By Patrick McAuliffe
Battle lines are being drawn around this great nation in the last few weeks and months, sometimes even literally. From Boston and the North to Charlottesville and the South, clashes between far-right extremists and far-left counter-protestors is reaching a boiling point. So, in case you find yourself in the neighborhood of a racially or politically charged protest or demonstration, follow both the handy guide on the previous page and the following tips and tricks to answer the age-old question: is it ok to punch a Nazi? More importantly, should I punch that Nazi?
Before this question is explored any further, I want to state something that I hope would be obvious from a paper that supports limited government power: Nazism is a repugnant ideology that has resulted in the deaths of millions of innocent human beings, and asks of its followers actions that no human being should ever consider doing. However, it may come as a surprise that traces of Nazism’s ideological premises can be found in other ideologies and political theories. In an attempt to be philosophically consistent, rationally sorting through all of the actions, moral questions, and actors involved is imperative for rooting out and defeating this and other ideologies that degrade human beings to something less than themselves. An ideology that calls for hating another person merely for their existence advocates for the evil it is trying to prevent.
Let’s start with the semantic questions. What do we mean by the terms “ok,” “should,” “punch,” and “Nazi”? There is a big difference between something being “ok” and a moral imperative that something “should” be done. It’s a question of permissibility – either by our own moral code, an objective moral code, or the current legal system – contrasted with something that must be done, every time the circumstances arise. If I pass someone on the street and I can clearly tell that they support the fascist regime of Hitler, am I required to punch them? Or is it an optional action?
What does a punch signify? It is an act of physical violence against a person, with the intent of either righting some injustice or attempting to coerce some action out of them; sometimes it is both. Punching a Nazi, in this modern-day case, would perhaps be done with the intent of laying the blame of the Holocaust and other atrocities on that person. Believing that an ideology that called for such terrible things could ever rationally make sense is something most people find inconceivable. And, for those that still hold out hope for convincing the Nazi that his or her ideals are wrong through means other than dialogue and debate, their act of punching is done for merely pragmatic purposes: stop believing in Nazism and you will stop being punched.
Nazism is our final word to dissect, and as it is thrown around so often it can be hard to pin down. In its historical context, the National Socialist Party was the extension of a philosophy that painted the German people or German race as inherently superior – physically, genetically (whatever that means), perhaps even morally – to other races. If this was true, naturally that would mean that the German nation-state would be inherently superior to other nation-states. By setting the German race, the “Aryans,” as the baseline for an ideal human being, Nazi leaders were able to paint anyone that did not meet their qualifications for “German” as lesser people and, as the mass killings indicated, not even human. Much of this ideology is carried over today, with the superior and inferior peoples’ names replaced like a horrifying version of Mad Libs. Now, instead of anointing only Germany as superior human beings, white supremacists and neo-Nazis laud all white people as inherently superior, often looking through a very closed-minded and narrow reading of world history. Those that are inferior are still the Jewish people, but the qualifications have extended to anyone that does not have white skin. Some of these extremists carry their hate even further, calling for the denial of basic human rights to the LGBTQ community, members of certain religious groups such as Catholics or Muslims, and those with left-wing ideologies, no matter how moderate or extreme.
Now turn your attention back to the provided flowchart. Walking through it and asking why these certain conclusions are drawn will help us get at the root of the punching Nazis problem. First, starting off with the provided dates of 1938-1945, punching a Nazi at this specified period in history is because this is where the Nazi government’s aggression in Europe constituted acts of war. This flowchart assumes that initiating physical violence against a person or their property is reprehensible, and only if this violence is clearly committed can one retaliate with full but proportional force. To preemptively attack someone because of a perceived threat can quickly become dangerous, because if the violence is preempted one would not know if the violence would have been committed at all. But that will be addressed later on.
Assuming that this year is, in fact, not 1942, we choose the “No” option and move on. Now one must test the Nazi’s ideology. If they have a swastika tattooed on the back of their shaved head and are shouting in the street calling for the government to kill Jews and people of color, it is safe to assume they are proudly a Nazi. If the only outward sign of their Nazism is a flag of the Third Reich hanging outside their house, then they are also a Nazi. However, if someone is mistakenly identified as a Nazi when in reality they believe in everything that opposes Nazism, and far-left antifascists believe them to be complicit in the Nazi threat, they do not seek to bring about the hateful politics of their ideology (because they don’t exist) and do not deserve a use of force against them. It’s well put in the chart: “Since no Nazi is present, then no Nazi can be punched, even if it was OK.” (Side note: here is where we can have a discussion about identifying as a Nazi versus being one or not, related to a transgender or nonbinary discussion on how one identifies versus what their biology determines they are, but I don’t want to stay on this paragraph forever. We have important moral questions to consider! Another time.)
Having no Nazi present ends the flowchart chain, so we’ll assume that there is a real, full-fledged, card-carrying neo-Nazi white supremacist Klansman in front of us. What is the Nazi doing? For example, the Nazis are at a march intending to be peaceful; simply march through the streets, shout some slogans and have people’s eyes rolled at them, and go home. They aren’t carrying fully automatic weapons or machetes, just banners and musical instruments. Would somebody who knew nothing of Nazism’s horrors see that march and think that they were in danger? If the answer is no, one would assume that the marching Nazis are presenting no legitimate threat at that time to anyone’s property or person. What most antifascists would think is not peaceful about the event is the fact that Nazism inherently calls for initiating violence against other people. And here is where the nucleus of the issue resides, so we will look at the rest of the chart briefly after extrapolating upon this point.
Nazis do not believe in the right of certain groups to exist. Their mentality is a blanket declaration of war against given groups, quickly becoming a battle of “us versus them.” If given the chance, their enemies would extinguish them from the face of the earth, as the Allied Powers seemed to be doing to the German people after World War I. The only way to achieve victory for the Nazi is to beat them to the punch, to strike first and strike hard, because any sort of political power in the hands of their enemies would mean the downfall of the group. In this ideology, it is revealed that twentieth-century political systems, and even modern-day ideologies, have not progressed beyond the tribal warfare and social Darwinism of past eras so commonly detested.
If I had replaced certain vocabulary in the previous paragraph with pro-Marxist terminology, would there be any difference? The overthrow of the bourgeoisie, the call for the proletariat revolution, the abolishment of individual human rights in favor of the one social unit; communism and socialism call for all of these things. When the rich control the power, they seek to crush and exploit the workers. The only alternative is to take the power from them, and use it as a weapon against them. It is another instance of “us versus them,” another instance of calling for preemptive violence against people that have not actually committed violence to warrant retaliation.
Herein lies the hypocrisy of those calling for Nazi punches. If the ideology of a person, no matter how benevolent their ideal world, is sufficient reason to commit violence against them, then the same violence called for against far-right fascists would have to be applied to far-left socialists. Both groups call for subjugation of certain enemy groups before they themselves are snuffed out. The main difference is that one is divided along racial lines, while the other is divided along class lines. As a result, one horrific ideology is fought against with violence, while the other horrific ideology still continues to be part of the intellectual and political discussion. Subjugation i subjugation, no matter who is doing the subjugating or why. And if the argument goes that one’s ideology calling for violence is equal to real violence, there would quickly become very little room in the political discourse for rational discussion and debate. Societies would descend into a race to preemptive violence, trying to one-up the people that would silence them in the instant that they gained power.
How does one prevent this hellish future where, in the quest to rid the world of intolerance, the world becomes completely and totally intolerant? If you see a Nazi on the street, or a fascist speaks up in your class because they are now emboldened to say what they’ve always believed, challenge them. Ask them whether what they believe is actually right; challenge their premises and find fault in their reasoning. There is an old expression (and lyrics from a song by The Lumineers) that says “The opposite of love is indifference.” By the same logic, the opposite of hate is also indifference. Like answering a crude remark with apathy, or ending a relationship because you no longer feel anything for the other person, the lack of emotional response completely destroys the other party. Refusing to engage with the party you find despicable is one way of cutting off their supply of fresh warriors or cannon fodder. Despite what ideologies like Nazism and communism claim to see, the world is not always about one-upsmanship and preemptive violence. Minds and hearts can change; rationality can win people over. And if it doesn’t, the answer is not to punch them for wearing a Pepe pin. Let them suffer the nonviolent consequences of believing what they do. In the world of adults and not tantruming children, one can both be mindful of the horrible things that certain ideas have caused while at the same time attempting to bury them for good by total and complete refutation. Do not put Nazism and communism and every other ideology that enslaves human beings on a pedestal, but don’t martyr them either. Simply refute them for the violent ideologies that they are, and continue on your way. Don’t honor their existence with even a punch.