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Nazi punch is a non-violence red herring

  • 06 February 2017


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