Richard Spencer is a leader of the alt-right. He is a white-supremacist. He is a disturbed man preaching a dangerous and morally corrupt ideology to an energized base of ignorant followers.
Last Friday, someone punched this toxic, loathsome man in the face.
The punch was caught on camera and the video went viral. An overwhelming number of people reacted with joy. Typical advocates of peace conceded that punching a so-called “neo-Nazi” is not only permissible, but commendable.
I suspect there are two major elements to this exception of the peaceful protest rule.
First, by associating himself with white supremacy, Spencer associates himself with the historical torment inflicted on minority communities. While the era of slavery and Jim Crow is over, the effects of oppression are still widely and negatively affecting individuals and communities across the country. Unlike the past, the racial issues of today are widely systemic, making it difficult to define a clear oppressor.
Spencer, by embodying white supremacy, has become an incarnation of the overall systemic racial divide of the country. The attack on him seems to have provided a moment of cathartic satisfaction to many who understand they are not yet equal, but lack a specific institution to blame and punish for this inequality.
Second, white supremacy is justly associated with violent behavior. With the revival of white supremacy in the U.S., people are understandably afraid of Spencer’s followers becoming bold enough to effectually enact violence to regain the white domination of minorities. Attempting to frighten leaders of the alt-right with violence may force them to retreat from public life. Less publicity will potentially result in fewer followers and, consequently, a smaller threat to equality.
With this in mind, it is understandable why so many people were willing to make an exception to the principle of non-violence. Not only does it seem justifiable for a vigilante to punish an admitted representative of an ideology of violence and hatred, but it also seems logical to strike fear into the heart of this representative in order to prevent the spread of his ignorance.
Because of this, it is difficult to argue that Spencer did not deserve to be punched. However, a temporary cathartic release does not justify the sacrifice of the righteous virtue of peace.
It must be considered by all politically active citizens that there will always be widespread disagreement. A uniform morality will never be achieved by all members of our vast democracy. Furthermore, it should be noted that each individual prioritizes their morals and beliefs in a way unique to their life.
Morality and policy should be debated passionately. Violence, however, is an issue of mutually-assured destruction. If the progressive movement in the U.S. hopes to maintaining the moral high-ground, it must maintain the ability to distinguish ourselves from ideologies of a violent or oppressive nature. It is an important and politically beneficial position to be able to say, “Richard Spencer promotes an ideology of violence, and we do not.”
Instead, Spencer has been handed propaganda to promote his cause. Because of the complacent and, in many cases, enthusiastic acceptance of the assault, Spencer is now able to go to his followers and say, “They claim to be morally superior, but they attacked me without provocation.” Not only will this embolden his current supporters, but it may serve to recruit others to his cause. Worst of all, radical white supremacists might see this assault as a change in the rules and retaliate, claiming they were only defending themselves from those seeking to suppress their freedom of speech.
Oftentimes, morality is not black and white. It is possible to form a compelling argument for punching neo-Nazis. Especially considering the recent election, it might be difficult to stifle vengeful feelings. But if the progressive cause is to succeed in the long term, if it hopes to win the next presidential election and spread its ideology, it will need to be nonviolent. When they protest, they must keep their goals in mind and remember that what separates them from the alt-right is a morality of mercy and peace.
Richard Spencer is a dangerous man. This assault handed him ammunition. Violence must be condemned wherever and whenever it appears.