On January 20, a truly momentous event took place in Washington, D.C. A great man ascended, joined the American Pantheon, took his place amidst the heroes of our nation. I am referring, of course, to that unnamed and unknown protester in a mask who followed in the hallowed footsteps of famed Nazi-punchers Indiana Jones and Captain America and sucker punched Richard Spencer, a prominent member of the alt-right. There is an entire (not very interesting) discussion to be had about how the alt-right are trying, essentially, to make Nazi ideas respectable again, but that is not particularly important. As the saying goes, a Nazi by any other name is just as deplorable. And a Nazi with pompous hair, well…that’s somehow even worse.
Anyone who has watched the video of the “Punching of Richard Spencer,” or any of the many variants that have been pumped out online, would be lying to say that it wasn’t satisfying. Even setting his views aside, Spencer is an ass. He is constantly condescending, smiling as if he’s received some revelation that no one else has, or is in on some secret joke. He exudes a special type of smugness that makes him seem eminently punchable.
That is exactly why it was such a bad reason to punch him. Not only does it not accomplish anything tangible, but it also was exactly what Spencer wanted.
Let’s take a moment to think about what exactly the act of punching Richard Spencer did. It interrupted his interview and kept him from talking about his ideology, at least for a short while. It probably felt quite satisfying for the puncher. Maybe, depending on who was watching the incident, it helped reassure them that the ideology espoused by the good Mr. Spencer wasn’t accepted by all of America. But for all the punch may have done, for all the reassurance it provided to vulnerable communities, nothing has changed. Spencer, after he finished wiping away the copious tears, went back to spouting his talking points. Though he may have a bruise or two to show, his ideas are untouched. Punching someone doesn’t change their beliefs. Neither do beatings, and neither does violence in general. Anyone who has spent even an iota of time studying the Civil Rights movement, or the Solidarity movement, or the Indian independence movement, or even Weimar Germany would realize that. And in a broader sense, violence doesn’t stop the spread of ideology. To paraphrase the great Tyrion Lannister, when you punch someone, you don’t prove that what they’re saying was wrong. All you prove is that you’re afraid of what they had to say.
It is especially stupid in this particular context. Much of the ideology of the alt-right is based on derision of the left, on claims that the left is hypocritical, overly sensitive, and incoherent. The “Punching of Richard Spencer” fit into that narrative perfectly. There is the utterly righteous, completely innocent alt-righter, peaceably giving his opinion while ignoring the harassment and taunts of obnoxious left-wingers with the utmost probity, doing his best to convince the media and engage in dialogue. And then, all of a sudden, out of nowhere, comes this vicious, intolerant leftist, wearing a mask, who takes a swing at our poor, poor alt-righter, and then doesn’t even have the guts to take a stand, since he runs away right afterwards. Not only that, but none of the pinko degenerates around him have the decency to try and help, or even to check if Spencer is okay. So not only does he gain more credibility within his movement as a martyr for the cause, but he also gets another talking point, something concrete he can point to when he yells about how awful liberals are. And now, when some alt-righters want to rough someone up (should they need an excuse,) all they have to do is point to this incident and say: “See? They started it.”
To a certain extent, they would be right. Condoning this action, and the usual scorn and hatred that accompanies the prerogative “Nazi,” seems to be fundamentally hypocritical. Nazi ideology is inherently vile and objectionable because, among other reasons, it promotes violence against specific groups it deems outsiders and encourages its followers to lump people into groups based solely on traits such as sexuality or race, dehumanizing them in the process. Cheering the unknown assailant in the video seems to be embracing these Nazi premises, both in that it condones violence and because of the fundamental dehumanization that goes into justifying the violence. In rushing to say “Oh well, he’s a Nazi,” we imply that Nazis are somehow are something other than human, that holding a certain belief can remove someone’s humanity. To simply dismiss someone as a Nazi, or as an alt-righter, or even a Trump supporter, and to condone or support violence against them, is dehumanize and engage in violence. It is to descend to the level of Nazis.
Basically, Richard Spencer is, at least somewhat intentionally, engaging in the age-old tradition of trolling. He says ridiculous things, looking to gain attention and notoriety, and to provoke a response. If he gets attention, he now has a larger audience to spout his nonsense at. If he gains notoriety, he has a wider platform to perform on, and can even parlay it into a weird sort of respectability, the kind of respectability that gets him onto news programs because everyone wants a shot at disagreeing with him, not realizing they’re helping him spread his ideology. If he provokes a response, great, now he can laugh at the people who “overreacted,” confirm the “truth” of his narrative, and keep going because he knows which buttons to press.
So how do you beat a troll without playing their game? Do what people on the Internet have been doing for ages: laugh at them, humiliate them, and point out their ludicrous failings. If they say something ridiculous (alternative facts, anyone?) turn it into a punch line. Delegitimize their argument by using them like the jokes that they are. Nazis are like Boggarts; make them ridiculous, laugh at them, and they lose all power. So go ahead, watch that video of Richard Spencer getting punched to the 1812 overture. That’s how you hit a Nazi where it hurts.