To punch or not to punch a Nazi in the face

Twitter and other social media is abuzz with this question: Do we condemn or condone Richard Spencer getting punch in the face? After all, he is a Nazi who spreads hateful messages including violence against minorities. It’s both interesting and sad to see the rage-filled comments from each side: You’re a monster if you condone. You’re an idiot, or maybe even a racist yourself, if you condemn. I’d like to stay away from that kind of banter and instead talk about the different views on free speech.

And that’s really the crux of the problem. We don’t all agree on what it means to have and exercise our first amendment rights, and there aren’t just two sides. Off the cuff, I can think of three.

  • You can say whatever you want and that speech is protected. No matter how hateful, you are protected from violence or action against you by the state (and others).
  • You can say whatever you want; however, your speech has consequences. Hate can and should be met with resistance (with some debate over the type of resistance).
  • You are not free to say whatever you want. Hateful messages that advocate for oppression and call for violence should not be given a public forum and should not be protected.

Each of these ideas has a slippery slope argument. If you can say whatever you want and it’s protected, then aren’t we giving Nazis and other hate groups a voice to spread their message and encourage oppression and violence? If your speech has consequences, then who decides what is deserving of a consequence, what should the consequence be, and when should it be delivered? If hate speech should be monitored and subsequently shut down, who monitors it, what is deemed as hateful, and how will it be shut down?

I haven’t personally taken a hard line stance on these ideas. However, I firmly believe that hate speech should be called out in some form. If you say that all immigrants should be forced out of the country, and after hearing your speech, immigrants are forced from their homes and pushed over the border, you’ve inspired oppression and violence, and you should be held accountable. What I can’t personally decide on is how. The how aside, it’s wrong to protect hate. 

I also think condemning all forms of violence is wrong. Hear me out on this. If a group of people are experiencing violent acts done upon them, what should their response be? Someone is dragging you out into the street to beat you because of the color of your skin, what do you do? You witness someone being dragged out into the street and beaten, what do you do? You hear someone advocating for people to be dragged into the street and beaten, what do you do? There are times when violence is ok; it’s the right thing to do. Blanket statements like “violence is never ok” and “all speech should be protected” ignores the various nuances of violent situations and speech that inspires violent and oppressive acts.

Do I condone someone punching the Nazi Richard Spencer in the face? Not exactly, not 100% (but only because I can’t decide what the consequences for hate speech should be and who should deliver them). Am I glad someone did it? Yes I am because that sent a very clear message that hate will not be tolerated. And no matter how you think we should resist messages of hate, I think we all can agree that public and highly visible resistance to hate must happen.

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