Thinking Strategically About Free Speech and Violence
We should be careful before embracing ideas that might lead to catastrophe…
Thinking Strategically About Free Speech and Violence
By Nathan J. Robinson / currentaffairs.org
Sep 10, 2017

When it comes to neo-Nazis, the most important thing is to stop them from gaining power. We know that, as brutal as they are when wandering the streets beating black men with metal poles, if Nazis ever again achieved control of a powerful state, the consequences would be inconceivably horrific for hundreds of millions, probably billions, of people around the world. The growth of white supremacist ideology in the 20th century led to slaughter on an unimaginable scale. It must never, ever happen again.

When there are white supremacists in our midst, then, and we are deciding how to deal with them, the strategy question is of critical importance: what is the best way to actually undermine the political prospects of racist movements? The actions taken by leftists must be discussed in terms of their predictable consequences. The task is to stop the Nazis. A vital question, for any given left-wing approach, should be: “Does this help us, or does it help the Nazis?”

This seems like it should be too obvious to be worth saying. If you’re trying to eliminate the existence of white supremacist ideology, you need to decide what to do based on whether it stops the spread of white supremacist ideology. But many conversations among left-leaning people end up focusing on somewhat abstract questions of moral justice without addressing the equally important question of pragmatic usefulness. For example, when the question of “whether to use violence” is addressed, many people dwell on the legitimacy of violence rather than the efficacy of violence, even though whether violence is justified depends in part on what it accomplishes. And when the question is “Should free speech rights extend to Nazis?” the conversation often centers around “whether Nazis deserve rights” rather than “whether curtailing Nazis’ rights is an effective means of combating them.” This lack of focus on long-term strategy and concrete consequences is dangerous. If one concludes, say, that “Nazis do not deserve rights” but has not carefully examined whether taking away Nazis’ rights will help or hurt the Nazi cause, it might turn out that the seemingly justified course of action and the “most likely to stop the Nazis” course of action do not coincide.

The issues of “free speech” and “violence” are incredibly fraught and complicated. There are no easy answers to questions like: “At what point does speech become too dangerous to permit?” or “When is violence justified?” I am skeptical of anyone who believes they have an absolute resolution. But I do know that we should reject any answer that fails to seriously address the question “Realistically, what would be the predictable consequences of accepting this belief?”

When it comes to the issue of free speech, a lot of people on the left now seem to subscribe to a position roughly as follows:

The traditional liberal idea that “everyone has the right to speak” is a fantasy. In theory, this may be true, but in practice different people do not have an equal ability to speak. Far right voices have far more of a mouthpiece (e.g. Fox News) than the voices of marginalized and oppressed people. “Free speech” therefore does not mean that we should allow more speech from the far right, but that we should try to elevate the speech of those who are not heard. Furthermore, being free to speak does not mean that you are entitled to a platform. Nor does it mean you are entitled to be free of social consequences for your speech. Besides, “hate speech” or speech that causes harm should not be protected.

This is related to, but distinct from, another emerging left-wing principle about justifications for the use of violence, increasingly relevant as “antifa” groups advocate using physical force against the right. The position here is generally something like:

When fascists are permitted to speak, they spread fascism. Fascism must not be allowed to spread. Thus fascists should not be permitted to speak. Fascists cannot be reasoned with. They must be physically resisted. White supremacist or genocidal  speech is in itself violence or incitement, so physically stopping fascists from speaking is only a form of self-defense. Neo-Nazis should be punched when they appear in public, because doing so makes them afraid and makes it clear that their ideology is not socially acceptable. The only language such people know is violence, and they must be defeated with a superior show of “counter-violence.”

Two post-Charlottesvile opinion pieces capture the emergent left consensus fairly well. K-Sue Park, in a New York Times article entitled “The ACLU Should Rethink Free Speech,” adopts the position that civil libertarians have adopted too narrow a conception of speech rights, in a way that has benefitted far right groups over disadvantaged and marginalized people. Natasha Lennard, in a Nation article entitled “Not Rights but Justice: It’s Time to Make Nazis Afraid Again,” defends Antifa tactics, arguing that regardless of what protections far-right speech receives or does not receive from the state, it is crucial to “confront [neo-Nazis] in the streets” and make sure that “all far-right events will be bombarded and besieged.”

I actually find all of these arguments incredibly persuasive. In fact, their conclusions seem almost inescapable. They even feel logically compelled: (1) Nazis advocate genocide (2) Genocide is horrifically violent and must be prevented (3) Nazism is inherently violent (4) Defensive violence is therefore justified as a means of preventing the spread of fascism. Alternately, (4) can be: government restrictions on fascist speech are therefore justified, people found to have far right sympathies should be fired from their jobs, or universities should refuse to permit fascists to speak, etc. Whatever counter-measure is being defended, the violence of fascism seems to easily justify the proposed response.

But it’s strange that a chain of reasoning should seem so compelling and conclusive when it doesn’t actually address that all-important question: will whatever is being advocated in (4) actually be an effective long-term tool for undermining white supremacists? We have managed to produce a justification for the use of Tactic X to stop the Nazis that doesn’t actually evaluate whether Tactic X stands any chance of working. Efficacy has to be part of any analysis of legitimacy, however. For example: if we are debating whether our country is justified in entering a war, whether we are justified depends in part on what we think will happen if we enter the war. It’s easy to say something like: Country A encroached on our territory and killed our people, therefore we are justified in retaliating. But what if we know that our retaliation will cause a cycle of violence that will kill millions more people, and that there is a diplomatic solution available that would result in no more loss of life? Retaliation, in that case, wouldn’t be justified. And yet so many of people’s conversations about justifications occur this way, dwelling on whether we have legitimate grounds for this or that action rather than whether the action will actually have a positive effect.

The left critiques of free speech rights and nonviolent tactics frequently avoid engaging with the question of consequences. Look at the structure of these arguments: free speech doesn’t entitle you to a platform. Free speech doesn’t mean that people can’t disrupt you. White supremacist speech is violence, therefore violence against it is self-defense. All of these justifications sound good, yet none of them actually respond to the most serious objection, namely that adopting these positions would not actually help the left.

Consider K-Sue Park’s free speech article in the New York Times. Park believes that the ACLU’s approach to speech is too limited, because by defending the rights of white supremacists, the ACLU is failing to address the various ways in which the ability to speak is unequally distributed:

The hope is that by successfully defending hate groups, its legal victories will fortify free-speech rights across the board: A rising tide lifts all boats, as it goes. While admirable in theory, this approach implies that the country is on a level playing field, that at some point it overcame its history of racial discrimination to achieve a real democracy, the cornerstone of which is freedom of expression….For marginalized communities, the power of expression is impoverished for reasons that have little to do with the First Amendment.

It should first be noted that one part of this is simply wrong. The ACLU’s theory, that ensuring speech protection for people on the other side ultimately helps out side (the “rising tide” idea) in no way “implies that the country is on a level playing field.” One can acknowledge that in practice, the ability to speak is unequally distributed while still believing that everyone benefits from the aggressive defense of First Amendment freedoms. Many people who support the ACLU’s efforts to restrict state power to regulate speech are also concerned with the ways in which other factors limit certain people’s ability to be heard, e.g. the role of money in determining whose voice is the loudest.

More importantly, though, Park’s argument falls into this category of “persuasive-sounding notions that don’t actually work through what the implications of buying into them would be.” Park says that the ACLU ought to “rethink” its position and become more “holistic.” But what are we actually talking about? The ACLU’s job, at the moment, is to resist attempts by the government to limit people’s freedoms. It does this by taking cases whenever the government is exercising unjustified or unconstitutional power over someone. The reason that the ACLU doesn’t care about the identity of the “someone” in question is that, as Park says, it believes restricting government power quite obviously helps everyone. Now, we can say that the ACLU should remove white supremacists from the category of people it helps. But we haven’t addressed the question that raises: what if the organization shifts its focus away from an absolute defense of the First Amendment, and as a result a set of bad legal precedents end up curtailing everyone’s First Amendment rights? Park’s critique doesn’t actually address this. Instead of dealing with the argument that is actually made (a failure to defend the First Amendment in all cases of infringement will cede powers to the government that will be used against the oppressed), it simply dwells on the fact that the world is unjust and uses vague terms like “holistic” and “contextual” without saying clearly what this would actually mean for the future of speech jurisprudence and what potential effects this may have on those victimized by government overreach.

The same question needs to be answered when it comes to shutting down the events of right-wing speakers on college campuses. Leave aside the issue of whether there is a principled reason for allowing student groups to invite whomever they please to speak. Even if we assume that protesters are correct in seeing little meaningful difference between Milo YiannopoulosCharles Murray, and Adolf Hitler, the question of what to do is still a strategic one. That necessarily involves considering how left actions will be portrayed in the media and received by the public. When protesters leave a professor in a neck brace after a Charles Murray talk, this does not look good for the left. When a teenager outside a Yiannopoulos event is beaten and covered in paint for wearing an American flag hat, this does not look good for the left. Of course, one can say that the media coverage will be unfair, that the press will pay far more attention to the violence committed by left protesters at a Milo event than the worse violence committed by right-wing protesters. But if you are are worried about consequences, it doesn’t matter who is to blame, it matters what the effects of your actions are.

One oversight seems to be that acts are evaluated by their short-term success without regard to their role in a long-term strategy. For example, if we get our university to commit to banning hate speech, and they cancel a talk by a white supremacist, we may think we have scored a tremendous victory. But then, next month, our new rule may be invoked by pro-Israel groups to make the case that the Students For Justice In Palestine should be banned. Or we might punch a Nazi, and feel pleased and victorious as we watch him bleed and cry, not realizing that we have just made him 100 times more determined and vengeful, and have pushed his previously unsympathetic friends another inch closer to the far right position. The fist administered to Richard Spencer’s face was justified on the grounds that humiliating white supremacists would reveal them to be weak and erode their support. In the short term, that seems to have been the case; Spencer said he didn’t want to go outside anymore. In the long term, predictably, he came back, this time with hundreds of supporters carrying torches, and (by one measure) the alt-right is continuing to grow. This is not to say that punching Richard Spencer caused him to organize the torch march, but that it’s easy to think short-term successes are victories when they actually have either no effect or a counter-productive effect in the long run. And as Fredrik deBoer has put it, there’s a natural instinct to want to engage in the fights we can win easily rather than the fights we actually have to win:

Incidents like the black bloc protests at Berkeley or the punching of Richard Spencer grant people license to overestimate the current potential of violent resistance. Hey, Spencer got punched; never mind that the Trump administration reinstituted the global gag rule on abortion the next day. Hey, Milo’s talk got canceled; never mind that the relentless effort to deport thousands, a bipartisan effort for which the Obama administration deserves considerable blame, went on without a hitch.

It’s also possible, in the celebration of anything that appears to harm white supremacists, to end up jettisoning principles that are ultimately important for protecting the left. For example, when it comes to speech on campus, one reason to embrace the absolute principle “everybody should be allowed to speak” rather than “everybody should be allowed to speak except X,” even if “X” is just limited to “bigots,” is that the addition of any qualifier whatsoever opens up room for greater and greater restrictions. The “slippery slope” argument is often called a “fallacy,” but it’s actually just an inquiry into what the limiting principle is that will prevent our category from expanding to cover a greater and greater number of cases. It’s easy to declare that transphobic speech should be banned from campus. It sounds good, even unobjectionable. But that’s the principle that led to pressure at Cardiff University to cancel a talk by anarchist feminist Germaine Greer, whose Second Wave feminist framework has led her to say some appallingly insensitive things about transgender people. The abandonment of the principle that repulsive views should still be heard may well come back to haunt anyone whose views could be perceived as repulsive by anyone else.

Likewise, post-Charlottesville, there has been a gleeful rush to “doxx” white supremacists and get them fired from their jobs. This is seen as an especially effective tactic, because it inhibits the ability of white supremacists to live ordinary lives, and if it becomes hard to be a white supremacist and live an ordinary life, the theory is that fewer people will want to become white supremacists. But there’s a reasonable case to be made that one should be very careful about embracing the tactic of getting people fired, even for holding white supremacist beliefs. That’s not because one deserves to be able to have genocidal views and also be warmly embraced by society, but because the left has always (correctly) embraced the principle that employers should have limited ability to deprive people of work for reasons that have nothing to do with their job performance. Igniting a “doxxing war” and legitimizing/encouraging the tactic of pressuring employers to fire people for non-work-related reasons not only has risks such as mistaken identity, but contradicts a fundamental principle of the left approach to labor rights: what you do in your time off the job should be no business of your employer. Principles like these will always have exceptions (speech isn’t unlimited, employment protections aren’t unlimited) but it’s important to at least understand why there might be some value in preserving them or keeping the exceptions to them well-defined and strictly limited.

The lack of engagement with “possible horrible/counterproductive consequences” is equally present in left justifications for violence, especially surrounding the actions of Antifa groups. Consider Natasha Lennard’s article on “making Nazis afraid.” Lennard recognizes that having the government deprive Nazis of free speech rights might be ineffective, since countries that have banned neo-Nazis still, shockingly enough, have thriving neo-Nazi movements. (She does not, however, acknowledge the other possible harms that might come from empowering the state to adjudicate which forms of speech are acceptable, and even says that countries with greater state power to restrict hate speech are no less free than the United States, an assertion I do not agree with, because I believe that entrusting the state with greater power to decide what is acceptable inherently makes people less free.) But she says that even if we do not increase state power, Antifa disruptions of events by white supremacists are desirable and justified. She also voices no qualms whatsoever about the use of violence:

We are, to take some liberties with the words of Inglourious Basterds’ inimitable Lt. Aldo Raine, in the fightin’-Nazis business. Antifa is a promise to neo-Nazis and their bedfellows that we will confront them in the streets; we will expose them online and inform their place of employ. We are not asking venues to deny space to far-right events; we are vowing that all far-right events will be bombarded and besieged.

Already, this framing should raise concerns. I am not confident that someone who invokes the bloodthirsty and cartoonish language of a Quentin Tarantino character is interested in a sober-minded evaluation of the practical means by which racism can be defeated. Violence against Nazis, as we can see from this passage, carries a certain thrill and romance, and there is a danger that people will rationalize it because it gives the opportunity to engage in a noble moral struggle rather than because they have actually examined the various alternatives and concluded it is optimally helpful.

Lennard does acknowledge that “one of the major critiques of antifa” is that “physical confrontation can backfire by alienating moderates and centrists and provoking only further violence from the right.” But her response to this incredibly serious critique is cursory and cagey. She says that:

The history of anti-fascism in 20th-century Europe is largely one of fighting squads, like the international militant brigades fighting Franco in Spain, the Red Front-Fighters’ League in Germany who were fighting Nazis since the party’s formation in the 1920s, the print workers who fought ultra-nationalists in Austria, and the 43 Group in England fighting Oswald Mosley’s British Union of Fascists. In every iteration these mobilizations entailed physical combat. The failure of early-20th-century fighters to keep fascist regimes at bay speaks more to the paucity of numbers than the problem of their tactics. That is a lesson we can learn: Gather in greater and greater numbers…. White supremacy has never receded, because it was asked politely. The onus is on centrists and liberals to examine their own values if they would rather decry the counter-violence of those willing to put their bodies on the line against neo-Nazis than embrace a diversity of tactics in the face of the intractable problem of racism in America.

None of this answers the question: what is the likely effect of acts of violence (or, in Lennard’s euphemistic phrase, “counter-violence”) on the political fortunes of the American far right? “Embrace a diversity of tactics” sounds great. “Putting bodies on the line” sounds great. “Gather in greater numbers” sounds great. But we need to know whether the critics who say that violence will beget violence are correct. How similar to particular historical situations is the United States in 2017? Lennard’s theory appears to be that the only way to prevent the rise of fascism is through violently attacking those who support it, and that if any violent anti-fascist group failed, it was simply because they did not have enough people committing enough violence. The solution is always, then, more violence. If you see white supremacist groups growing, you need greater numbers of people “besieging” them.

But what if this is wrong? What if, in fact, violent besiegings do contribute to an escalating cycle of violence? What if, here and now, they do serve as a formidable recruiting tool? I hope we’re certain that this is not the case, because if we’re wrong the consequences could be disastrous. I even see people on the left citing Hitler himself, who said that “only one thing could have stopped our movement—if our adversaries had understood its principle and from the first day smashed with the utmost brutality the nucleus of our new movement.” But are we certain that we should be trusting Adolf Hitler as an authority on what to do about Nazis? Hitler believed in a world in which only “superior brutality” could ensure political success. And, certainly, it worked for him—it just also left tens of millions of people dead. Personally I believe we should make sure we have exhausted every other possible option before resorting to “utmost brutality” and I would like to know why people think we have exhausted the other options.

I’m not confident that Lennard is taking the difficult questions seriously. For instance, she says that “white supremacy has never receded because it was asked politely.” But this is a facile and unfair description of those who question the utility of violence. Nobody is saying you should ask white supremacy politely to go away. The battle is not for the hearts and minds of white supremacists, but for the hearts and minds of the general public. Many on the left who take Lennard’s position believe that those who call for nonviolence are suggesting you can “debate white supremacism out of existence.” That’s not the case, though. What they say is that you win more public supporters by making your case through a clear and well-organized communication of your ideas than through showing up to right-wing events and hitting people with clubs. “Nazis don’t listen to reason,” people scoff. No, but people who are not Nazis might listen to reason, and the important thing is to make sure that the Nazis are marginal by keeping the vast majority of people on your side rather than driving anyone else toward theirs. “Fascism cannot be defeated by speech.” But how the hell do they know this? Nazi Germany couldn’t be defeated by speech. But a nascent and tiny group of fringe racists? I have more confidence than many on the left in the power of left-wing ideas to defeat pseudoscience and bigotry. And I’m always amazed that people give up on the value of communicating anti-racist ideas using reason and rhetoric even before they have actually tried it. (Also, if we’re being honest, some white supremacists can actually be convinced to drop their ideology. Former KKK “prodigy” R. Derek Black was slowly drawn away from his father’s racist belief system thanks to patient and caring liberal classmates, and recently wrote an essay on how shameful America’s racial history is.)

Here is what I am worried about: I believe that unless the question of violence is treated carefully and responsibly, it could lead to something very bad indeed for the left. For example, say more people on the left come around to Lennard’s reasoning, and believe that fascists should not be permitted to speak publicly. And say they also blur the distinction between neo-Nazis and everyday Trump supporters, who are all lumped under the catch-all category “fascists.” And since fascism is horrific, and the Antifa principle is that it must be stopped “by any means necessary,” there is very little check on the permissible uses of violence. My fear is that, sooner or later, some blonde teenage girl wearing a MAGA hat, or some disabled veteran in a Trump shirt, is going to end up getting put in a coma. And when that happens, the left will face an almighty hellstorm of right-wing rage. I want to know why people are so confident that their endorsement of violent methods wouldn’t lead to this. But all I hear are the same lines, over and over: You have to “nip Nazis in the bud,” “fascism doesn’t go away when it’s asked politely,” etc.

The usual talking points were repeated by Antifa supporter Mark Bray during a recent interview on MSNBC:

How do far-right movements grow? I say they grow by becoming normalized. By not being confronted. By being able to present themselves as family friendly and respectable. … By showing up and confronting it it prevents their ability to be presented as mainstream. [Furthermore,] you need to prevent them from being able to organize. People involved in politics know that for movements to expand, they need to be able to organize and grow, and if you stop that, it prevents it. Historically, we can see that Nazism and fascism was not stopped by polite dialogue and reasoned debate, it had to be stopped by force. And unfortunately, self-defense is necessitated in the context we’re seeing today.

Think about all the unanswered questions here. A sample: “If they grow when they are able to present themselves as family-friendly and respectable, isn’t there a PR risk with making our side look like the aggressors?” “What kind of ‘confrontation’ are we specifically talking about? The thousands of people who marched peacefully in Boston ‘confronted’ the right, but that seems different from showing up with clubs and beating them. Aren’t there essential distinctions between the efficacy of different kinds of confrontation?” “You say that if you ‘stop’ them from organizing, they stop growing. But if you stop them publicly and drive them back under a rock, won’t they just organize in the shadows, like the alt-right have already been doing? Do you really think that in the absence of actually murdering people with white supremacist beliefs, or inflicting a wave of truly extreme violence, you can stop them from meeting and spreading their message?” “When you say ‘it had to be stopped by force,’ this involved killing people; do you believe that in the contemporary United States, killing people for holding white supremacist beliefs is acceptable?” “What do you mean by ‘self-defense’? Does that mean that if protesters are physically attacked by neo-Nazis they can fight back, or that physical attacks on neo-Nazis are themselves an act of self-defense?” Everything Bray says sounds compelling. And yet it doesn’t tell us any of the things we really need to know. In fact, MSNBC’s Chuck Todd followed up with Bray to try to get a more specific answer on one of the crucial questions, namely how Bray could be sure that violence wouldn’t simply lead to more violence. Bray totally evaded the question:

“Are you at all concerned that violence begets violence?”

“Self-defense is important. I’m more concerned—I mean, look at Cornel West. He said that the antifascists defended them from being run over and attacked. So I think the notion that people are seeing self-defense as being counterproductive is not entirely true. Self-defense is important, and fascism shows it is violence incarnate, it will come after us and we need to defend ourselves.”

Look at how dishonest this is. Bray is asked something very specific. How do we know that his endorsement of (unspecified) violent tactics will not simply fuel more violence from the right? He replies that “self-defense is important” and says that antifascists defended Cornel West from being run over. He then uses this fact to conclude that it is “not entirely true” that “self-defense” is counterproductive. Then he repeats that fascism is violence and people need to defend themselves. One does not need to reject the concept of self-defense in order to see that Bray is not taking the violence question seriously. In fact, he is trying to mislead the audience by using a term, “self-defense,” that could cover many possibilities yet sounds impossible to argue with. This is literally the logic:

“Won’t the embrace of violent tactics lead to more violence?”

“Are you saying you want Cornel West to be run over? Are you saying people shouldn’t get to defend themselves?”

But what kind of self-defense are we talking about? What are the acts that are being defended, and in what circumstances? Never trust anyone who speaks in abstractions and refuses to say exactly what it is they are justifying and refuses to answer the most important questions.

I don’t see anything wrong with people advancing the argument that violence is justified as a tool against white supremacy. What does seem wrong, however, is the way the subject is frequently discussed on the left: without nuance or serious consideration of counterarguments. Recently, Noam Chomsky critiqued Antifa methods, suggesting that they actually ended up aiding the right. Instantly, leftists called him “ill-informed” and dismissed his criticisms; I even saw one commentator on social media compare Chomsky to a member of the Judenrat. Instead of listening to and dealing with Chomsky’s (very serious and important) criticism, they instantly branded as a traitor a man who has spent 50 years tirelessly working to support left causes.

I’ve even seen people react with hostility to those mentioning Martin Luther King’s commitment to radical nonviolence and his belief that nonviolence was the most effective political tactic for achieving civil rights gains. Now, I actually understand why some people bristle at attempts to use King to chastise the left: even though MLK was an uncompromising anti-capitalist whose Birmingham Jail letter was actually a stinging critique of moderates who believed in slow, incremental change, these days he is often selectively quoted in order to tell radicals they are being too radical. Nothing is more infuriating than seeing a man who believed in deep and immediate change in the racial and economic hierarchy being invoked to justify the things he opposed.

Yet one cannot allow people’s distortions and misuses of King to prevent a serious engagement with his philosophy. King said that he was “no doctrinaire pacifist” and held a “realistic pacifism,” meaning that while war could sometimes be necessary, it was always a necessary evil, and needed eliminating from the earth. He believed, though, that nonviolence as a tool for social change was not just morally superior to violence, but that it was “one of the most potent weapons available to oppressed people in their struggle.” If one of the greatest thinkers and most effective political tacticians in the history of social movements thinks abandoning nonviolence means giving up one of your most potent weapons, you should probably have very good reasons for dismissing his position.

Many of the arguments I’ve seen against nonviolence, however, have not been especially persuasive. Sometimes they’re just sophistry: this Washington Post op-edsuggests that “violence was critical to the success of the 1960s civil rights movement, as it has been to every step of racial progress in U.S. history.” The author’s justification for this statement is that Martin Luther King intentionally provoked violence from police and white supremacists in order to demonstrate the violence inherent in the U.S. racial hierarchy. But using this to say that “violence was critical” to the civil rights movement is odd, because it implies that the civil rights movement itself was violent, when it wasn’t. One can blur distinctions, but the civil rights movement simply did not deploy aggressive violence against its opponents.

The usual response here is to invoke Malcolm X: Martin Luther King’s nonviolence, it is said, only worked because whites preferred to deal with the nonviolent Martin rather than the non-nonviolent Malcolm. And that’s true: King succeeded in part because of a tacit “good cop/bad cop” dynamic between himself and more radical black activists. Endorsing King’s nonviolence without understanding the full range of tactics used in the pursuit of black liberation is a selective reading of history. But flattening Malcolm X into little more than a “scary, violence-advocating counterpart” to MLK is no less misleading. Something that is very rarely noted about Malcolm X is that while he is known for his defense of violence, he is not known for actually having used violence. In fact, in his practice Malcolm X was generally no more violent than King. He was famously pictured holding an M1 carbine rifle, and openly criticized demands that black people refrain from fighting back even if attacked. But Malcolm did not stage armed uprisings; he spoke of self-defense against aggression and a willingness to use whatever means would actually secure a person’s rights and dignity. “I don’t mean go out and get violent,” he said, but rather exercising nonviolence on the condition that others remained nonviolent. “It doesn’t mean I advocate violence, but at the same time, I am not against using violence in self-defense.” The rifle-photograph actually illustrates Malcolm’s attitude well: in it, he stands looking out the window, gun at the ready. He is not prowling around seeking racists to kill, he is standing firm and protecting his rights and dignity.

If someone is going to advocate “self-defensive violence” or “violence if necessary to achieve one’s rights” it’s very important to make clear what would and would not constitute self-defense, and what “necessity” is. Malcolm X was an incredibly disciplined and thoughtful individual, and he made careful distinctions between violence as a specific narrow tool for achieving one’s liberty against another violent aggressor, and wanton, useless violence. One can even agree with everything Malcolm X says about the legitimacy of violence in self-defense and still believe that King’s strategy of nonviolence is the optimum way to achieve certain social objectives. Personally, this is where I come down: I do not feel comfortable telling someone who is physically attacked that they should not defend themselves, but I also think King is right that radical nonviolence (never forget the “radical” part) is usually the best way of winning the public to one’s cause, unless you are already in a situation where Hitler is about to take power and there is little left to do but fight.

If we’re going to endorse “self-defense,” though, it’s important to be clear on what that is. In Charlottesville, the New York Times’ Sheryl Gay Stolberg reported seeing “club-wielding ‘antifa’ beating white nationalists being led out of the park.” Is attacking people who are retreating a form of self-defense? The justification here is usually that fascist ideology is itself violence, meaning that it’s not necessary for a person who holds such an ideology to actually be the one to initiate physical force in order for violence to be “defensive.” But if we accept that, then simply walking up to a Trump supporter and stabbing them would seem to also be an act of self-defense, at which point… “self-defense” seems to mean something quite different from people’s ordinary understanding of it. Mark Bray (a white Ivy League professor!) says it is a “privileged” position to criticize “self-defense.” Fine. But have we thereby justified every single kind of aggressive act toward anyone on the right, or are there some we haven’t justified? The slippage, where once you’ve justified “any means necessary” in combating fascism, you have license to do anything to anyone that you’ve labeled a fascist, seems in part responsible for some of the more aggressive (and, in my mind, strategically unhelpful) acts by Antifa members.

Frankly, I think Antifa’s confidence that any criticism of it is simply “privilege” and “defending Nazis” creates an incredible and embarrassing amount of arrogance. First, it gives them license to do whatever they please at protests, regardless of whether 90% of their fellow leftists would prefer the action remain peaceful (which makes them anti-democratic; they never seem to actually ask the communities they claim to serve what they think ought to be done, and the peaceful majority can end up being held responsible for the acts of a tiny violent minority). But it also leads them to stray from the actual message of the left, toward empty aggression. From yesterday: here we havea Boston antifa member shouting “GET THE FUCK OUT OF MY CITY!” at a man holding an American flag and a P.O.W. flag (when the man is interviewed, he doesn’t seem to be entirely all there, nor does he appear to be especially threatening). Here, a crowd gathers around a man wearing a MAGA hat, with a masked Antifa member closing in on him and shouting “Fuck you! Fuck you! Fuck you!” This is, first of all, inarticulate and stupid. (“Fuck you!” is a statement empty of any actual leftist content, it’s just a grunt.) But I also don’t see any principled, strategic, and disciplined anti-fascist action here. I just see aggressive, macho white guys being aggressive, macho white guys. And it seems to me as if they’re enjoying themselves just a little too much. I certainly don’t see either any “moral high ground” being claimed or any actual useful combating of Nazi ideology. (I do, however, see grist for new columns in Breitbart and the National Review.)

And yet: I also can’t outright condemn Antifa. That’s because I am concerned with consequences, and there were people in Charlottesville who gave persuasive accounts of the benefits that came from Antifa members stepping in to defend people from white supremacists when the police would not. Cornel West said that when peaceful clergy members were advanced on by members of the fascist groups, Antifa “saved our lives, actually. We would have been completely crushed, and I’ll never forget that.” A similar account came from clergy member David Freeman. Freeman says that before Charlottesville, he had “no patience with anyone advocating violence to advance social justice,” for tactical reasons. However, he confirms West’s story that were it not for the intervention of Antifa, a lot of nonviolent clergy members would have been brutally attacked:

I am still stalwart in my devotion to nonviolence but now, after Charlottesville, the story is more complex and nuanced. A group of Nazis advanced towards us. A band of AntiFa stepped up to defend the clergy, we asked them to step back and allow us to make our nonviolent stand. They respected our request and reluctantly backed off. … After perhaps a hundred Nazis broke through our line we regrouped but an even larger Nazi force started towards us. The AntiFa rushed in and broke the Nazi charge. We did not ask for them. We were prepared to be beaten. However, we all respected that they defended us in love despite our disagreement on tactics. They certainly saved 19 clergy and me from a brutal beating and likely even death.

Thus anyone who wishes Antifa had not been present in Charlottesville must reckon with the voices of the clergy who were thankful to have them there. Neo-Nazis are—unsurprisingly—inherently violent and often the aggressors, and if nobody is prepared to defend against them, innocent people will be hurt. Furthermore, it’s wrong to draw false equivalencies between the far right and left (as Trump outrageously did). Racist violence by skinheads is not the same as someone throwing a water bottle at a Republican, the cause of racism is not the same as the cause of anti-racism, and since only one side in Charlottesville committed a murderous act of domestic terrorism, nobody should be talking about “violence” as some single nebulous category without drawing clear distinctions of scale, origin, and purpose. Anti-fascist violence consists of administering a righteous smack or two to guys who say the n-word and deny the Holocaust, while fascist violence consists of using a sports car to kill a kind-hearted Bernie Sanders voter. Even if one believes all violence is wrong, some acts of violence are far more reprehensible than others.

I think this leads us straight back to the compromise position, though: evaluate everything in terms of its strategic usefulness, and don’t be glib or ambiguous (like Bray and Lennard) in answering incredibly difficult questions. There is no good argument for a lot of what Antifa does. Going to a white supremacist rally and intentionally picking a fight, or trying to pepper spray Trump supporters in order to prevent them from going to a talk, seems to be, as Chomsky says, a “gift to the right.” I am embarrassed to share a political orientation with someone whose idea of a protest for justice is to run after a man in a Trump hat shouting “Fuck you!” The need for self-defense is real, however, and I trust what the Charlottesville clergy members are saying. The solution seems to be that white supremacist actions should be met with massive nonviolent counter-protests, that stand ready to defend themselves if they are attacked, but that do not actually initiate force against the far right. Nonviolence and self-defense are not particularly difficult to reconcile; one can mix Martin’s commitment to countering hate with love and Malcolm’s belief that people must be permitted to protect themselves if they are aggressed against.

I understand why people on the left have so easily become inclined to set aside the principles of free speech and nonviolence. Both of these concepts are used hypocritically these days in order to defend the status quo. Conservatives who chastise the left over “free speech” are entirely cynical and unprincipled. When events by racists like Charles Murray are threatened, it is a sign that college campuses have become “illiberal.” But when Black Lives Matter supporter Keeanga Yamahtta-Taylor is forced to cancel a campus speaking tour over right-wing death threats, free speech conservatives go oddly silent. My favorite example of how “free speech” has become an entirely meaningless term on the right is this recent Wall Street Journal op-ed. The writer says that there are new “glimmers of hope” for free speech on college campuses. As an example, she cites the fact that Pomona College fired the incoming director of its LGBTQ resource center because he had written tweets that said he was suspicious of white people. To the WSJ writer, the fact that someone lost their job for holding a particular opinion was evidence that free speech was being protected and defended. For conservatives, the words “free speech” can mean little more than “anything that undermines the social justice left,” even if the thing that undermines the left is… punishing people for their speech.

But I don’t think it’s obvious that the solution to right-wing hypocrisy is the abandonment of potentially vital civil libertarian and nonviolent principles. That’s because these ideas are more useful than they initially appear, and it is easy to miss their power. “The best way to stop Nazis is to let them speak” seems flatly wrong at first. Yet the counterintuitive view might be the correct one; it might be more effective to spend your time recruiting people to your side than trying to put a stop to the recruiting efforts of the other side. Beware obvious answers, especially when the stakes are high. Likewise “the most effective weapon against hate is love” seems trite, sappy, and naive. But Gandhi and King weren’t idiots. They thought deeply about all of the points that people raised against them, and still concluded that nonviolence was the optimal path. They believed that things that seem satisfying and effective in the short-run might actually not be the best course for achieving justice. And they knew it would be hard for people to suppress their instincts and impulses on this, but they also knew that nothing worth doing is ever easy. I am not sure if they were right, but I’m going to be very careful before concluding that they were wrong.

The argument that when Nazis are allowed to organize, their views become normalized and endanger people, seems to be more and more widely accepted on the left. I nearly buy it myself. But then I also hesitate, because I realize that there is another, unspoken flip-side: what happens when Nazis are not allowed to organize? Do they go away? Or do they fester in the dark? When Charles Murray speaks on campus, he is normalized. But what happens when Charles Murray isn’t allowed to speak on campus? Does he cease to exist and be heard? Or does he develop martyr status and sell more books?

I can’t resolve the difficult issues around speech, violence, “no platforming,” and fascism. But what I can do is beg people to think about these things more critically and cautiously, to stop believing that observations like “Fascism is violence” can automatically settle strategic questions, and to recognize that everything depends on us getting this right, because if we happen to be wrong, the consequences will be catastrophic.

Photograph by Nic Walker 

Nathan J. Robinson is the editor of Current Affairs.

If you liked this article, you'll love Current Affairs print edition. Subscribe today to Current Affairs magazine.

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Thinking Strategically About Free Speech and Violence