‘Extremes,’ said the Controller, ‘meet. For the good reason that they were made to meet.’
Brave New World
Much has been opined already on the subject of the punch dealt to Richard Spencer during the recent protests on the day of President Trump’s inauguration. My intention here, is not to concentrate on the specific event which has given rise to this subject of discussion, but rather to examine the principles behind it. I know little about Spencer, and my task will hardly be made easier by taking time to examine his policies or beliefs in order to accurately represent them somewhere within our equation. Instead, I propose that we proceed by steelmaning the supposed position that physical force is justified against individuals or groups who spout true racism and policies – that if actualised – would constitute threats to members of our society based on the caprice of their unchosen physical manifestations. My position here will not rely on any context, or questions about the degree to which an individual is a Nazi. I will say at the outset that I believe no such violence is justified, and that this is true when my position can be tested to its limits when considering a real Nazi, who actually wishes to re-implement the policies of the Third Reich.
I am no pacifist. To posit that no problem is better solved through violence speaks plainly of a lack of imagination (or memory) on the part of the espouser. There are circumstances where violence (and I use the term here and throughout to mean the application or threat of physical force, be it a shove, a punch, a bullet or a missile) is entirely justified. There are also certain circumstances where there exists a moral obligation to apply or threaten physical force against someone. Take in the first instance, the position of an unarmed police officer who upon entering a dwelling finds a person armed with a kitchen knife, who upon seeing the officer, threatens to murder him. Assuming that a tactical retreat and containment is not an option, the officer is well justified in using violence in order to prevent injury to himself. Consider in the second instance, an armed police officer entering the same dwelling to find the same person armed with the same knife, but now threatening to murder their spouse who is in the next room. Here the officer is morally obliged to use violence in order to prevent injury to the spouse.
My above examples may not have isolated the variables perfectly, in that police officers, being agents of the state, have a higher level of obligation in such circumstances, but the justifications in principle (and in law) apply just as cleanly to members of the public. The key factor here is the means one has at their disposal in the given situation, and the manifest likelihood of their success in application. For instance, the same moral obligation (though not the legal one) would apply to an expert martial artist, who witnesses an ongoing assault, and accurately determines that they could use violence upon the assailant in order to prevent further harm from coming to the victim. The disparity between legal and moral principles in these discussions is explained, at least in part, by the inherent impossibility of proving an individual’s assessment of a given situation and their own abilities at the relevant time.
Such philosophical discussions on the ethics of self-defence, are more interesting in the context of a country where the lawful ownership of lethal weapons is ubiquitous, such as in the United States. There is a common and understandable position (to which I was once a subscriber, before being challenged by Sam Harris’ essay, The Riddle of the Gun), that the world would be a better and less violent place if there were no firearms. The fact is that such a world would be one without the moral equaliser that a firearm can be. As Harris wrote, “It is a world in which a man with a knife can rape and murder a woman in the presence of a dozen witnesses, and none will find the courage to intervene.” Firearms can, in the right circumstances, be the means which remove courage from the list of working factors which may diminish the likelihood of such a terrible attack being brought to a less disastrous end. But in any case, I digress.
Let us turn to our hypothetical Nazi, who stands on the square with his placards and denounces passing members of the public who are of different races to him as lesser creatures than he. He proudly states that the recorded history of the Holocaust is a fabrication and that it is perpetuated by Zionist lobbying groups, before adding that he would support an actual holocaust and that Jews are the causes of the world’s problems. Between gestures of extended arms, he also condemns homosexuals as evil, and says that under his rule, they, along with gypsies, the physically disabled, the mentally disabled and other ethnic minorities would be put to death, and twins would be forced to submit to invasive, inhumane and often fatal laboratory research. We are considering the possibility that punching such a person where he stands is justified by the circumstances.
Freedom of speech imparts an axiomatic freedom to ignore; the liberties of the speaker are inextricably linked to those of the receiver. And as such, my distinction between speech and action is as follows:
Speech becomes action where the means of the communication infringes upon the freedom of a receiver to ignore it (thus constituting harassment); or where its content constitutes a threat or untrue message (such as a bomb hoax), where the receiver would reasonably be expected to make some imminent and otherwise unnecessary change to their activities through fear of physical peril.
As you may have noticed, I have employed this distinction in much of my work, though it has mainly been to draw the line between where the state should leave society to manage itself, and where it should intervene. It has been thanks to the failure in perceiving such a dichotomy that we have found ourselves in a position where bad jokes are criminalised as well as proselytization. However, the same line also exists and may be employed, in my submission, to demonstrate the point at which violence against speech – having become action – is justified. If either the means or the content of the message, as outlined above, infringes upon one’s liberties, it may be justified to use violence in order to protect them. It is naturally implied by the above, that when speech remains speech (by being the mere expression of an opinion, however ghastly) no such justification to violence is invoked.
As he was, our Nazi was not infringing upon the freedom of anybody to ignore his message. He was stationary, and though he was directing his bile at individuals passing by, they had the freedom to ignore him by continuing on their journeys. What is also important is that individuals falling within is audience also had the freedom to approach and engage with him. Consider him again. But now consider that he has changed his tactic in an effort to press his message home more efficiently. Instead of standing on the square, he is following individuals whom he would see killed under his rule, and is telling them as he does, “you and your kind would be dead if I was in charge.” In doing so, he is now infringing upon the receiver’s freedom to ignore his message, should he wish. As such, in accordance with my distinction, the receiver is morally justified in using violence so as to protect his freedom to ignore the speaker, who is now using action as opposed to speech. Whether a sudden turn and punch to the jaw would be morally justified, as opposed to a threat that if he didn’t shut up and leave him alone, he would wish he had, turns on a matter of proportionality. It is sufficient here for this point to have demonstrated that such an action on the part of the Nazi could justify a violent reaction.
The second part of my distinction stipulates that speech may also become action when the content of the message constitutes a threat, and its clinical application to our example is fractionally more complicated. Imagining our Nazi as he was originally, speaking from a stationary position so that the variable of harassment is eliminated, the pertinent question concerns whether his speech constitutes a threat. There is no doubt that he is advocating the deaths of people whom he sees in passing, based on their features. However, the threat comes couched in a condition, and that is that if he was to gain supreme authority, he would enact policies that would see that such terrible things were done. What is important here is that the threat is not an imminent one, and it follows that if the reaction under consideration is an imminent one (a punch, for example), the threat should be also.
This principle is helpfully reflected in British law with the constitution of a Common Assault (note that no physical force is necessary for this offence. When such force is actually applied, a Battery is made out) being the following: “An assault is committed when a person intentionally or recklessly causes another to apprehend the immediate infliction of unlawful force.” Although it may not be sufficient to set apart our Nazi’s speech from a threat by simply pointing out that its fruition depends on his rising to a position where it might be executed, the fact that the condition in question ipso facto diminishes any possibility that the threat could be apprehended as imminent. Our Nazi has not committed the above offence as he does not intentionally cause the apprehension of an immediate threat, nor has he done so recklessly.
It is perhaps with a slight twist of irony that the closest examples to actual Nazis which we find in recent times espousing their ideologies, given the keenness with which they have become bedfellows with those who advocate punching Nazis as a legitimate form of protest, are the Islamists. Give or take a policy or two, the world which the Islamist would like to see realised through Shari’a would be just as much an authoritarian bloodbath as one might imagine from our hypothetical Nazi. Homosexuals, for instance, would fare no better at all. And as I argued against Anjem Choudary’s conviction, or more accurately, against the law by which he was convicted, I would offer the same arguments for the rights of all people to express their opinions, however vile they may be.
At the risk of repeating myself, it must be acknowledged that Nazis, Islamists, you and I all fall on a spectrum of opinion. I would trust nobody to judge what opinions I could hear or consider, and nor should you. To word the statement by saying that we should be allowed to hear whatever opinions we wish is to miss the point, and quietly imply that there is actually some allowing to be done by some arbiter. In principle, the only foundational freedom which exists, and that upon which all others must be built, is that of free expression. In practice, the only means by which we might be able to defeat the pernicious beliefs of Nazis and Islamists, is through open debate and scrutiny. As I argued in my piece on Choudary, telling them they can’t speak – or in this case forcing their mouths shut through assaults – only stops them speaking to you. They’ll still speak to each other, and without any argument from a voice perhaps able to cut through their failed logic, those beliefs will become more engrained and extreme.
It has been somewhat alarming to witness the salivation with which people have been baying for more blood of those with opposing opinions. And it has been shocking to see an apparent professor rebuke police officers for not protecting her students from Nazis, when they should be “kicking their asses”. The wish for the state’s agents to use violence upon those with whom one does not agree is the epitome of intellectual bankruptcy. Those in such positions should be fighting those intellectual battles themselves, and equipping their students with the tools of logic and reason to do so in their stead. To beg the state to use physical force to silence the other side is yet another example of what has gone so wrong already. Punching Nazis for being Nazis is not justified. But what is even worse than that, is that it’s lazy.
A question has arisen concerning the incitement of violence and the possibility of a justified action against it. Having considered it, I would lay out my position as follows:
The incitement of violence, so long as that violence (if it were to be realised) would be imminent; does fall on the action side of my definition. It goes beyond speech as it is more than the expression of an opinion. It is an expression of an intention to use violence against the receiver of the message, and thus constitutes a threat, the indirect nature of the agents who would physically apply the force notwithstanding. As such, should our Nazi be calling upon peers from the street to join with him and imminently infringe upon the rights of other members of the public to be free from assault, violence may be justified against him in preventing this. Morally speaking, a receiver of that message would reasonably apprehend imminent violence being used upon them, and would thus be justified in using violence in self-defence.
Furthermore, there is support for the theory of this position within British law in that the actual impossibility of a complete action does not negate liability for an attempted offence (If the pistol that the assassin points at his target’s head is not loaded, his pulling the trigger intending to kill him is nevertheless sufficient to have committed an attempted murder). As such, in my submission, there need be no actual possibility that the words of our Nazi would incite violence. The imminence of what he intends to bring about by his attempt may suffice to justify a violent reaction.