Violence occurs when words are not enoughBy Nicolas Briscoe | 02/02/2017 11:48pm
CW / Kylie Cowden
At the heart of one of the most enduring stories in literary and theatrical history, Les Miserables, is Valjean’s philosophical paradox – is it right to commit a crime if that crime is for the greater good? In his case, he received 19 years in prison (five years for what he did, the rest because he tried to run, yes 24601… I digress) for stealing a loaf of bread to feed his starving nephew. The modern equivalent to this ends-justifies-the means conundrum is regarding an infinitesimally minute group of horrid people known as neo-Nazis. The question is this: is it permissible to punch a neo-Nazi in the face for the transgression of being a neo-Nazi?
The first step in reaching a conclusion is examining the difference between words and actions. Standing on a corner yelling about ethnic cleansing is abhorrent and morally repugnant. When we conflate ideas with actions and equivocate evil thoughts with evil deeds, however, we begin to lose our grip on reality. The Orwellian notion that thoughts can be crimes leads to the fascistic intolerance of contradictory speech displayed by many on all sides of every aisle in the current political climate. While tolerance for neo-Nazism will never be a virtue, tolerance for the right to espouse its vile and moronic views is essential to the preservation of our own liberty.
The hyperbolic tone in much of today’s political rhetoric does much to combat the idea that punching a “Nazi” is permissible. “Nazi” must never be used as a catchall term to describe right-wing nationalists, passionate orators, national security hawks, populists or any of the other myriads of targets of the dreaded Nazi stigma. It cannot be used to describe racists, xenophobes, homophobes, bigots or the “alt-right.” The Nazi party did not simply pass out literature calling Jews, blacks, gays, Catholics, immigrants, etc. the reason for Germany’s demise—they called for the extinction of them. They subsequently began the ethnic cleansing that we associate with the term. Until we are able to be intellectually honest enough to establish the difference between racism (vile) and ethnic cleansing (Nazi), we will be forever stuck in our current political purgatory. If we agree as a populace that punching Nazis is acceptable, we must also agree on the definition of Nazi. And as long as Donald Trump and Milo Yiannopoulos (A gay Catholic with a Jewish mother) continue to be accused of being Nazis to the delight of protestors and rioters, that agreement is unlikely.
One of the principle arguments in favor of the blank check for one free Nazi punch is the claim that engaging in debate or allowing Nazis to speak freely legitimizes their cause. The hypothetical scenario in which a Nazi yelling to the high heavens on a street corner will attract a following to storm the nearest synagogue and begin committing genocide is a ludicrous one. For historical evidence of this truth, we must look to the year 1939, which coincidentally is six years prior to the last morsel of Nazi relevance. On Feb. 20, 1939, about 22,000 Nazi supporters gathered in one of America’s most recognized and historic venues, Madison Square Garden in Midtown Manhattan, New York City. With the United States in the throws of the now decade-long Great Depression, many Americans were looking for a scapegoat. They settled, unsurprisingly, largely on history’s perennial whipping boys—the Jews.
Soon, many began to subscribe to the anti-Semitism of the Nazi Party in Germany. It wasn’t long before Nazi rallies were popping up all over the country and world. The one held on Feb. 20, however, stands out amongst the rest. 22,000 people rallying in support of unimaginable evil had the opposite consequence of their intention. While they brought Nazism to the forefront of the American psyche, America didn’t like what it saw. The biggest Nazi rally in American history went down in history as the galvanizing moment for Americans against Nazism. How does this relate to today’s question? Bad ideas are hard to disguise. Nazism is a bad idea. The most powerful weapon against it is not punching it in the face, but allowing it to be heard. Nazism will punch itself in the face, just as it did in 1939.
Small-minded people punch others in the face over ideas and words. Violence only occurs when words and ideas are not enough. By punching a Nazi, a message is sent: “I am out of logical and rational retorts, and this is my only recourse.” We cannot become a small-minded, anti-intellectual society. We are halfway down a road to madness, preservation of ration and reason must carry the day.
Nicolas Briscoe is a senior majoring in history.