Nazis and the Rule of Law

The Unintended Consequences of Punching Richard Spencer

Photo credit Wikimedia Commons; CC BY 2.0

On January 20th, a man was assaulted on camera by a masked man in Washington DC. Because the victim had unpopular opinions, people are divided about whether this violence was justified. While the debate as a whole has been discussed elsewhere (see Pros and Cons), I’d like to try to bring clarity to a few specific aspects.

Is Richard Spencer a Nazi?

The conversation has been framed in terms of whether it’s ok to punch a Nazi.

Calling Richard Spencer a Nazi obscures the conversation:

  1. Liberals often argue, with good reason, that people should be able to decide which labels apply to them. Richard Spencer says that he is not a Nazi. Why can we tell him what labels should apply to him when we wouldn’t do that to other people?
  2. The Nazi state was an organization that has been dismantled. White Nationalism is an ideology that is still unfortunately present. As Andre Stackhouse pointed out, Nazism and White Nationalism are different, just like the Democratic party and Liberalism are different. Labeling Richard Spencer as a Nazi obscures the real problem.
  3. Calling Richard Spencer a Nazi creates an image where he is the soldier of an enemy state with which America is at war. Violence against an enemy combatant is very different than violence against an American citizen.
  4. Nazis perpetuated one of the largest-scale, mechanized genocides of all time. Richard Spencer, disgusting though his positions may be, has not murdered anyone, let alone millions of people. He is not actively involved in a project that results in the death of millions of people. His views are reprehensible, but advocating for a terrible thing is not the same as actually doing the terrible thing. Calling Richard Spencer a Nazi cheapens the label.

Richard Spencer certainly speaks as if he views himself as a spiritual descendant of the Nazis. His reverence for Nazism is deeply troubling. “Nazi sympathizer” (or “White Nationalist”) seems like a more appropriate label than “Nazi”, if we’re in the business of labeling others. The distinction may seem subtle, but I think it’s important:

Is it ok to punch a Nazi?
It is ok to punch a Nazi sympathizer?

The latter does not fit as well in a Tweet, but it more accurately describes the situation. For me, at least, the second question prompts a little more thought than the first.

What are the consequences of endorsing violence?

I’ve heard arguments justifying punching people with unpopular opinions like the following:

The legal system can’t catch everyone. It’s an imperfect creation of humans. Sometimes people have to take matters into their own hands.
For some people, Richard Spencer’s views are a matter of life and death. The people who become violent against Richard Spencer are acting in self-defense.
Richard Spencer struck first with emotional and psychological violence.
As a privileged white male, you’re in no position to judge those who are threatened by Richard Spencer and thus feel the need to violently attack him.

Those arguments are essentially saying:

It is morally acceptable for individuals to decide when a preemptive strike of physical violence against an American citizen is justified.

If that’s the society we live in, then it’s ok for anyone to punch Richard Spencer if that’s what their moral compass tells them to do. However, it’s then also ok to be violent against anyone who advocates or organizes for Pro Choice policies. Some people genuinely believe that legalized abortion is genocide. How could I condemn their decision to punch pro-choice marchers if I condone punching Richard Spencer? Or the decision of a Christian to become violent against imams, on the basis that any religion other than Christianity condemns the believer to eternal hell? Surely it would be more moral to punch a single imam than to allow him to send dozens of otherwise innocent people to eternal suffering?

I can’t say, “my moral judgement tells me that Richard Spencer is hurting the world and Pro-Choice marchers are helping it”, because a key component of the above arguments is that my moral judgement is not relevant. The decision to resort to violence is a personal one that is not subject to second-guessing by anyone else, least of all privileged individuals who are not facing the same threat.

I also can’t say “the majority of Americans agree that Richard Spencer is hurting the world, but they do not agree that Pro-Choice marchers are hurting the world, so it’s ok to punch Richard Spencer but not Pro-Choice marchers.” For one thing, if you live in a liberal echo chamber, you may be surprised at how many people find abortion abhorrent. But more broadly, the majority of society has historically believed some terrible things about marginalized groups. The tyranny of the majority is no protection against immorality. America’s founders were wise to write that inalienable rights belonged to everyone, from the bourgeois to the heretics.

A society that celebrates violence empowers to the most violent individuals. On a whole, men are more physically suited to violence than women. A policy that permits individuals to be violent when it suits them tilts the balance of power towards men. Being ok with punching Richard Spencer is anti-Feminist.

What’s the benefit of the rule of law?

Societies exist on a spectrum of the power of the rule of law. America is among the most stable countries in the world. Syria is arguably not a country at all. Some points on the spectrum are more conducive to human happiness than others, as evidenced by the mass refugee crisis of people out of Syria and into more stable countries.

If we live in a society where individuals can decide that it’s ok to punch people, we’re moving closer to Syria. Yes, it’s a very small step towards Syria. But I don’t see what we have to gain by moving in that direction.

I have heard people who have spent their entire lives in a civilized country be very cavalier about weakening the rule of law when it favors their morality. I would encourage those people to spend some time in an unstable society to strengthen their perspective through diversity of experience. Additionally, weakening the rule of law is always more appealing when it supports one’s personal agenda. But once that’s done, and violence against speech is normalized, there’s no going back just because now the violence is being done against speech one agrees with.

To be clear, I am not categorically saying that laws should never be broken. Breaking the law can be a good thing:

  1. Civil disobedience can, in the long term, provide beneficial outcomes for society.
  2. If breaking a law only impacts the lawbreaker, then the lawbreaker’s decision only impacts themselves.
  3. In exceptional circumstances, breaking the law may result in a better net outcome. (For example, it could be ok to speed down the highway to get a patient to a hospital. Speeding constitutes a low risk to everyone else on the road relative to the high risk of the patient not getting medical care in time.)
  4. In an imminent life-or-death situation, I would have a hard time condemning someone for breaking laws. (But no, nothing about Richard Spencer standing on the street expressing his opinion constitutes an imminent life-or-death situation for any individual.)
  5. If you come face to face with a mass murderer whose guilt is beyond doubt and who plans to murder again, like Hitler or Osama bin Laden, and you have no option to capture them and try them for war crimes, violence towards that person seems reasonable.

Those situations are not black-and-white, and it’s impossible to cleanly draw lines of where on the spectrum violence is justified. But punching Richard Spencer does not fall into any of those categories.

And I am not suggesting that any legal system created by humans can be perfect. Laws will have unintended consequences. Bad laws will exist. People will be treated differently based on the quality of lawyer they can afford. Judges and juries will make decisions flawed by human biases. The process itself may take a very long time, or fail to deliver an emotionally satisfying conclusion.

But none of that is solved by empowering vigilantes.

Richard Spencer’s assailant, from YouTube

The masked man above punched Richard Spencer. There is no reasonable way to conclude that masked men like this will do a better job of meting out justice than the legal system. The legal system can be iterated on and improved, via our democratic institutions. This anonymous man has likely been emboldened by Twitter, but if we think some day that he’s acted poorly (like when he or someone like him punches a Pro-Choice marcher), we have no recourse. Judicial decisions are made with hours (or months) of painstaking consideration of evidence and legal precedent, and the rationale is publicized. Vigilantes may act in the heat of the moment.

The legal system also has some pretty nice features to ensure a baseline level of rights for all individuals, such as due process, the presumption of innocence, the right to face one’s accuser, the right to privileged counsel, and discovery of evidence. None of that is available with violent street justice from a masked assailant.

If one thinks that Richard Spencer is causing real, demonstrable harm to other humans, then he should be prosecuted via the legal system. If the current legal system is not recognizing a form of harm that Richard Spencer is doing, then the legal system should be changed via the democratic process to outlaw that harm. This work is far more tedious than posting memes, but it’s the way to durably solve the problem.


I understand, from a lizard brain perspective, how seeing Richard Spencer get punched can be funny. I’ve chuckled at several of the memes. But in the long term, I am deeply concerned about the impact of normalizing and celebrating violence against speech. It’s easy to laugh along at a funny tweet, but I would encourage people be the thoughtful about where this path leads.

Nick Spencer is not related to Richard Spencer.