Richard Spencer is a man of many titles, yet few of them could be described as positive. Spencer is a white nationalist, neo-nazi, and alt-right founder. Following the inauguration of Donald Trump as the 45th President of the United States, Spencer was punched in the face by a protester. The event has sparked an online controversy into the merits of using violence to combat political adversaries and the use of hate speech.
In order to fully grasp the situation with Mr. Spencer, one must first understand who he is. Though many would describe Spencer as a Nazi, The New York Times reports that “for the record, Richard Spencer says he is not a Nazi. In an interview […] he said he was a member of the alt-right, which he calls ‘identity politics for white Americans and for Europeans around the world.’ How is that different from Nazism? Nazism is ‘a historical term’ that ‘is not going to resonate today,’ he said.” Spencer is very familiar with the “alt right.” According to Vox, “Spencer is a white nationalist who in 2008 coined the name for the alt-right. Although he has been writing about these issues for years, he only recently gained national fame due in large part to Trump.”
Spencer’s association with the “white nationalist movement” has brought much disdain for him. Those who despise him equate white nationalism with nazism. Lindy West writes for The Guardian that at “Richard B Spencer’s closing speech at Saturday’s alt-right conference […] it became undeniable what we’re dealing with here […] it’s a bunch of straight-up neo-Nazis.” The controversy around this comes as Vox explains “Nazis [are] a group that’s so extreme and evil from the perspective of everyday Americans that it merits extreme action to fight. In this way, that an explicitly racist person’s safety is considered a non-concern sends a message about how unacceptable bigoted views like Spencer’s are in America.”
This event has sparked a national debate online about the usage of violence to make political points. On one side, there are those who feel that violence is never warranted into the discourse. These people believe strongly in change through conversation and education, rather than physical altercations. On the other side of the argument are those who claim that these people are despicable enough to spew such hurtful rhetoric must not be given a platform to speak. Vox explains that “fascists can’t be allowed to have a platform at any cost. Under this view, the punch isn’t about simply feeling good about beating up a “Nazi” (even if it does feel good to some) but about robbing people like Spencer of a voice.”
Regardless of one’s feelings about whether or not Richard Spencer fits the definition of a Nazi, this debate brings up an interesting ethical discussion into the merits of using violence in political discourse. In an attempt to clarify this complex question, The Point News interviewed two of the finest philosophical minds at St. Mary’s College of Maryland (SMCM). Associate Professor of Philosophy Dr. Michael Taber is the faculty advisor for the philosophy club and serves as the coach for the St. Mary’s College of Maryland nationally ranked Ethics Bowl team. His fellow Associate Professor of Philosophy, Dr. Sybol Anderson, is the author of Hegel’s Theory of Recognition: From Oppression to Ethical Liberal Modernity.
Both professors took a pacifist stance. When asked whether or not it was morally admissible to inflict physical harm upon a 1940’s Nazi if they were transported into modern day society, Dr. Taber replied that he could only expect there to be a “clear moral ‘yes’ to that question is if that person were about to inflict harm on someone else.” Taber continued to explain that in that case, it would not matter whether or not that person was a Nazi. They would be inflicting violence to protect the rights of another. When asked if his answer remained consistent in the case when the speech is hateful, potentially inciting physical violence. Dr. Anderson also sided towards non-violence: “I don’t think anyone is justified in laying their hands on another person, except in self-defense.” She stated she may allow an exception for direct, equal retaliation. Yet, Dr. Anderson stated: “I do not think that the speech acts of [Richard] Spencer merited him being punched.”
Neither professor dealt in absolutes. Both expressed that there is a complex relationship of politics and violence. Despite their similar conclusions, their approaches varied.
Taber explained the difference between consequence based (utilitarian) and principle based moral approaches. “If your objection to violence by the neo-nazi or by the paleo-nazi is something you object to on principle, you would also presumably object to treating others violently on principle […however,] if you are utilitarian, using violence, even to promote an admittedly good goal, is still using violence. Therefore giving the seal of approval of violence being a way to solve problems.”
Professor Taber does give some leeway in his argument to those who commit violence against property. He argues that property violence (vandalism) can be undone, therefore is not as serious. Harm to people requires an extreme circumstance and sets a dangerous precedent. “If the goal is peace, it is difficult to understand how the use of violence would ever get you there […] We could all imagine situations so dire in terms of social justice where none lethal, but nonetheless important physical violence is needed.”
In regards to violence, Professor Taber labeled himself in the “principle based” camp, meaning that he felt violence is always an issue ignoring some very specific cases. “Given that the human condition is one of ignorance, we have to approach [the use of violence] with a kind of epistemic humility.” Dr. Taber explained, because we are not omnipotent, there is no way for us to decide when violence is admissible or not, therefore, we must fall back on a principled approach in all situations.
“Violence being used as a political statement is dangerous because it opens the door to the other side using violence… it elevates our own sense of righteousness… it’s very easy for self-righteousness to cross over into being a hero complex.” Taber related this issue to the contemporary Comet Pizza example.
According to Professor Taber, in the case of emotional harm “is hard to imagine a situation where (physical violence) is morally justified.” He argues this point on the grounds that once violence is engaged, it is a free roaming power in the world. Violence can justify violence, its use can spread like a fire.
Professor Anderson took a more practical approach to the use of violence. She discussed the merits of physically stopping hate speech, and stopping the direct execution of a violent order. “Physical violence is warranted to impede the imminent physical violence, intercepting physical harm on another.” She elaborates that people who are making statements about others should be responded to with words, not violence. “Speech acts have to be met with speech acts.”
This concept of speech acts combatting speech acts was then abstracted into internationals relations. Dr. Anderson would not find it ethical to invoke violence as a response to the war-provoking speech of one nation, rather they should try and negotiate first before using violent acts. She continued to explain that in the John Locke school of thought what one owns is an extension of themselves, therefore violence can be implemented on a possession. However, Dr. Anderson describes her own way of thinking within in the Kantian camp. “Stuff is just stuff.” Yet, like an Aristotelian philosopher, She leaves room for moderation. Dr. Anderson explains that she does not think it is morally admissible to destroy other people’s property, but she understands how people could see the situation differently and possibly come to a different conclusion.”
The core principle of Dr. Anderson’s argument seems to be that reactions can only be direct and proportional reactions. If a person, or a nation, is causing harm on another, then a third party may only ethically respond in an equal matter.
If theoretically, there were a 1940’s era Nazi, who had time traveled to the United States, Dr. Anderson still would not condone violence but does speak highly detaining the individual. When prompted about punching nazis, Dr. Anderson replied “I can understand it, but I can’t say that it is justified…I don’t condone it.”
Dr. Taber concluded by remarking that “the Richard Spencer case shows that many of these differences of values…. (and) ethical approaches people have… are useful not only in the classroom, but they come to have very important implications in the social and political world and unfortunately may be increasingly important over the next few years… [this article] is a good one of showing how some of the discussions that happen even at a liberal arts college on the shore of the St. Mary’s River, are supremely relevant to the halls of power, and what goes on in D.C.”
Audio files of interviews
Professor Michael Taber
Professor Sybol Anderson