The recent viral footage of 'alt-right' spokesperson Richard Spencer taking a punch to the chops caused considerable debate in the media. For many who are committed to nonviolence, the ethics of 'punching a Nazi', as tweets tended to refer to it, were clear: it's never okay to punch anyone.
The theory of nonviolence is, after all, that violence begets violence — and so if we want to end the cycle of violence we have to desist from it ourselves. Liberal American comedian Sarah Silverman, for example, worried the punch was a detraction from the 'nonviolence' of Martin Luther King, and compared it to 'whether MLK would've lynched someone from the KKK', given the chance.
There is no doubting the moral clarity that non-violent resistance achieved in the civil rights movement led by King and the Indian independence movement led by Mahatma Gandhi; and the real result of justice for African American and Indian people. When it comes to the odd individual performative act of public pushing and shoving, though, asking 'Is it okay?' is a red herring.
Somebody asked me what I thought about the Spencer punch the other day. I responded with 'who cares?'. Because I really don't care. I don't care about him, I don't care that he copped one, and the question of whether punching him and then amplifying the footage is right or wrong doesn't, in my view, have enough content to bear consideration.
It's a red herring, because in the struggle against fascism, now in a period of terrifying growth in the world, fascists like Spencer are going to get punched, and those who would resist it have to accept that, whether we personally would punch on or not.
Sure, punching on is not a solution, it's not going to help us win moral authority, and if we stop at physical expressions of anger we're selling our vision short; but it is going to happen. Why it happens so infrequently and on such a small scale when the threat of violence against us is so great is a more interesting question to me.
'Was the punch okay?' is the same red herring of a question that causes onlookers to focus on the few people at any rally or protest who smash windows or assault a policeman.
For those of us who oppose the brutality of the state or of white supremacists or the other large and frightening apparatuses of violence currently in our midst, whenever we gather we are going to be accused of violence whether we punch anyone or not, whether we break a window or not.
"The vast majority of people who are currently rising up against authoritarian government and organised white supremacism know that non-violent resistance is how we will win, and are prone to acting accordingly."
It's the oldest trick in the book for maintaining power — to project violence onto the person opposing it. It's why gamergaters claim they are being oppressed as they literally drive women out of their homes under the threat of rape and murder, and why police bring out the tear gas simply because a large crowd has gathered. It's not a question of whether you think the ends justify the means, because, in the resistance currently rising against actually existing white supremacist patriarchy, 'punching a Nazi' or 'assaulting a police officer' is no-one's means.
In a world where the threat of violence is constantly with us — in the guns, batons, and tasers of policemen, the posturings of political leaders, the vigilantism of Nazis, fascists, white supremacists, and other committed racists, the angry man in our home — we have to expect that there will be some who see no alternative but to punch back, and that for those who live next to and inside this threat, it is going to be cathartic to see a perpetrator physically knocked about.
To accept this as inevitable doesn't have to mean we open the floodgates for a regular exchange of fists. The vast majority of people who are currently rising up against authoritarian government and organised white supremacism know that non-violent resistance is how we will win, and are prone to acting accordingly. Meanwhile, those very authoritarians are assembling their troops. Let's save our questions about violence for that fight.
Ann Deslandes is a freelance writer and researcher from Sydney. Read her other writing at xterrafirma.net and tweet her @Ann_dLandes.
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Roy Chen Yee
06 February 2017
“Somebody asked me what I thought about the Spencer punch the other day. I responded with 'who cares?'. Because I really don't care. I don't care about him, I don't care that he copped one, and the question of whether punching him and then amplifying the footage is right or wrong doesn't, in my view, have enough content to bear consideration.” What would have been Ann Deslandes’ response if Spencer had been an elected representative on the floor of the legislature when the punch was thrown? The same? But, aren’t all political views intended by those who hold them to become popular enough to find expression within the legislature? Would Deslandes not care if someone had punched a legislator in the head while she was delivering a speech about the violence of white supremacist patriarchy? What, then, is the difference between the floor of the parliament and the parliament of the streets?
07 February 2017
Oh Ann, really.... Are we now prepared to advocate violence as acceptable means in the communinity because we disagree with the political or social views of the opponent ?And then worse, rejoice in the result of the violence... Come on, this community of readers has to be bigger than this... what you are advocating as "acceptable" is exactly the opposite mentality the great non violent movements to which you refer have sought to engender in the hearts of people.
07 February 2017
I can totally understand the emotion involved but violence is a downward spiral. The effect of this punch is a small release of tension for the offender and a deepening of the division. People on both sides are going to be more convinced that they are right. It is certainly not going to change Richard Spencer's mind about his opinions. Assault is against the law so the police and courts have no choice but to take Spencer's side if he chose to pursue the matter. More importantly by lowering the bar it just invites the other side to do the same. If you want real progress you have to engage not alienate. No matter how much you disagree with another person physical violence does not prove to them that you are right.
07 February 2017
This article is a red herring. ES, please stop publishing crap.
07 February 2017
Seems to me Ann is not advocating violence but instead acceptance...
It's inevitable, people are motivated to retain power, violence is one of their commonly used strategies.
Asking if it's OK is an immature question. For more evolved insight we are asked to consider where our focus lies. Is it on the puncher, the punchee, or the millions of people who are somehow managing to resist acting violently? What is the impact of where we focus? Does it help us achieve the desired result?
07 February 2017
Very reasonable request Aurelius!
08 February 2017
Robert Spencer is definitely a concern. I think everything you say about him is probably true. He is an extremely unpleasant person of the American Far Right. There is, of course, considerable opposition to him in mainstream America, right down to the area in Montana where he lives part of the time. The election of President Trump has indeed brought some very nasty people out of the woodwork, such as David Duke, I am not sure that, as you aver, that fascism is on the rise in America, where Spencer was punched. Nor do I see the USA as a particularly oppressive society. Many people, like the puncher in this instance, who voice high ideals, do not, in fact, live up to them. I am unsure whether a mere verbal commitment to non-violence and/or vegetarianism would put you in the Gandhi class: he was the exception who lived up to his high ideals.