Justifying Violence for Ideological Reasons

The sucker-punching of Richard Spencer, the alt-right leader and white nationalist, while speaking on camera, has sparked a lot of comment in various quarters. The question of whether it is justifiable to employ violence against such individuals has received a resounding ‘YES!’ from many liberal quarters (see the comments on this thread, for instance). There are many things that could be said about this incident, but the following were some of the initial thoughts that came to my mind.

First, we are increasingly seeing the result of the widespread use of hyperbolic language on the part of the social justice left to characterize those who disagree with or challenge their positions. Far too often, the rhetorical and ideological challenges presented by such persons are declared to be ‘violence’, existing in direct continuity with acts of throwing punches, casting stones, and even shooting of firearms. This sense of equivalence all too easily justifies the use of physically violent means to combat opponents. The carelessly hyperbolic rhetoric of the social justice left greases the surface of the plane of social antagonisms, enabling us to make some incredibly dangerous moves from ideological opposition towards physical violence extremely easily.

Second, as Paul Bloom and others have observed, a culture of radical empathy such as that seen in the social justice movement can be highly conducive to violence. The progressive social justice left so empathizes with particular groups and persons perceived to be victims that any challenge to them is perceived as serious violence, justifying merciless retaliation. Such empathy is a great way to spark the unchecked violence of the mob. It plays to visceral instincts and tends to override reason and balance. One of the things that true justice entails is resistance to the potential of the partisan sentiment of empathy to overrule equity.

Third, there is a tendency on the part of the utopian left to reject the principles of an open society. Rather than justice being something that even-handedly applies to all within society alike—as a set of rules for the social ‘game’ that prescribes no particular result—for the social justice left, justice is about achieving some very specific utopian outcomes and those who resist or do not support such outcomes are opposed to justice. Justice is a partisan of those who are on the ‘right side of history’ and so an unapologetic double standard can be applied. It is OK to punch those who are clearly on the wrong side of history.

Fourth, Godwin’s Law has good cause to exist. The very reason why such a recently fringe figure as Richard Spencer was in front of a video camera probably has a very great deal to do with the progressive left’s widespread desire to present itself in the best possible light by demonizing its opposition (‘they’re LITERAL NAZIS!!!!’).. In part, this is because the current progressive left is often so deeply preoccupied with its own narcissistic psychodramas that those who do not share its social agenda will be rendered the screen upon which they will project their self-elevating vision.

Fifth, many on the progressive left have so demonized their opponents that violence is increasingly the only form of engagement possible in their minds. The possibility that there are people on all sides who could be open to reason and charitable persuasion isn’t sufficiently entertained. Rather, there is a hardening of opinions on all sides.

Sixth, there has been a systematic elision of the differences between various groups and the tarring of all by association with the worst. Conservatives, Republicans, members of the white working classes, people living in red states, Trump voters, Trump supporters, alt-right, white nationalists, white supremacists, and neo-Nazis all get associated together, the evils of the extremes being used to characterize the others. As the distinctions between these various groups is lost sight of, the supposed justification of violence, hatred, or discrimination in the case of the ugliest of these groups tends to spread to the others by unjust association.

Seventh, justifying vigilante violence is an extremely dangerous thing to do. Even were it appropriate in some cases, without due process it will tend to cause a great deal of collateral damage. A guy was shot on Friday at an anti-fascist protest against a Milo Yiannopoulos talk on campus. This report suggests that he was mistaken for a white supremacist by the shooter on account of a misunderstood tattoo, when he was actually there as an opponent of fascism.

Eighth, once you start to suggest that unilateral physical violence is justified in some cases, it is incredibly difficult to prevent violence from spreading more broadly. The belief that one’s own side has a monopoly on justified violence is a self-indulgent fiction that could all too easily invite dynamics into our social life that would harm us all.

Ninth, there is a certain sort of vicious person who finds catharsis in violence and will jump at the opportunity to engage in socially sanctioned violence. As soon as open season is declared on a category of persons, such individuals will joyfully undertake their acts of violence under the banner of morality. Indeed, their willingness to engage in such violent acts is presented as proof of their moral zeal, when it actually is evidence for their appetite for violence. We should be under no illusions: there is a high possibility that, had he lived in different times, the sort of violent anti-fascist protester who would gladly punch someone like Richard Spencer in the face would also have been leading the lynch mob against the black man accused of raping the white girl or beating up the man accused of a homosexual act.

This point leads me to a set of reflections, with which I will end this hastily written post.

It is imperative that we recognize that a movement such as the social justice left, while making strong ideological claims, serves many ends that are not primarily about its ideology. Indeed, the existence and popularity of the ideology owes a great deal to the fact that it serves many of these ends so well.

Scot Alexander has, as usual, a superb post in which he explores the way in which ideologies serve ends that may often be more important than their explicitly declared or ostensive ones. Like other movements, there are a lot of different reasons why people subscribe to the ideology of ‘social justice’, beyond or in addition to actually believing in it. When thinking about the justification of violence in the name of or against an ideology, it is imperative that we recognize the many ends that ideologies can serve to dissemble.

The following are a few ends that the social justice movement serves for different groups, beyond what it might declare on the tin.

  1. People who want a prestige belief system can prove that they belong to the moral and intellectual elite by employing the ideological shibboleths and vocabularies of the social justice academic in-crowd. It is a great mechanism for creating and policing a privileged in-crowd, and all the better for being able to disavow or displace its privilege through its claim to represent those without privilege.
  1. People who need a way to process the wounds of their past can turn to social justice ideology as the scar tissue.
  1. People belonging to minority or disadvantaged groups can turn to social justice ideology to gain a sense of importance and the ability to hit back at others.
  1. People who struggle to hold their own against others can use social justice ideology as a means to call for special treatment and discriminate against their competition.
  1. People who feel guilt can turn to social justice ideology as a means of self-flagellation.
  1. People who should feel guilty can turn to social justice ideology as a means to absolve themselves of guilt by working to make others the scapegoat for their past sins and those of their groups.
  1. People who feel fearful and vulnerable can turn to social justice ideology for protection and security.
  1. People who like to bully others or act violently towards others can turn to social justice ideology as a means to justify their violent and abusive tendencies.
  1. Big business can turn to social justice ideology as it distracts from its own injustices, sells products, increases markets and the labour force, gains cachet for neoliberalism, displaces traditional communities and practices, sets up the market as the means of identity formation, and associates market values with social justice values.
  1. Governments can turn to social justice ideology as it enables them to distract from the sort of systemic class inequalities that the traditional left would focus on, and which led to the rise of Trump, emphasizing primarily symbolic social justice issues instead (the last several years have witnessed a great deal of government attention to issues of LGBT rights, rather less to the drugs crisis facing the US and the economic despair in the heartlands). Social justice ideology also serves as a means of enforcing power on populations at home and justifying overseas intervention.
  1. Modern Western societies can turn to social justice ideology to help them to absolve themselves of their historic sins by scapegoating certain unappreciated sections of their populations. Social justice ideology also offers itself as a convenient solvent for multicultural and post-national societies.
  1. Liberalism can turn to social justice ideology because it can present itself as continuing the Civil Rights movement and appreciate the halo effect of justice that affords. It serves as a means to drive out any of the cultural and social givenness that the right has traditionally defended, presenting many traditional expressions of religion, national pride, historic majority cultural identity, sexual norms, etc. as inherently exclusionary and oppressive. It can also provide a means for dividing and dominating society beneath its social dominance through the guilt and fear of identity politics.
  1. Hollywood can turn to social justice ideology because it enables them to distract from the concrete injustices and hedonism of the film industry with lots of shallow gestures that fuel its self-congratulatory culture, increase viewers, and play well to culturally ascendant groups.
  1. Social media can turn to social justice ideology because online what you say matters so much more than what you do and articulating social justice ideology is a cheap way to demonstrate virtue.
  1. Pluralist communities can turn to social justice ideology to establish unity and trust between people when the traditional non-ideological fabric of a common society can no longer adequately provide social cohesion.
  1. Social conformists and the socially vulnerable can turn to social justice ideology in order to fit in and not be ostracized.
  1. Religious people can turn to social justice ideology in order to jump on culturally ascendant bandwagons, regain a sense of moral high ground, and downplay the alienating features of their faith.
  1. Young people turn to social justice ideology in order to find identities and communities in a cultural context where given identities and communities are weak and often hard to come by.

Many further examples could be listed. However, it is imperative that we understand the many individual and social ends that social justice ideology serves beyond its ostensive ones. While it really shouldn’t be reduced to the features that make it socially useful, its widespread appeal and traction owes an immense amount to the way that it serves so many different parties’ contrasting interests. We also need to recognize that different groups that advocate ideologies should be handled differently.

Expanding on Alexander’s ‘the ideology is not the movement’ thesis, recognizing the great diversity of people’s and group’s reasons for subscribing to ideologies (or religions, for that matter), we should be considerably more cautious of what we justify in their name. There is a great deal of ugliness and complexity that can masquerade beneath the veils of values. While values are certainly not unimportant and ideologies are not merely masks, we must always be alert to the many unpleasant, unhealthy, or frail human instincts that can crawl in the dark beneath their cover. This is never more important when considering justifying violence on account of ideology.

About Alastair Roberts

Alastair Roberts (PhD, Durham University) writes in the areas of biblical theology and ethics, but frequently trespasses beyond these bounds. He participates in the weekly Mere Fidelity podcast, blogs at Alastair’s Adversaria, and tweets at @zugzwanged.
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44 Responses to Justifying Violence for Ideological Reasons

  1. cal says:

    I think there needs to be a more parsing when condemning this punch and sweeping it up into a category of violence that leads to lynch mobs etc. and connecting it to the murder of a guy at a Milo event. I think this requires a much more nuanced exploration of violence and its symbolic representation, degrees, the relationship between attack and attacker etc etc. But this isn’t happening.

    It seems to me that this punch was public humiliation. Now the question is whether his view point is, by mere statement, an attack on the public sphere that allows him to speak. What is in and what isn’t? And who is to render judgement on this? I’m much more of a populist in this regard, I don’t think this is something that should be left in the hands of any official organ of the state.

    My point is not whether to answer whether this act was just or not just, but I think the comparisons you’re drawing are equally a case of hyperbole. He is more likely to have been an Iraqi citizen who tore down a statue of Saddam, St. Nick who punched Arius, the Jewish temple guard who slapped St. Paul, or Scottish covenanters who threw episcopal ministers out of their residence.

    You’re spot on about the New Left social justice movements though. This must add to assessing any act of violence.


    • Yes, there is only so much that one can argue in a short blog post written in under an hour. There is definitely a lot more to say in order to parse out the issue of violence and how such a punch relates to other acts of violence.

      However, I disagree that the punch can be regarded merely as public humiliation. If he had thrown a pie, an egg, or a ripe tomato, squirted silly string, used a glitter bomb, played a sousaphone, or even slapped him, that would have been public humiliation. Sucker punching someone in the head could potentially cause serious injury and is a very different sort of act.

      I don’t believe that this sort of thing should be a matter of the state either. I think the expression of some positions are detrimental to the common good and should ideally not be given a platform, or, at least, not a loud speaker. I am not a supporter of radical free speech, understood as the absence of external limitation or constraint. This is principally a matter for civil society, not the state. Unfortunately, the debate around free speech tends to be overly framed by the US Constitution, leading us to miss how the freedom of speech is harmed by such things as the Internet, which makes it harder for certain forms of socially edifying speech to occur in a healthy manner. Healthy public speech is something that requires restraining civic virtues and great prudence. The realm of public speech should be a variegated one, with arenas for ideological contestation and for dealing with controversial views, but such spaces should be bounded by appropriate civic etiquette.

      Where views such as Spencer’s seek prominent and more widespread expression, they should be challenged using appropriate means of civic speech and action, with heckling, refusal to grant the oxygen of publicity, refusal to host his events, peaceful protest, social stigma, satire, etc., etc. Limiting a voice such as Spencer’s shouldn’t be left to the authorities (although there may or may not be cause for them to be involved), but should be a matter of the society’s own responsible non-violent action. Nevertheless, a healthy civil society also has limits upon the degree to which and the means by which it can challenge unwelcome voices. Here official protections of speech are important. There are also institutions whose telos is compromised by a failure to protect their identity as realms of contestation and interaction with unorthodox opinion, such as the university. Maintaining a healthy culture of discourse is more like the cultivation of a garden than the mere removal of constraints.

      There is no contradiction between the claim that ‘he is more likely to have been an Iraqi citizen who tore down a statue of Saddam, St. Nick who punched Arius, the Jewish temple guard who slapped St. Paul, or Scottish covenanters who threw episcopal ministers out of their residence’ and the claim that ‘there is a high possibility that, had he lived in different times, the sort of violent anti-fascist protester who would gladly punch someone like Richard Spencer in the face would also have been leading the lynch mob against the black man accused of raping the white girl or beating up the man accused of a homosexual act.’ My examples were purposefully extreme, in order to highlight that there is a certain sort of person who is simply attracted to societally justified violence, who would, under other social circumstances, engage in extreme violence that ran radically contrary to the ideology in the name of which they currently act. My point was to expose the difference between people who are genuinely motivated by an ideology and people who are motivated by baser or non-ideological social instincts, for which ideologies afford permissive outlets.

      Actually, one does not have to hypothesize such a person’s existence in a different age to be aware of their presence among us. All one needs to do is to pay attention to the shifts in the extremisms to which the same people lend their muscle in societies that undergo significant ideological changes.

      • Physiocrat1 says:

        Do you think universities should no-platform Spencer?

        I think I’m what you’d term a radical defender of free speech for two reasons: it can highlight failings in your own thought and secondly, if a side refuses to debate with you it raises the probability that they are incorrect otherwise they’d actually debate you.

        So open debate on flat earths, geocentricity, revisionist history etc.

        NB. This is all on the assumption that the participants allow each side their say and engage on the assumption of the pursuit of truth. I don’t think the position I’m outlining is the removal of all constraints but providing a framework for meaningful debate.

        I’d love to host a venue which was dedicated to radical ideas from any and all directions: from Anjem Choudary to Westboro Baptists, and from Communists to Rothbardians.

      • It depends what ‘no-platforming’ involves and the ‘platform’ in question. I wouldn’t have an objection to a university inviting Spencer to participate in a debate, if it were likely that his incorrect opinions could contribute to an intellectually illuminating conversation. I’m not entirely convinced that Spencer would pass muster here, but I certainly think that white nationalist and fascist viewpoints more generally can merit consideration in the framework of the university.

        That said, I would be very unlikely to be supportive of a university or university society inviting Spencer to speak outside of a debate framework (although some such frameworks might be less problematic than others, for instance, exposing students to articulate firsthand advocates of a position so that they learn to represent it fairly). I feel the same way about Milo Yiannopoulos. He is not an academic, but an agitator and provocateur, who has little to contribute to the quality of the university’s discourse, merely ramping up tensions that make it more difficult to have productive conversations. I really don’t want to see such people forcibly closed down, but I think it important to make clear that there are certain rhetorical approaches or positions that are damaging for society.

        It is the university’s responsibility to cultivate a community of challenging and illuminating discourse. This demands exposure of our beliefs to challenge and testing. However, it does not mean that all positions have equal claim to inclusion. Some positions are hostile to the existence of the conversation itself and encourage ideologically driven resistance to open discourse. Others lack advocates with the calibre to function at a high enough level. Perhaps some such positions merit devil’s advocates to ‘steelman’ them. Many others do not. Those who determine the scope of the discourse must use their prudence here.

        There are places where it is appropriate to limit external challenge, where schools of thought have room to develop on their own terms, but never in absolute detachment from the wider discourse, lest they fall into totalizing ideology and ideologically driven obscurantism (for instance, theologians or gender studies types who won’t do serious business with the findings of biological sciences). Some schools of political ideology, and various ‘studies’ disciplines should be given the room to form robust dialogues internal to themselves. However, they must always retain an external front of discourse if they are to merit a place in the university.

        I am not in favour of open debate on issues such as flat earth or geocentricity. Unless the advocates of such positions have proven intellectual calibre, research backgrounds, conversance with the state of the disciplines they are speaking into, or perspectives that genuinely promise to advance knowledge by exposing error or bringing new truth, they really should not be included in the conversation as they will not add to it. Rather, their inclusion in the conversation will grant an unmerited semblance of legitimacy to their errors. ‘Teach the controversy’ approaches tend to give unearned attention to viewpoints that survive by their ideological or religious appeal, rather than on account of their academic merit.

        I really like the idea of contexts where radical ideas can be considered (the Cambridge Union is great for this, for instance, debating lots of highly controversial subjects that could really threaten popular opinion or sentiment, but which produce highly stimulating exchanges of viewpoints). However, there is a genuine danger of confusing the sort of ‘radical’ ideas that are truly intellectually promising and revealing with those ideas that are merely culturally provocative and which tend to incite angry reactions. There is definitely overlap between these two sets of things, but they really are not the same thing. When it comes to groups such as the Westboro Baptists, they really merit anthropological study as a group, but treating them as a group with ideas worth debating is misguided, I believe.

        I am unpersuaded that refusal to discourse with someone is a probable sign that you are wrong. This may be the case, and quite likely is when your opponent has a high academic calibre. However, many groups advance by underhand tactics and academic dishonesty. They claim an undeserved place at the table, simply because they disagree. They will parade their inclusion as a sign of their viewpoint’s merit. They will use things like the Gish Gallop and other ploys to avoid honest engagement. The truth can often suffer from such encounters, so I think it is frequently wise to avoid them unless absolutely necessary.

      • mnpetersen37 says:

        If the reason for rejecting flat-earth positions is, in part “their inclusion in the conversation will grant an unmerited semblance of legitimacy to their errors” why do you think white nationalist and fascist positions cna merit consideration? It seems that similarly their inclusion could give an unmerited semblance of legitimacy to their errors. (Though “legitimacy” is used equivocally: Fascism is morally illegitimate, though there are strong (and therefore dangerous) intellectual defenses of it, whereas flat-earth is intellectually illegitimate, but is morally indifferent.)

        Or do you mean something like, it’s good to read Schmitt and Heidegger; and to learn, in controlled environments, what sorts of premises to avoid, and for that, it’s important to have intellectually strong defenses of morally reprehensible positions?

      • In the case of flat earth positions, they are without academic merit, but we risk giving them credibility through inclusion. White nationalist and fascist positions are dangerous (as are various Marxist or Islamic extremist positions, for that matter), but they have serious intellectual arguments for them, with which we need to do business. They should be handled with great care, but they need to be handled (not least because they can shed an unflattering light upon the current political order). Much as you wouldn’t allow the typical undergrad in the chemistry department to have access to some of the most volatile materials in the lab, so these positions need to be treated with caution (I recently was astonished to learn the scope of the area that would need to be evacuated in the case of a serious fire in the chemistry building at Durham University).

        Engagement with thinkers such as Schmitt and Heidegger really should extend far beyond learning what you need to avoid. Both thinkers raise important questions and issues that rightly unsettle prevailing ways of seeing things. Similar points can be made about ethnonationalism, which is not the sort of stupid position that one can or should just brush off. Appropriate resistance to certain conclusions should not entail avoidance of the difficult challenges to liberalism that they pose. The same is true of Marx, Stalin, and others. If you are to be a serious political thinker, you need to do serious business with such men, while recognizing their dangers.

        Positions that fall badly foul of history can often be important ones for us to continue to engage with. It is especially easy, when we have won historical battles against such movements, to think that we have adequately responded to the theoretical challenges that they present to us. For instance, while I think we all would favour women’s suffrage here, our understanding of the franchise is considerably impoverished by the fact that the historic victory of the suffragettes largely absolved us of the difficult work of presenting the ideological case for the implied understanding of political suffrage in their movement (see Helen Andrews’ piece on the anti-suffragette movement).

        None of this is true of the flat-earth position.

      • mnpetersen37 says:

        Ah. I see what you mean.

        I was picturing mediocre academics (most of us are mediocre) taking arguments from living fascists (who are offering mediocre arguments) seriously, in a public setting (say in an organized debate). (Cambridge Union may be different–I’m not familiar with it–because it draws top debaters; and perhaps, not wide public attendance. My experience with debates is with ones more like the Wilson-Hitchens debates.) Reading Schmitt is indeed helpful, and I have benefited from him (and from people like Kahn, Agamben, and Latour who have benefited from him), but part of what makes him less poisonous is the big “handle with care” label his work comes with; whereas a debate format, like the one I had in mind, comes with a significantly smaller “handle with care” label and its structure even perhaps claims that the two positions are, in some sense, safe options.

        (Also, I think the my paragraph should have started “Or do you mean something like, it’s good to read Schmitt and Heidegger; and that it’s also good to learn…”).

      • If Spencer or someone in his camp had serious academic chops, I would want to see them included in the conversation. However, I don’t believe that viewpoints merit inclusion merely because they are controversial. Either way, whenever such views are included in the conversation, it would be imperative that the conversation be approached in a way that ensured that the views expressed would be handled with maturity by the participants and spectators. Some positions really do have an exceedingly dangerous attraction and we treat them lightly at our peril.

      • Andrew says:

        (1) There’s a certain hypocrisy when university administrators support attempts to de-platform (say) moderate Neo-Nazis but aggressively protect (say) pro-abortion campaigners. This is “picking sides”, not “policing the boundaries of free speech”. And once you pick sides, “they must be suppressed!” is a consistent position, but “how dare they fight!” is refusing to own up to your actions and convictions.

        (2) Since you brought it up, I put that the philosophy of women’s suffrage is grounded in radical individualism and a non-Christian view of identity and the family and subtly encourages conflict and division between husband and wife.

      • The existence of hypocrisy should not be an argument against principles, but for greater consistency with them.

        I think that there are profound problems with the prevailing view of suffrage and I do not view the majority of women in a society not having suffrage as unjust in absolute principle. However, in the contemporary social, economic, and political context, I believe that it would be quite unjust to deny women the vote.

      • Andrew says:

        (1) I agree. But modern moral and social philosophy doesn’t have the robustness needed to decide which views should and shouldn’t be given a hearing, and when it tries to usually just demonstrates its inadequacy.

        (2) “However, in the contemporary social, economic, and political context, I believe that it would be quite unjust to deny women the vote.”

        When the cart is before the horse, is the “just” solution to mandate that all carts must have horse-troughs on their rear, or to put the horse back where it should be? As far as I can tell from reading Andrews’ account, all that the anti-suffragette movement predicted has come to pass, and more. It may well be impractical to undo the consequences of that decision, but it’s only an issue of “justice” through the filter of the modern era’s historically idiosyncratic definitions of human rights (which Andrews identifies in paragraph 9). (The first impracticality is the tight coupling in modern minds between suffrage and human dignity, which is ironic given the wailing about the recent Brexit vote and the ignorant masses getting it wrong.)

      • 1) The duty of judgment in such cases can’t be shrugged off. Failure to exercise such judgment well is not an argument for a suspension of judgment, but the improvement of it. For my part, while I oppose both positions, I believe that actually existing pro-abortion positions tend to have a lot more theoretical merit than neo-Nazi ones. Pro-life philosophy is often very poor on key points and pro-abortion positions can present much needed challenges.

        2) The extent of the franchise is a matter of contextual prudence, not absolute principle. Our socio-political situation is arguably sub-optimal in many respects, and attempts to establish the structure of a perfect and ideal polity within it could actually be damaging, destructive, and even unjust. The just dismantling of universal suffrage could only occur as part of a more thoroughgoing dismantling of the prevailing political edifice, and not in detachment from this.

      • cal says:

        There is a major difference between a lynch mob and a punch. Yes, the punch to the face could blind, break a tooth etc etc., but it’s not on the same scale of intention death-dealing. That’s why I find your examples off the mark. Yes, the punch is not in the same category as heckling or spraying silly string, but neither is it in putting to death. This is why your response seems equally hyperbolic.

        Of course people exploit movements for other reasons than what is intended. Typologically, this is Simon Magus. And it’s a helpful point when trying to reveal the glaring and disturbing weak-spots of Social Justice people. But this is a loosely related point to the question of assessing violence.

        I get your point that even those who decry the act might not recognize that they themselves are the cause of people who take advantage of their own growing social power, and are responsible to tamper down on it.

      • I don’t believe that throwing such a punch is at all on the same level as participating in a lynch mob and that was not my point.

        My point may better be understood by considering the fact that lynch mobs were composed of relatively ordinary members of communities, not people we would consider monsters. Likewise, the Nazi regime was built upon the actions of millions of regular German people. The same human and social instincts that led people to betray, to oppress, and to kill in such historic situations are the same sorts of instincts that ideologies can harness or unleash today. The ideologies didn’t create the behaviours they sanctioned from nothing, but permitted and directed existing instincts.

        We might flatter ourselves that a person who punches a neo-Nazi is merely acting for pure and justified ideological reasons. I want to caution against this perspective. Both Nazism and ideologies that justify punching Nazis are often playing with the same pre-ideological base human instincts. Holding the correct ideology does not render us immune to the ugliness that can occur when such forces are unleashed.

      • mnpetersen37 says:

        Doesn’t virtue consist in acting in accordance with the pre-ideological base human instincts, when appropriate, and not, when not; and in strengthening particular instincts when action in accord with them would be appropriate, and weakening or honing certain instincts, or strengthening others, when action with instincts would be inappropriate?

        There may even be a sort of virtue in jumping at socially sanctioned violence–it is virtuous, or perhaps pre-virtuous, for the young to take the actions their elders say they should; even, in itself, to take the violent actions their elders say they should. The deep vice exhibited in cases like the lynch mob may be more a viciousness of the elders, who sanction the violence, and (perhaps implicitly) call on the young hot-headed to commit murders, as if the murder were righteous, than the young who commit the violence. The young who perpetrate the violence are being apprenticed into very grave vice, and so are very much in the wrong, but, inasmuch as they are acting vigorously, and even violently, as their elders ask, they are, perhaps, acting well; and the deeper blame lies with their elders. (I want to emphasize, I say this as an attempt to analyze where the deep fault is, not in excusing the fault.)

        But if so, if it really would be good to smack Spencer (and it seems at best, it’s a tactic useful for getting him out of your bar, but one that doesn’t scale well when the “bar” becomes the whole nation), and the elders are right in sanctioning that violence, that he would have acted wrongly were his elders wrong, wouldn’t seem particularly relevant.

      • Virtue is not so much about acting in accordance with instincts (or not when appropriate) as it is about directing those instincts to their proper ends.

        Shifting my point into the framework of virtue ethics, what I am highlighting is the problem of regarding the question of whether it is appropriate to punch Richard Spencer in abstraction from the issues raised by virtue ethics. The theoretically right action can be undertaken in a vicious manner and there are few actions that are so prone to this than those of violence.

        Ideological justifications in such situations can provide sanctioned outlets for the expression of people’s vices, especially when there is no careful pedagogy into virtue.

      • mnpetersen37 says:

        I think what I was missing was what you meant by “ideological”. There are times when, because of tactical and strategic considerations, violence against Nazis is right (say, during World War II, or defending bars and concerts during the ’90’s). In these situations, when the violence is socially sanctioned (and socially sanctioned because tactical and strategic), vicious impulses can actually do real good, and we can even hope that acting in a somewhat virtuous manner can even provide something of a pedagogy in virtue (though, that isn’t automatic).

        But what you’re seeing here is not a social sanctioning of violence based on valid tactical and strategic considerations, but a sanctioning of violence based merely on the class of person the recipient of the violence belongs to–that is, the justification is based on ideology.

        Is that accurate?

      • In part. I would also raise some similar concerns, though less pronounced, about making a virtue of killing Nazis in the context of World War II. Killing Nazis may have accomplished a desirable end, but that did not make it virtuous. There were people whose vicious (in the moral sense) impulses helped to achieve a positive end in World War II, but that didn’t make them any less vicious.

        Declaring open season on Nazis for vigilante attacks apart from any social process of judgment (as occurs in the context of war) merely makes things a great deal worse.

  2. chris e says:

    “The question of whether it is justifiable to employ violence against such individuals has received a resounding ‘YES!’ from many liberal quarters”

    And a ‘No’ from many others, and thus your entire edifice collapses.

    “justifying merciless retaliation.”

    Really? Examples of actual events displaying merciless retaliation please.

    • I suggest that you reread the post, paying attention to the many qualifiers throughout, which make clear that I am referring to particular liberal quarters, and certainly not to the whole of liberalism. A number of the earlier pioneers of what has become the contemporary social justice movement, feminists, gay rights activists, and others are appalled by the departure from the sort of liberal principles that they stood on in advancing their cause, and have even remarked upon the symmetry between the way that dissenting Christian voices are now treated and the way that they were treated in the past.

      • chris e says:

        You wrote a long post about the evils of liberalism and where the evidence you offered was both somewhat scant, and was mostly random intemperate people on the internet saying intemperate things. At best that is somewhat hyperbolic.

        And as I said, examples of actual events displaying merciless retaliation please.

      • I wrote a post about the dangers of certain quarters of liberalism, and you didn’t read it very carefully.

  3. p duggie says:

    According to an acquaintance, the context of punk music concerts may have primed the pump for violence being the second resort

  4. Paul Baxter says:

    One of my more modest achievements last year was finally finishing William T Vollmann’s extraordinary book, Rising Up and Rising Down. This is, without any doubt, the longest investigation anyone has ever undertaken into the question of when violence is justified. I read the mass market (edited) version, but the original work ran to seven volumes.

    Put it on your list to read sometime. Vollmann has an idiosyncratic view of ethics in general, but tries harder than anyone I’ve ever seen to work out some sort of systematic review of how violence has actually worked in human history.

    I’m afraid that most of what I gleaned from it has been pushed out of my brain by school material that I was being tested on, so I don’t have much to add to your debate here.

  5. Physiocrat1 says:

    “I feel the same way about Milo Yiannopoulos. He is not an academic, but an agitator and provocateur, who has little to contribute to the quality of the university’s discourse, merely ramping up tensions that make it more difficult to have productive conversations.”

    An aside on Milo, I’ve heard from people on US campuses that he in fact allows more productive discussions to take place. Essentially more conservative/libertarian voices feel able to voice their views against campus hegemony following his visits.

    In regards Spencer, he’s more of a populariser rather than an innovative intellectual, however he’s the director of the National Policy Institute and many directors of think tanks are regularly brought into public debates. Further, his lack of Phd etc should not be held against him per se as there many useful contributions in public debate in the relatively recent past such as Henry Hazlitt. If you insist on Phd or even Professorships, then some like the evolutionary psychologist Kevin McDonald would fit the bill.

    To be clear, when I say public debates I mean well moderated, formal debates aimed at the intelligent layman – most campus debates would fit this bill.

    “I am not in favour of open debate on issues such as flat earth or geocentricity. Unless the advocates of such positions have proven intellectual calibre, research backgrounds, conversance with the state of the disciplines they are speaking into, or perspectives that genuinely promise to advance knowledge by exposing error or bringing new truth, they really should not be included in the conversation as they will not add to it. Rather, their inclusion in the conversation will grant an unmerited semblance of legitimacy to their errors. ‘Teach the controversy’ approaches tend to give unearned attention to viewpoints that survive by their ideological or religious appeal, rather than on account of their academic merit.”

    I used those examples purely as illustrations that all ideas in principle should be aired in robust debate. Rather than teach the controversy pe se, what is severely lacking in Universities are courses of the history of thought in particular disciplines. This historical analysis aids students to understand how the discussion got to where it is and more crucially, understand in more detail the methodological disputes and thus how paradigms change.

    Also I cannot emphasise this enough, I fail to see how debating someone gives a semblance of legitimacy to their arguments. Now there may be sociological reasons to choose to debate one or the other, the alt-right would fit that bill today rather than flat-earthers for example, but being culturally important doesn’t say anything about the value of the ideology.

    “I am unpersuaded that refusal to discourse with someone is a probable sign that you are wrong. This may be the case, and quite likely is when your opponent has a high academic calibre. However, many groups advance by underhand tactics and academic dishonesty. They claim an undeserved place at the table, simply because they disagree. They will parade their inclusion as a sign of their viewpoint’s merit. They will use things like the Gish Gallop and other ploys to avoid honest engagement. The truth can often suffer from such encounters, so I think it is frequently wise to avoid them unless absolutely necessary.”

    If debates are moderated correctly and you have the most competent men possible on either side truth will win out. As stated before sometimes it may not be worth it but polarising, fundamentals debates are more stimulating than in-house debates for the main. Further, flat-earthers can be an interesting way into particular epistemological issues (also I don’t know of any position which is devoid of any truth value whatsoever even the crazy SJW’s)

    In regards the handle with care comments, surely we should handle all texts with equal care? Even who I consider the best economist alive, Guido Hulsmann, I would handle with equal care as a marxist economist.

    Finally, female suffrage was terrible as was male suffrage. Democracy is a terrible form of government and needs to be outed as such. I’d support many restrictions in the franchise for voting.

    • A key problem here is that our time and attention are limited and must be rationed. We must discriminate in our use of it. Time and attention given to the likes of Milo is time that can’t be given to far worthier voices.

      Furthermore, managing an institution’s culture of discourse requires the recognition that certain voices can threaten the healthy functioning of that culture. Voices that tend to incite toxic antagonisms, which raise the temperature of disagreements without contributing a lot of light, can be detrimental and destructive. While SJW voices may close down healthy discourse, the provocative voices of people like Milo can be no less destructive in other ways. They heighten the sorts of antagonisms that prevent mutually sharpening exchange of opinion. A truly freeing culture of speech is not a free-for-all, but a well-cultivated and managed culture of ordered discourse.

      Ideas that have contributed to mass genocide in the past need to be handled with a degree of care that ideas that have only led to fairly benign misunderstandings do not. Obviously we should be careful and responsible as academics in our treatment of ideas, but not all ideas so engage so weighty a level of moral responsibility and require such caution as those of Nazi ideology.

      Democratic principles obviously have a great many problems with them and these principles are obviously limited in their expression in representative forms of government. However, politics is the art of the possible and of the prudent and I am far from persuaded by the alternatives to the democratic dimensions of our polities that are on offer in the current context.

      • Physiocrat1 says:

        To note I’m not the biggest Milo fan, he’s mainly interested in self-promotion than anything else. All my point was that he is not entirely negative on campus.

        Linking the modern Alt-Right/White Nationalism with Nazism is as valid as linking Bernie Sanders with Communism. Winston Churchill wanted the Tories to campaign on the slogan “Keep Britain White” in the 1955 election. Now their are some neo-nazi elements in the movement but they have for a long-term tried to purge them from it. Interestingly the founder of one of the sites fond of the Nazi aesthetic, The Right Stuff, was recently doxxed and it transpires he’s actually a Jew.

        In regards politics we must clearly distinguish destination from means of travel. Having a radical destination does not imply a radical means. Radical gradualism is a perfectly coherent strategy. My main point here is regarding destination- democracy is terrible. It is a modern shibboleth which needs destroying. Once many people are on board with this we can then discuss the means to dismantle it. That said, if it happened, raising the voting age at least would likely improve things marginally.

      • Yes, Milo isn’t even alt-right. However, claiming that ‘he is not entirely negative on campus’ is not exactly a ringing endorsement. We could do a LOT better.

        Part of what Milo and his ilk are challenging is a climate of discourse that has been highly feminized in unhelpful ways and has become dysfunctional as a result. However, he is challenging it with a culture of feral masculinity. In this case, one would have good cause to argue that the cure may be worse than the disease.

        Democracy as a fetishized end in itself is an unhealthy thing. For instance, I was deeply disappointed that the UK’s EU membership was put to a popular vote: this is a perfect example of a question that cannot be well decided democratically. However, despite popular rhetoric, our countries are not committed to the pursuit of democracy as an end in itself in such a thoroughgoing manner. This isn’t to deny that we value it far too much as an end and don’t consider enough whether a more limited democratic system would yield more just, prudent, and good government.

  6. Bev Sesink says:

    Way too long! If you want people to read your well thought out articles, you need to make them a length that will incline them to be read. You could do a one page summary and then have a link to the fuller article.

    • cal says:

      Maybe if you can’t read an article this length, you’re not the intended audience.

    • I confess to grinning a little when I read this comment. This post is only around 2,000 words in length, which really is a very brief and cursory article for me. It was written in about an hour as some of the thoughts that first came to mind, and, while I stand by my thoughts above, it was a preliminary response, rather than a careful and comprehensive declaration of my more considered and settled judgment.

      I’ve written several posts over 10,000 words in length in the past. The interesting thing is that the posts in question are some of my most read posts too. The average person online may not read them and may find them off-putting, but there is a large number of people who really appreciate lengthy pieces (which this isn’t, at least not by my standards).

      • Scott L says:

        I don’t know why I’m this far down, wading through the comments section…usually not wise. But I wanted to say this while I’m down here: please keep writing long posts. The world needs more than 140 characters right now.

  7. David L. says:

    This is an excellent post. Thank you.

  8. Ian Miller says:

    In the comments above, you (Alastair) make very strong statements about no platforming (as in, not allowing worthless views space for proselytizing or “normalizing”) – but how do you differentiate the “settled” issues like flat earth or geocentrism (I would add anti-vaccination, but that highlights my next point) from things that are often called “settled” – global warming, abortion, LGBTQ rights/marriage/parenting, etc? I’m not in favor of allowing Spencer or those who agree with him a platform to recruit – his brand of racial vainglory is so deliberately confusing and emotionally appealing (along with people like Vox Day) that it’s nearly impossible to actually show the evil in his heart – but I’m deeply uncomfortable with saying that “settled subjects are off the table,” since that seems like it’s already being used against conservative ideas to destroy any chance at persuasion or research.

    On the other hand, your stance (as far as I understand it) on no platforming does counter the hysterical “if you don’t punch one Nazi, you’ll end up with Nazi zombie plague” I was originally going to ask about.

    • This is an important question. There really is no shortcut in such cases: institutions—of which we have a plurality with different stances—have to exercise prudence.

      Just as there comes a point when you as an individual make up your mind on a particular issue and refuse to entertain further debates about it until good reason is given to you to reopen the question, so institutions and societies should do the same thing. If every view must always stay on the table, we would get nowhere.

      The fact that certain conservative views have been unwisely removed from the table is not an argument for leaving everything on the table but for more wisdom in determining what has and has not been settled.

      Besides, as I hinted earlier in this comment, there are many ‘tables’ and conversations: the fact that a dominant conversation in our culture has removed a conservative issue from its table does not mean that all others should remove it from theirs too. Also, questions are often revisited. Being removed from the table may not be the final word on the matter. The Overton Window shifts, and not always in a single direction.

      • Andrew says:

        Another aspect in this discussion is the modern embarrassment about violence. This brings about a desire to blame the other party: “He started it, by bringing up an unacceptable idea”. No, you decided to use violence to police your borders, you just don’t want to admit that this is what you are doing because it conflicts with your “violence is always bad always” philosophy, especially violence in service of ideology.

        The big problem with this incoherent response (besides hypocrisy) is that it leaves the person or group holding it unprepared to deal with escalation. If you admit and embrace the use of violence to police borders (whether physical or ideological), it gives you the tools to sensibly discuss limits on violence and to have useful means of escalation if the other party pushes back. You know that you’re picking a fight, you know what means you’re willing to use, and you have a plan to win.

        Instead, moderns pick fights without understanding that they have done so, and caught completely by surprise when they get a response in kind.

      • Yes, that is a good point. Similar things might be said about the reluctance to admit exclusion or intolerance of certain positions.

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  10. The Boethian says:

    Tangential to your point, maybe, but somewhat related to all this is the practical aspect of punching someone like Spencer: to his followers and marginal almost-followers, it legitimizes him. The best way to make sure that at least some people take him seriously is to sucker-punch him like this.

    This is why I disagree with your no-platform position – let this guy stand in front of a crowd of smart people and do his thing. His appeal will diminish. But, let him play the Wandering Prophet, with the symbolic oppression that goes with it (“I got hit by a black guy – see, they’re all nuts!”), and you start to make him look legitimate.

    I think this concept applies to your other examples of political violence. Where political disagreements are met with riots and whatnot, those who simply weren’t violent always look better, even if their position is really the worse one. The BLM movement is a good example – the violent minority delegitimatized the whole movement and helped set up a political moment that made Donald Trump (of all people) look reasonable in comparison.

    So, even if a policy position was so outrageous that violence could be morally justified (certainly an “if,” not my actual position), a movement/person/group might still avoid violence because it harms their political ends. Which, closing the circle, seems to reinforce your point that sometimes the political platform is there to justify the violence as an end, and not the other way around.

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