they would use those virtues to fight against fascism and homogeneity. Unless of course they secretly believe fascism and homogeneity are the stronger ideas…
Still, now we have people who are advocating a form of fascism and homogeneity under the guise of protecting freedom and diversity. And that brings me to my final quote of the day:
“Villains who twirl their mustaches are easy to spot, but those who clothe themselves in good deeds are well camouflaged… She or someone like her will always be with us, waiting for the right climate in which to flourish, spreading fear in the name of righteousness.”- Captain Jean-Luc Picard, Star Trek: TNG, “The Drumhead”
I also want to include an episode of Seth Andrews’ The Thinking Atheist, where he talks about this topic: