So white supremacist Richard B. Spencer (he is literally the guy who invented the term “alt-right” as an attempt to re-brand the neo-nazi and white supremacist movements) was out in public spouting his usual hatred, specifically saying that instead of talking about reparations for slavery or anti-discrimination laws, humans ought to be deciding how best to “dispose of” black people. His language wasn’t metaphorical nor was he using the usual rightwing code words for their racist beliefs. He was literally calling for genocide.
And someone punched him right in the mouth: Right-wing extremist Richard Spencer got punched, but it was memes that bruised his ego.
People have been up in arms about how punching a person even for saying awful things isn’t just stooping to their level, it’s somehow worse. And one of these nazi-apologists is Nick Spencer, a man currently in charge of writing the Captain America comic book (and as far as we know, no relation to Richard). I should point out that he’s the same hack writer who thought last year having a cliffhanger where Captain America appeared to have been a secret Hydra/Nazi double agent all along was a clever plot twist. Despite many people trying to explain why it was actually lazy, and something that only a person in a place of privilege would think was a shock.
Anyway, fortunately, another comic writer, Warren Ellis, has weighed in with a great reply to Nick’s apologetics.
I understand there’s been some confusion online as to whether it’s ever right to punch a Nazi in the face. There is a compelling argument that all speech is equal and we should trust to the discourse to reveal these ideas for what they are and confidently expect them to be denounced and crushed out by the mechanisms of democracy and freedom.
All I can tell you is, from my perspective as an old English socialist and cultural liberal who is probably way to the woolly left from most of you and actually has a medal for services to free speech — yes, it is always correct to punch Nazis. They lost the right to not be punched in the face when they started spouting genocidal ideologies that in living memory killed millions upon millions of people. And anyone who stands up and respectfully applauds their perfect right to say these things should probably also be punched, because they are clearly surplus to human requirements. Nazis do not need a hug. Nazis do not need to be indulged. Their world doesn’t get better until you’ve been removed from it. Your false equivalences mean nothing. Their agenda is always, always, extermination. Nazis need a punch in the face.
There is a serious topic here, even though I’ve thus far focused on writers of comic books (but I’m a big nerd, so of course this is where I start). When is violence justified?
Most people are okay with situations of clear self-defense, but blanch at the thought of punching someone for words. But under U.S. law, at least since the 1942 Supreme Court decision of Chaplinsky v New Hampshire, we have the principle of fighting words: “words that by their very utterance inflict injury or tend to incite an immediate breach of the peace.” It’s related to the crime of incitement. Over the years the court has narrowed the grounds under which the fighting words doctrine can be invoked, but the notion remains that some declarations are the equivalent of throwing the first punch. And that principal isn’t limited to the law.
Miss Manners, who usually justifies the idea of rules of etiquette and manners as necessary to prevent people from strangling each other over lunch, talks about statements that go beyond the pale. The person making such declarations, she argues, has “ceded their right to participate in polite society.” Which means others are under no obligation to be nice to the person. Depending on the level of the breach, she advocates expressing your belief that such conversation isn’t fit for polite conversation and walking away or asking the person to leave and so forth. She also points out that while many people believe that manners dictate that one never confront other people, the truth is that having good manners sometimes means standing up to someone, particularly if they are abusing (verbally or otherwise) other people. She has also pointed out that swallowing an insult is tantamount to admitting it’s true.
And it’s hard to classify the statement that everyone of a certain skin color deserve to be literally exterminated as less than an insult.
The very first comic book depicting Captain America shows him punching Hitler. Punching Nazis who are waging war on the world and orchestrating the genocide of entire ethnic groups ought to be a no-brainer. It particularly should be a no-brainer to someone writing Captain America comic books! And when modern day neo-Nazis advocate genocide, a punch to the jaw doesn’t seem out of line. Having the person who writes Captain America defend an actual neo-Nazi seems particularly insulting. And as the grandson of two men who fought in World War II—both of whom at different times told me that they didn’t fight so that the KKK and their ilk could pretend they are American patriots—it feels like an insult. Standing up for Nazis isn’t just an insult to my grandfathers, it is an insult to all the brave men and women who in fought for the allies in World War II.
We shouldn’t be defending Nazis, whether they call themselves the Alt-Right, Alternative Right, America Firsters, South Park Republicans, New Right, or more honestly White Nationalists, et al. The essence of their ideology is that entire groups of people must be, to use Richard Spencer’s own words, “disposed of” simple because of the color of their skin, or their religion, or their national origin, or their sexual orientation. I disagree with those who argue that Nazis themselves are less than human—and not simply because that’s sinking to their level, though it is—because when we do that, we forget an important thing: that humans are capable of terrible things. Calling for genocide is a terrible thing. People who do that need to face consequences in society. They need to be shunned, yes. They need to be shamed, absolutely.
And sometimes they need to be punched in the face.