It’s time to begin this year’s Reader Request Week, and let’s start with something punchy, shall we? Janne Peltonen asks:
What do you think of the whole ‘punching Nazis in the face’ phenomenon? I found it very confusing. It seemed to me to be mostly about performance (‘let’s show the power-hungry extremists that we resist’) but is that reason enough to cross the line to actual physical political violence?
Well, I have two answers for that.
One: the starchy old Believer in the Actual First Amendment me believes that even Nazis have the right to peaceful assembly, physically unmolested, and that indeed this is the very essence of the First Amendment: that even the morally repulsive have a right to trot out their fetid wares in the public marketplace and see who wants to buy them, and that everyone else’s job is to make sure other people see those shitty ideas they’re peddling for what they are. Constitutionally speaking, provided the Nazis are peacefully assembling, people should not be punching Nazis just for being Nazis, and having Nazi views.
Two: I find it positively delightful people out there are punching Nazis, and could watch (for example) pathetic wannaNazi shitball Richard Spencer get punched for hours. And have! My understanding is this weekend Spencer got himself punched up again, and once more I find this utterly delightful. Nazis being punched will never not bring a smile to my face. Go get punched some more, Spencer! You certainly deserve it, you mountainous pile of crap.
“But Scalzi,” I hear you say, “how can you think both that Nazis should have the right to peaceably assemble, and that it’s delightful when Nazis get punched? Isn’t that a contradiction? Doesn’t that make you a complete hypocrite?”
Short answer: Yes!
Longer answer: I recognize that there’s a difference between what I believe is correct intellectually and philosophically, and what makes me feel good emotionally. Intellectually and philosophically, I stand foursquare with the First Amendment, and the right of even Nazis to have their spot in the political conversation of the nation. Emotionally, I find Nazis, whatever you want to call them — today we’re calling them “alt-right,” although that appellation is already past its “sell-by” date and no doubt some of the more marketing-savvy in that crowd are already casting about for a new label to brand their strain of racist fascism — repulsive, and the whiny, privileged, smugly awful, college dorm devil’s advocate alt-right variation of it particularly annoying. They’re assholes. So when one of their number gets punched, I feel pretty good about it, like I would when any asshole who deserves a punching gets what they deserve.
Are these two positions reconcilable? Well, I don’t know that they have to be reconcilable. There are lots of gaps between that things I believe intellectually and the things I feel emotionally. I know intellectually speaking that broccoli is nutritionally better for me than gummi worms, but emotionally gummi worms make me happier. I know intellectually speaking my preference for Levis over Lee jeans is pointless as they are essentially the same product with the same intent, but emotionally I don’t want to be seen in Lee jeans because they’re not me. Intellectually there is no superiority of the music of Journey over, say, that of Big and Rich, but I know which band’s greatest hits album emotionally affects me more.
Do these positions need to be reconciled? I don’t necessarily think so. I acknowledge them and accept the dichotomy. Now, there is an argument here is that there’s a difference between preferring gummy bears to broccoli, and believing Nazis have a First Amendment right to assembly and yet still being happy with them being punched. I wouldn’t disagree, although I note in this formulation, it’s a difference in degree, not kind. Fundamentally, I think we all have various places where we recognize and should acknowledge we have a gap between what we believe is correct intellectually (or philosophically, or morally), and what feels good to us emotionally.
This is one of mine. Nazis’ right to peaceable assembly is guaranteed under the First Amendment and they should not be punched merely for existing and being Nazis, and when they do get punched in public for being fucking Nazis, I feel just fine about it.
Now: Should there be consequences for the person who is battering the Nazi? Sure; they should be prosecuted for battery, assuming they are caught, and if convicted, they should do their time. On the flip side: Is it possible my intellectual and philosophical position re: the First Amendment right of Nazis to be in the public discourse is grounded in the fact that as a well-off straight white dude, I’m near last on the list of people that (specific obsessed and envious loser stalkers aside) the Nazis or other bigots are likely going to have a problem with? Again, sure. It’s easy for me to be sanguine about bigots and racists when I’m not directly in their line of fire. I don’t feel the same level of threat — and I don’t factually have the same level of threat — from them that other people do. It’s easy to say “even the hateful have a place in the discourse” when the hate isn’t focused on you, or is likely ever to be in a very serious way, and that is a thing I don’t think people like me appreciate on a gut level. We are free riders, in a very real sense, regarding the intellectual question of how the principle of free speech interacts with a philosophy founded on the idea that you are less than human, and deserve less than full human rights.
And yes, we here in the US are in a moment right now, thank you Trump voters, where everyone who isn’t a well-off straight white male can be seriously asking themselves whether this administration and its enablers actually believe they should get all the rights someone like I have as a matter of course. I’m not the one who is going to be asked to give over his phone and passwords coming back into the US. I’m not the one whose ability to control what happens to his body is being questioned, again. I’m not the one whose ability to pee in safety is being hauled up for discussion. I’m not the one who will have any difficulty being able to jump through state-erected hoops in order to vote. And so on. The Trump administration has racists, sexists and bigots whispering into the president’s ear (and the president himself is a real piece of work on these scores as well). So many people who kept their active racism, sexism and bigotry under a rock are now gleefully exulting in it. Is it a threat? Is it a threat that needs to be met with a punch or two? Not for me. I think other people might have a different thought on it, and an argument that the threat to them isn’t just one that exists in their feelings.
I think the next obvious question here is (and one I think that’s implied): Would I punch a Nazi? Unprompted, probably not. If one was coming at me or people with the intent to start a fight, I would feel fine defending myself or those near me. But again, that’s not peaceable assembly, now, is it? We move off the First Amendment square there, into another area entirely. Short of that, I’m not likely to be the one to throw the first punch. I might think about it, and how fun it would be. But I’ll stick to enjoying the YouTube videos. They are indeed lovely.
(There is still time to ask a question for Reader Request Week. Go here for all the details, and to ask your question.)