Friday, February 10, 2017

Political Violence

"One way a man untrivializes himself is to punch another man in the mouth." (Don DeLillo)

I didn't write about the punching of Richard Spencer when it happened. Perhaps I should have. Apparently, there's been some discussion about whether or not it was "okay" to punch him. For me, this is a no brainer. It was not okay to punch him. That's not because it's never okay to punch anyone. Sometimes it's okay to punch somebody. But it's never okay to run up to someone and punch him because you think he is Richard Spencer and you think Richard Spencer is a Nazi. It's not okay to punch a Nazi anytime you want. Like anyone else, even a Nazi has to give you some reason to punch him. If you don't wait for him to give a specific reason to punch him, you are doing what Nazis do. You're being a bully.

Think about it. You could say that the punch was "motivated", but the motivation was way too general to be of use here. It didn't arise and it won't pass. If it is a legitimate reason to punch Spencer, then Spencer should never again feel safe. If someone is just standing there being himself, you have no particular reason to punch him at this moment. You could have punched him an hour ago and you could wait an hour and the moment will be just as good. Indeed, if you're going to say it's okay to punch him now, what you're saying is that someone could be punching him again and again at this very moment. (On YouTube, of course, Richard Spencer is getting punched again and again as we speak for entertainment.) This image of continuous, ongoing violence brings to light the brutality of the single, arbitrary punch.

That's the next thing to think about. If you think the actual punch was "okay", i.e., fair, ask yourself whether a combination of punches would also have been okay. Ask yourself whether it would have been okay for one person to run up and hold Spencer and another to punch him in the face five times in quick succession. Or ask yourself whether the same blindside hit, but this time with a baseball bat, would have been okay. The end of this slippery slope is obvious. Ask yourself whether it would have been okay to shoot Richard Spencer.

This is what makes it a no brainer for me. The line has to be drawn squarely on this side of violence. Don't hit someone if there's nothing about the situation that calls for that exact kind of violence. There are times when shooting someone is justified. And times when punching someone is justified. But if the situation doesn't allow you to distinguish between the appropriate violent response, if it doesn't allow you to choose your weapon, then violence is simply not okay. The same, like I say, goes for the fact that the moment that Spencer was punched could not be distinguished from any other occasion. To punch him at the time was no more justifiable than it would be to punch him at any other time.

There can be no kind of person who can legitimately be subjected to arbitrary violence, no matter how mild, at any time, simply because of who that person is. Violence has a time and a place, an occasion on which it can be justified. Its subject in some way "asks for it". The story about it can be told such that a punch (and even a bullet) was an appropriate response, fit for the occasion. Norman Mailer once pointed out that Muhammad Ali's greatness could be seen in the moment he held back one last punch as George Foreman fell to the canvas in Zaire. The punch was not needed. The fight was already over. In Richard Spencer's case the fight had not even begun, because the only sense in which it had begun would imply that we are at war with whatever Richard Spencer represents. If you think that punch was okay, then that is what you want. War.

Postscript: Noel Plum, going at this a bit differently, gets this issue right too. We might say that just as my concern is that you won't know how hard to hit, Plum points out that you don't really know who to hit.

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