On Inauguration Day, a black-clad vigilante figure punched white nationalist leader Richard Spencer on camera. Viewed around the world, the punch elicited mixed — but often positive — reactions online.
For many, violence feels like the necessary or even obvious solution to the increasing assertiveness of white nationalists, whether in cities like Charlottesville, Va., or on college campuses. This response has been most prominently symbolized by Antifa, a loosely-organized group whose masked members are known for damaging property and assaulting people in the name of “anti-fascism.” Individuals affiliated with the movement have violently protested right-wing events including Milo Yiannopoulos’ appearance at University of California, Berkeley earlier this year.
Many progressives I know find the idea of punching neo-Nazis perfectly acceptable, even if they are not fans of Antifa itself. The return of Nazi flags and chants of “Jews will not replace us” is terrifying, and it makes such violence against fascism tempting for many.
Yet, while the Spencer video may be satisfying to watch, it is symptomatic of a destructive trend. Normalizing force as a response to hate risks unleashing violence on wholly innocent people, empowers the far-right and undercuts peaceful opponents of President Donald Trump.
Punching Nazis can quickly escalate to violence against nearly anyone. After all, those dedicated to attacking neo-Nazis are the self-appointed determiners of who deserves to be hit.
For example, the Antifa members at Charlottesville did not limit their targets to only to white nationalists but also allegedly attacked two journalists. This type of brutality is an inevitable consequence of encouraging violence against neo-Nazis, which implies that force is an acceptable way of dealing with opponents.
Excusing violence against the likes of Spencer enables violence against all sorts of significantly less reprehensible individuals. In February, a left-wing student government representative at McGill University — in an apparent riff on the punch-a-Nazi meme — called on people to “punch a Zionist today.” When we allow violence to be normalized, what starts off as admiration of assaults on neo-Nazis can, ironically enough, evolve to the point of justifying violence against Jews.
In fact, attacking individual neo-Nazis and other fascists only serves to empower those very movements. Violence plays into the far-right’s narrative of victimhood and bolsters its appeal to its base of angry young white men looking for confrontation.
Moreover, to seem significant, neo-Nazis need to make up for their miniscule numbers by garnering outsized attention. To that end, physical attacks on far-right protesters, which often stir up immense media coverage, are perfect. Indeed, Antifa has done such a great job bringing attention to neo-Nazis that it may as well be a public relations firm for the far-right.
Left-wing violence is also a gift to the president and his allies. Antifa is exactly the kind of opponent they want, as it lets them tar the entire left by association.
For example, Trump could not have made his absurd condemnation of Charlottesville violence “on many sides” had there not actually been violence on the side of the counter-protesters, thanks to Antifa.
Along the same lines, a recent ad put out by the National Rifle Association ominously accused media elites of inciting people to “smash windows, burn cars, shut down interstates and airports, bully and terrorize the law-abiding.” The voiceover, along with the accompanying footage, groups Antifa thugs together with peaceful protesters.
Antifa risks discrediting all peaceful opposition to the current administration’s policies. As such, it seems like the only people Antifa helps are those it supposedly opposes.
“The ultimate weakness of violence is that it is a descending spiral begetting the very thing it seeks to destroy,” wrote Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. “Instead of diminishing evil, it multiplies it.”
It seems like people increasingly believe the only antidote to violence from the right is violence from the left. Yet, the radical center rejects this notion that outrageous actions from the right demand mirroring reactions from the left.
Violence, even against people as despicable as Spencer, leads to nothing but further violence. Unless we care more about gleefully punching people than actually defeating the far-right, we must commit to fighting ideas, not people.
Shortly after the inauguration, the Georgetown University Lecture Fund hosted former white nationalist scion Derek Black. The one-time rising star of the white nationalist movement explained that while he was in college, other students chose to engage with him. They talked to him, shared their perspectives and even invited him to shabbat dinners. Eventually, he came to abandon his hateful beliefs and leave white nationalism behind.
Dialogue, not violence, is the only way forward. We must all speak out against violence, no matter who is behind it.
Tanner Larkin is a sophomore in the School of Foreign Service. The Radical Center appears every other Wednesday.