A program of the Center for Inquiry
Freethought requires a free society—one in which a clear line separates speech and actions, one in which violence can never be a justified response to speech. Increasingly, it appears that this may no longer be the society we inhabit. Endorsements of violence ring from the office of the president to the halls of academia. Op-eds wonder whether it can ever be right to “punch a Nazi.” The possibility of bloodshed at protests and rallies is beginning to resemble an inevitability.
The public display of guns and their promise of violence also appears to be on the rise, exemplified by the reprehensible “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville, where gun enthusiasts wore, according to The Atlantic’s David Frum, “pseudo-military outfits, including body armor.” As their wearers seem well aware, the mere presence of facemasks and weaponry has a chilling effect on free speech. While not an open threat, it sends a message of intimidation.
Agitators on the far Left tell us that occasionally violence is permissible, even necessary, to prevent the rise of fascism. Many of their liberal counterparts disagree, arguing that it is neither permissible nor necessary. Liberals such as myself would go farther: normalized violence spells catastrophe.
You can “kill” a Nazi in two ways: by murder or by persuading the person to abandon that ideology. When we introduce violence into the fray, we must ask ourselves: How far are we willing to go, and what are we willing to lose to get there?
A punch may hurt a Nazi, but it won’t change his or her mind. Perhaps a black eye will cow some into staying quiet. But what if in others it has the opposite effect? What if this fuels the Nazi’s sense of victimhood, allowing him or her to better frame his or her actions as self-defense?
Let’s make one thing clear: We didn’t defeat the Nazis by a few well-placed punches. In fact, not only did the “anti-fascist” streetfighters of the 1930s fail to prevent Hitler’s rise, according to historian Laurie Marhoefer, they may have even aided the Nazi propaganda machine. “… Historians believe events like the rally in Wedding helped the Nazis build a dictatorship,” Marhoefer wrote in an article for TheConversation.com. “Yes, the brawl got them media attention. But what was far, far more important was how it fed an escalating spiral of street violence. That violence helped the fascists enormously. Violent confrontations with antifascists gave the Nazis a chance to paint themselves as the victims of a pugnacious, lawless left. They seized it.”
It would be wise to remember what did stop the Nazis: a global coalition prepared to enact an unimaginable magnitude of violence. We didn’t just punch them; we gunned them down. We rained fire and death onto their country. We looked the other way as our troops raped their women and as our allies killed untold numbers in labor camps. The cost for such a measure was not being maced by an annoyed officer and spending a few days in a jail. It was the lives of millions—soldier and civilian alike.
Not only are the fantasies of the modern-day fascism-fighters rooted in an infantile view of history, the willingness to revel in the glory of violence is in itself indicative of a disturbed mind. It is one thing to grimly resort to violent action (as we had to in World War II); it is quite another to gleefully declare violent intentions. Op-ed writers are not the only ones to notice a similarity between the violent Left and the violent Right. Scottish historian Norman Stone noted in his introduction to the book Diary of a Man in Despair, “It often happened that people who had been in Fascist jails went back into the same jails, now Communist, and guarded, often enough, by the same wardens who had turned coats. This ignored an important element in modern German history: that anti-Fascists had quite often been men of the Right.”
They may have been “men of the Right” before they were men of the Left, but their real affiliation was to a strong boot. When violence is introduced into society, the relevant dichotomy isn’t Right or Left, nor is it conservative or liberal. Violence is most useful to those who are the most willing to use it, and with its normalization, societal hierarchy rearranges to place the vicious towering above all.
The miracle of modern, liberal society has been to decouple power from violence. Our tolerance of violence is limited to that which exists because the people consent to its existence (the police and military). If we voted to dismantle the police force, it would be dismantled. Further, we recognize that speech is a fundamental liberty; the idea that any speech could ever justify a violent response is appropriately rejected. This separation of society into a realm of ideas and a realm of action frees us to be intellectual explorers. Our liberties are guaranteed; we do not need the love of the people to speak what we feel to be true, and in speaking, we have the power to win over that love.
This simple idea has been perhaps the most instrumental for liberal democracy, with far-reaching, transformative effects. With it, human rights campaigners had some assurance of safety while proposing ideas considered by many in their times to be subversive. Women and religious and sexual minorities, once powerless and vilified, were able to argue for the betterment of their status and live to tell the tale.
As Adam Gopnik noted in the New Yorker, “The whole end of liberal civilization is to substitute the criticism of ideas for assaults on people.”
What happens when we lose sight of this end?
Public dialogue deteriorates as disagreements are increasingly handled by mobs. Fear of retribution turns us all into self-censors (already the case when it comes to the “religion of peace”). Our public personas serve as masks under which we hide our true fears and concerns. In such a climate, sincerity (the first step toward constructive dialogue) disappears entirely.
We’ve been headed this way for a long time—a “violence creep” of sorts. When the 2015 bloodshed at Charlie Hebdo led the Catholic League’s Bill Donohue to argue that the victims “provoked” their own murders, Americans should have been united in outrage. Instead, when the PEN American Center chose to grant the cartoonists the Toni and James C. Goodale Freedom of Expression Courage Award, hundreds of writers protested the choice.
Worst of all, the insidious idea that some words are a form of violence is spreading (almost exclusively thanks to the efforts of the Left). This rhetorical subterfuge may help shore up arguments for censorship of hurtful speech and de-platforming of controversial speakers, but any benefits this equivalence provides will not be worth the cost. If words can be a form of violence, then violence can be a proportional and legitimate response to words. Beginning with “violent” speech, an escalation of assaults and destruction can begin, with each offense providing justification for another violent episode by the opposition.
As Gopnik continues, “the real social contract at the heart of liberal civilization is simple: in exchange for the freedom to be as insulting as you want about other people’s ideas, you have to give up the possibility of assaulting other people’s persons.”
Without this contract, how could we prevent violence against ourselves and groups for whom we wish to advocate? The freedom to offend doesn’t just protect cartoonists; it protects religious groups when they espouse values offensive to our sensibilities. As a women’s rights activist, I am disgusted by the Muslim idea of modesty and its manifestation in the hijab. In a free society, I may openly voice my disgust; I may hope to persuade the public (including Muslims) to share my view. In a less-free society, religious groups whose ideas offend sensibilities have much more to fear than the writings of an angry atheist.
When progressives work to dismantle the idea that everyone—regardless of how repellent their ideas—has the right to practice and preach, they are left in a difficult predicament when their favored groups hold less-than-savory ideas. It is in this context that Muslims (far too many of whom espouse values antithetical to Western liberalism) must rely on the ignorance of the public and the falsehoods of their supporters for safety. The harmful aspects of their beliefs and practices are ignored or, worse, christened as progressive. It will get more difficult to tell the truth in the years to come. If holding ugly ideas means surrendering your right to safety, we will have to choose between honesty about Muslim practice or watching a minority group suffer injustice.
So long as we continue to foster a culture where violence is a justified response to hateful ideas, we should get used to lying about ugly realities. And when we can’t acknowledge a problem, we cannot get near solving it. It may feel good to “bash the fash” now, but before we hurl ourselves into a batting frenzy, we should look to see where we are going.