There’s a disturbing problem that’s been taking root in the country, and people have been calling it “punching Nazis”. While I’m no fan of Nazis, I don’t think punching a person for holding a particular belief is the right direction for our country to move in.
Why is this such a problem? First, public discussion and free speech are an important part of our political system. If we cannot even discuss ideas, then our political process cannot work. I’ve heard some people say “You can’t just espouse an opinion and not suffer the consequences of having that opinion”, but “being assaulted” is not one of those legitimate consequences. It’s okay if you don’t want to be friends at the end of the conversation, but these people are still citizens, and if they’re otherwise obeying the law (which I must point out does prohibit punching people), then they are wrong but not criminals (which you are, if you punch them).
While some people have claimed that “free speech only applies to the government”, I think censorship causes problems more than it solves them, and censoring an opponent in an argument is in effect a frank admission that you don’t have a good counter argument. If your position is better, then show and explain why it’s better. We’re not there yet, but it’d be nice to live in a country where you don’t have to live in fear of losing your job based on your political affiliation – I don’t think a person should be fired for beliefs not directly related to doing their job, even though it surely happens.
In education, it is important for it to be okay to be wrong when you are still learning, and that extends into public discussion as well. Yes, I’m asking for some maturity, but we’re mostly adults here.
When people talk about “right” and “wrong” viewpoints, I worry that they are forgetting history. For example, for a long time (and still in many places today – see links below), people were attacked for having or even speaking about homosexual relations. It was widely accepted that it was “wrong”, and that position was enforced with violence – yes, even by Nazis. While it is dangerously tempting to human nature to use violence to maintain your power when you are able to do so, it sets a terrible precedent. If nothing else, there’s usually a lot more of “them” than there are of most minorities.
There’s another compelling reason not to punch Nazis, and it’s because it makes them martyrs. If they appear to want to engage in conversation, and somebody else gets violent, then they look like the reasonable, civilized person (which is a difficult position for a Nazi to gain in this day and age). It lends credibility to their claims, because as I said before, if you had an argument to present, you could do that. You don’t need to help them by giving them a bigger podium.
A compelling third reason that Nazis should be engaged in conversation instead of fisticuffs is because Nazis frequently appeal to people who feel excluded and left out. Basic participation weakens the effect alienation has on them.
Lastly, and just in general, I am troubled that the application of violence is becoming so completely acceptable on a wide scale. There are times and places for violence (the immediate defense of family and property, or when police pursue violent criminals, for example), but stifling another person’s right to speak and be heard is not an appropriate application of violence. The line between general discussion and personal threats can get muddy, especially when open violence gets too acceptable. I am concerned that if we decide punching Nazis is okay, then who does or does not count as a “Nazi” is going to depend (in part) on how much a person would like to punch them (note: The person getting punched in the video below does not self-identify as a Nazi).
I do want to make clear that I do think “Nazis” should be stopped from achieving their agenda; I just don’t think sacrificing the ability to discuss ideas freely and openly in public is the best way to do it. Beat them on the debate floor, if you can set one up. Even if you don’t convert your interlocutor, you can win the people who are listening. Beat them in the election booth, if they ever get that far. But please don’t beat them in the streets. It only seems like a good idea at the time.