During the inauguration of Donald Trump, notorious bigot Richard Spencer was punched by an anonymous black-clad antifa while giving an interview. This injection of new content and ethical questions into the meme-stream had an interesting effect on the public discourse on violence.
The primary conflict for most centered around conflicting axioms that ‘violence is bad’ and that ‘preventing genocide is good’. People in favor of punching Spencer thought that the punch was a direct refutation of the white supremacist and nationalist ideas he espouses and would damage his reputation as an organizer/public figure. (Guardian)
“I’m afraid this is going to become the meme to end all memes,” he said. “That I’m going to hate watching this.” (NYT)
Those who said that the punch was wrong argued on two grounds that his right to free speech was violated and that assault is bad. I’m assuming everyone is familiar with the second set of arguments, so I’ll present those of the first set which occur most frequently.
As it relates to rhetoric and civic discourse, it is important to look to the effect of fascism on a polity with extensive free speech protections. While there is a lack of consensus on the definition of fascism, most agree that it has its basis on delegitimization of the press, and construction of a nationalist narrative that advocates a return to an ideal past which never truly existed.
By making a new paradigm for what civic life means to members of the polity, these tendencies are highly corrupting to the democratic process. It could be described as fomenting a culture of ‘idia’ where individuals don’t speak out for the sake of some ideograph accentuated through fascistic rhetoric.
To counter this, many believe that by reacting with non-lethal violence against public supremacists it will delegitimize them, with the intention to shift attitudes away from fascism through dank memes about punching supremacists. The intended impact is that massive structural violences in terms of deportation, and additional economic and political marginalization of people of color, women, and LGBTQ individuals would be averted. By forcibly rebranding Spencer from a propaganda savvy member of the alt-right to the despicable supremacist he is, (through savvier meme-based propaganda) his efforts toward organization and recruitment will be hindered.
A central theme in refuting this violence is that since the antifa and supremacists like Spencer both use violence to achieve ends they view as just, that they are equivalent. (Guardian) I don’t agree. The scale, intention, and outcome of both instances of violence(s) are different.
From what I’ve seen the scale of violence from the antifas is targeted at supremacists and fascists, the intention is to diminish the risk of them acquiring power, with the intended outcome of weakening their public support and galvanizing resistance against fascism. For Spencer and co, the scale he advocates is a broad structural violence against anyone who isn’t white, in the form of “peaceful ethnic cleansing” of the United States. The intention is to “reclaim” a homeland for “a dispossessed white race” with the outcome being the deportation, or murder, of millions in the US.
The discourse on violence continues, with the question of anti-fascist action now at its center. My guess is that if broad public opposition is not granted concessions, these tactics will only continue to become more prevalent.