SIO9: Punching Nazis, with Eli Bosnick

Recently the internet exploded in debate over a video in which neo-Nazi Richard Spencer was punched while giving an interview. Even the New York Times published an article that asked whether this is something that should be morally permissible. I have come out against violence over words of any non-imminently threatening kind, and my guest Eli Bosnick has come out strong the other way. Since Eli is an awesome guy willing to discuss disagreements and try to find the truth, he’s here to have a bit of a debate with me on what the correct course of action is re: Nazi punching.

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18 Replies to “SIO9: Punching Nazis, with Eli Bosnick”

  1. After listening to the episode, engaging on facebook, and cobbling together some brief research from different positions on this thing (e.g., “This Nonviolent Stuff’ll Get You Killed,” “Nonviolence and its Violent Consequences,” “Nonviolence as Compliance,” etc.) I find I’m still conflicted.

    A few thoughts I had on the discussion:

    1. While I understand that Trump overturning the ACA is not undoing a decades’ old tradition, the fact of the matter is that by overturning it (or more relevantly at this point, Republicans spending 6 years failing to maintain it, thus making it seem unviable, and leaving it ripe for repeal), millions of people who would otherwise have access to health-care will lose that access, and non-negligible numbers of people, who would otherwise be alive, will die. It’s important not to let the mechanization of this mask the fact that it is an act of violence, as is endorsing reparative therapy, shutting down planned parenthoods, etc..

    When we start from the position that political statements are just mere words, we draw a distinction not between violence and nonviolence, but between physical and non-physical violence. I won’t say that this is an arbitrary distinction, but I can’t just accept the moral permissibility of one on what is essentially tradition, when I also recognize that it emboldens politically-affiliated structural violence and disenfranchises politically disempowered individuals from defending themselves against that violence in meaningful ways.

    I certainly don’t know enough about societal power dynamics and the violence inherent in oppression to take a definitive stance.

    2. I posted something similar in a thread on Eli’s facebook page (responding to Noah Lugeons, because I’m suddenly into name-dropping), but you seemed to brush up against it in this episode, so I’ll say it again. You stated something like “the only effect of this will be things getting worse,” which I took to mean increasing violence and emboldening racists. I’ve seen a lot of comments making the same argument, and I recognize that a part of this may just be an unintentional rhetorical flourish, but I think it’s important not to dismiss potential benefits.

    The first that came to my mind was that this video can embolden others, who currently feel threatened and scared to leave the house because there are unabashed nazis just standing around giving interviews about how they think everything’s going so well for them. Seeing a nazi get punched by some anonymous dude has a sort of inspirational quality to it, and I mean specifically inspiring in the sense that it might help people go about their day a little less afraid.

    Similar to that, but maybe distinct enough to warrant a second point, this video draws attention to the violence and harm done to marginalized individuals that has become normalized and made invisible to people with mainstream identities. People with marginalized identities are more likely face traumatic experiences, to have violence done to them, and to be dismissed and ignored by people who have a responsibility to help (e.g., police, doctors, politicians, et al.). Very often, the physical harm aspect is incidental in the development of PTSD symptoms, whereas survivors will often share that the threat of something similar happening again and the indifference of others to their pain, are what make certain incidents “traumatizing” and others not.

    There is a real existential threat within nazi ideology, and being confronted with that has a valid effect on individuals targeted for extermination. I know we all assume it’s taken for granted that we are disgusted by nazi ideology, and it is not acceptable, but when we ignore the harm done by espousing those beliefs, and when we draw an arbitrary line that says we accept “non-physical” violence, we normalize a certain kind of indifference. I don’t think it’s heroic to sucker-punch a nazi, but in so far as it rattles the arbitrary distinction between harms we’re willing to accept, it highlights potential failure on the part of mainstream America to acknowledge the pain of marginalized individuals.

    There were other examples in the facebook post, and I’m sure many that I’m not seeing, but I don’t want to spend too much time outlining them.

    And just to be clear, I don’t mean to imply that the benefits are not outweighed by the drawbacks (e.g., normalizing physical violence). That said, I think it’s necessary to note that how we judge the weight of potential outcomes is informed by our identities and may not be the same for others. While for me, it may be what seems most important is to win the ideological argument and not undermine the rule of law, for a targeted individual, what is most important may be doing what they can to protect themselves from a threat I can not see/understand/appreciate.

    3. I was really appreciative of the points you made about the way our society has sanitized punching/assault. The way many on facebook have presented punching as this sort of safe/pretend/symbolic representation of platonic aggression has been troubling.

    4. I also can’t stand to watch people falling off skateboards. I doubt this is meaningful, but you’re not alone.

    5. Not trying to start shit, but Ishmael Brown has touched on this topic in previous episodes of Angry Black Rant (in the most recent episode, he had a pretty great bit about finding someone less imposing to fight old racists on his behalf). I don’t know if it’s something he’s interested in talking about, but if he is, that might be a fun episode.

    6. I really think it’s important not to lose sight of the aspect of this conversation that differentiates between “It’s okay to punch nazi’s because they’re a threat” and “it’s okay to punch nazi’s because they are bad.” This could just be the way I’m conceptualizing this, but I think it’s something that may need to be clarified.

    7. I thought it was especially compelling when you and Eli discussed the fact that the way our laws are set up is not inherently good, but is essentially biased in favor of one aspect of freedom, and that this has the unfortunate effect of not protecting certain vulnerable people from certain harms, the way another, more restrictive law might.

    8. For me, the largest stumbling block is that I really don’t understand what it means to be a marginalized person who is experiencing (and has experienced) violence, who is facing the threat of a political ideologues, who preach that I am not a human, that my existence is harmful, and that I must be eradicated, gaining power and legitimacy, and who recognizes that the same societal norms that maintain order can be co-opted by benevolent actors, in such a way as to be unnoticed by mainstream America, who will then become the unwitting accomplices to my oppression.

    While so much of me, like Eli, wants to agree with you and Noah, there’s a voice in the back of my mind wondering how telling marginalized people to respond to violence with nonviolence isn’t akin to asking people in poverty to pull themselves up by their bootstraps.

    Thanks for pulling this episode together so quickly.

  2. Hitler was “elected” in 1934. By 1936 he was pretty much unopposed as the de facto dictator of Germany. Three years after that he was invading neighboring countries and calling down the wrath of the free world upon himself and his countrymen. Then it took five years, about fifty million lives and God knows how much money to put the Nazis back in their can and start cleaning the whole mess up.

    Think about it: About ten years between “electing” a despot and allowing him to completely take over, to people shuffling through streets filled with the rubble of their own houses.

    Some people were lucky enough to have the resources to leave early, but almost no one in Germany, no one of any consequence at least, punched the Nazis. They just let it happen. The Brits, the US, the Russians and what was left of conquered Europe had to punch the Nazis on the German people’s behalf at an astronomical cost to everyone.

    Will the outside world have the will and the wherewithal to kick our asses hard enough to save their asses and ours? To save civilization? What will it cost in 2026 if we’re too polite to punch the Nazis now?

    Just a thought . . .

  3. I think mockery is better.
    Imagine this: Richard Spencer at this protest. People shouting his own nazi quotes at him during that interview.
    He can’t pretend he is just a normal guy who is concerned about certain problems. He can’t broadcast his propaganda.

    This is legal and morally right.

    (If that doesn’t work spray a swastika on his back)

  4. I agree with Eli.
    1. I think it is, and should remain, illegal to punch someone. And by illegal I mean there should be a serious attempt at prosecution, not just an unenforced law on the books as a technicality.
    2. The main difference between Thomas’s alternate scenarios was the focus of violence. Muslims killing apostates are defending words. Nazi’s generally want to do harm to other people.
    3. The legal threshold for inciting violence is pretty high and Spencer seems pretty good at dancing around that threshold.
    4. How is it reasonable to assume a punch will result in serious injury? Of course it can, but I think the reasonable assumption is that it won’t. I’ve been in a few fights and seen quite a few more, some started cold cocked, and none resulted in a hospital visit.
    5. What is the threshold of *reasonable* doubt? 5%? 10%? Do that many punches result in serious injury?

      1. I tried to keep my comment short so it would be easy to read. But I’m no Shakespeare, so perhaps I don’t English good. However, I’m pretty sure I never said that no one was harmed when apostates are killed.

        Tell me please, WHY do Muslims kill apostates? It’s my understanding that it’s because of a book (words), and a perceived harm being inflicted upon that book (words). Nazi’s on the other hand generally seem pretty intent on racial purity by eliminating all other races.

          1. Before answering that question, please answer this: Are Muslims and Nazis equivalent – generally speaking?

          2. Generally, no. I think there are nominal Muslims who wish to live in peace with others—even with non-Muslims. The ISL crowd, though, has a tendency to behave just as badly, if not worse than Nazis. Just as bad in that they are all for genocide and mass murder of people who don’t belong to their club, and worse in that they are more openly barbaric about it.

            There will never be peace as long as there are people bent on the extermination of other people. Their motives are meaningless. There are no valid reasons for that.

          3. That was the point I was trying to make. Poorly. If you see a Nazi, chances are they’re an asshole. If it’s a prominent/famous Nazi like Spencer, then him getting sucker punched somehow seems less wrong. Although, as I said, I’m with Eli in that I’m not comfortable saying that, and I’m not trying to say it’s right.
            By the same token, if someone cold cocked Anjem Choudary (an ISIL supporter), I’m not sure I’d feel any different about that than the Spencer punch.

            I’m torn between violence isn’t the answer, and that didn’t work out so well for a bunch of folks in 1930’s Germany.

        1. And what makes a book (and a book that is used to justify killing people over a book at that) more worthy of defending it by killing people than racial purity?
          The book they are defending is the very book they think tells them to kill apostates. So they are killing people over presumed harm to their ideology and that ideology in part is to kill people who harm their ideology – It is somewhat different from what Nazis did – but better? How so?

          1. Please show me where I said the following:
            And what makes a book (and a book that is used to justify killing people over a book at that) more worthy of defending it by killing people than racial purity?

    1. I also want to address your ‘no violence worked so badly for Germans in the 30s’ comment but I can’t answer to it directly for whatever reason. There were people (communists and socialists mostly and I mean that not negative but as an accurate description of the politics they held. I am also German so while I am no fan of communist, socialism is to me no evil word per se) who tried violence against nazis before the 1933 election. The Weimar republic was filled with Street fights between Nazis and leftists and things like that especially in Berlin. People generally don’t want that so all it did was make the argument that democracy was not able to handle the issues at hand. It also was then even more convincing to some that the left was just a bunch of rowdies. Then there also was the famous fire at the Reichstag which was also laid by a communist (not violence against people but still I would say a violent act) – it enabled the Nazis to push through repressive policies because obviously you need them with all these left arsonists running around.

      If you want to do something about a repressive system, it has to be more than punching people or you can’t do violent things at all. This half-hearted ‘nazi-punching’ idea will do only one thing, convince people who already are anti-left/anti-democrat that the left really is violent and unruly and give a possibly repressive government an excuse to come down upon ‘hooligans’, ‘rowdies’, or ‘terrorists’ whatever the name will be.
      If you think violent action will be necessary it will have to be either more than punching or you can’t do it at all. Using violence also didn’t turn out to well for the German opposition to the Nazis in the 1930s – let’s face it the only left violence the Nazis ever had to fear was the red army.

      1. Again, please show me where I suggested violence was the correct or most moral or where I suggested it should be legal.

        As I said at the very start of my first post here, I agree with Eli’s position. Which is to say I don’t think violence is the answer, and certainly should NOT be legal or encouraged, but if punching prominent Nazi’s makes them not want to be punched and not go around suggesting that X race should be eliminated, then is it all bad? Please note I did not say it was good.

        You may be right, but I hope the hindsight from events like the holocaust mean that there is considerably less sympathy for a Nazi getting punched today than in the 30’s.

  5. I don’t think Spencer was punched for being a Nazi. He was punched for being a smug provocational jerk who is also a Nazi. He was not punched walking down the street or grocery shopping – he was being a sore winner at a protest rally. Not saying this action is justified, but the result is not unexpected. Thomas talked about potential outcomes to Spencer (punches can cause serious damage, no doubt), but did not discuss the fact that Spencer’s words and actions may provoke someone to punch him. He bears some responsibility for this outcome. Also, I do not think this was a premeditated attack. It was an act of anger and frustration. I don’t think he had an internal debate on the merits of punching – he just reacted.

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