In the past few days there’s been a lot of argument over things that should be a lot simpler. A government with all the hallmarks of fascism took power in the United States, immediately followed by protests from a lot more people than celebrated. This is the good part. The bad part is in how some people have reacted to some of the protest.
You see, an out-and-out neonazi was punched. This is violence. As such, huge swaths of received wisdom say that it mustn’t be tolerated. “Violence only breeds violence,” they’ll say. “If you use their methods, you’re stooping to their level. Free speech means that you must only speak in return.” You see, preventing anti-fascists from confronting nazis with force is vital to preserving western civilization.
Now, I’m broadly speaking very much in favour of free speech. In particular, I believe that the state should not have any power whatsoever to decide what sort of thing can be said and what not. I also believe that violent assault is something that absolutely needs to be minimised. Overall, I believe people should not be made to suffer for their beliefs. That ‘overall’ is pretty significant, though. Speech is not distinct from action. It is a sort of action. There is no clean line to be drawn between speech that is harmless and that which is harmful. Instead, society draws a pretty squiggly line by how it acts on various examples of speech. This line tends to be unfair, and favourable to those who serve existing power structures. In the past, that was demonstrated amply in the United States by the very different rules applied by police and courts to street speeches by socialists on the one hand and by Christian preachers on the other. It is demonstrated vividly today by the standards applied on the one hand to white supremacists and to black activists against police brutality on the other.
You see, the problem here is simple. If we do not see credible threats of violence as anything but harmless words, we empower the psychopaths willing to employ violence to get their way. If we condemn all action taken in response to such threats, we strip their victims of the ability to fight back. If we must prove that the other guy started the fight in every single case, nobody but those good at hiding evidence and lying benefits. And they will get really, really good at playing the victim. “I only said I’d kill her,” says the fascist without mentioning the knife he was holding, “and then she goes and shoots me!”
The morality of actions is contextual, and independent of their legality. Speech is not categorically different. In judging whether an action taken in response to speech is morally reprehensible, neutral or even commendable, we must look at the whole of the context. And in the context of a bunch of people who can at best be described as fascist-enablers gaining control over the world’s most powerful military apparatus, physical pushback against their cheerleaders seems not unreasonable. At the very least, the people who think so have not earned a greater share of our reprobation than the ones calling for genocide.