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.
- 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.
- People who need a way to process the wounds of their past can turn to social justice ideology as the scar tissue.
- 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.
- 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.
- People who feel guilt can turn to social justice ideology as a means of self-flagellation.
- 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.
- People who feel fearful and vulnerable can turn to social justice ideology for protection and security.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- Social conformists and the socially vulnerable can turn to social justice ideology in order to fit in and not be ostracized.
- 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.
- 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.