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Punching Nazis in the Face

A philosopher makes the case for violent resistance

“My human dignity lay in this punch to the jaw…”

-Jean Améry, At The Minds Limits

As white supremacist Richard Spencer was being interviewed on camera, a masked protester punched him square in the jaw. Many conservatives looked at this as evidence of “cry-baby” liberalism: unable to handle alternative points of view, leftists resort to violence to stifle “free speech.” This criticism has also been leveled against those who engaged in vandalism at the counter-inauguration protests and, more recently, at the UC Berkeley protests of another alt-right personality, Milo Yiannopoulos (despite the fact that the “violence” was proportionately negligible, given the size of these events). Even some liberals, progressives, and leftists, while abhorring the neo-Nazi rhetoric of Spencer, would not go so far as to condone the violence against him or at these protests.

Fifty years ago, philosopher Jean Améry made a sustained argument for punching Nazis in the face, not only as an acceptable action, but one that might be required. A victim of torture by the Gestapo and a survivor of the Holocaust, Améry described his disturbing experience of torture at the hands of fascism, and defended, contra-Nietzsche, the role of resentment (ressentiment) as an essential element of human identity, dignity, will, and freedom, including its manifestation in violence, as in the time he punched a Nazi in the face.

I had grasped well that there are situations in life in which our body is our entire self and our entire fate. I was my body and nothing else: in hunger, in the blows that I suffered, in the blow that I dealt. My body, debilitated and crusted with filth was my calamity. My body, when it tensed to strike was my physical and metaphysical dignity. In situations like mine, physical violence is the sole means for restoring a disjointed personality.

Punching the Nazi in the face was the only way that Améry could resist being reduced to a mere body, a passive object, a thing. He had to punch to restore the boundary between his personhood and the intrusion of the torture, the fascist, the racist. “The boundaries of my body are also the boundaries of myself. My skin surface shields me against the external world. If I am to have trust, I must feel on it only what I want to feel.”

In some of the most difficult-to-stomach passages in all of philosophy, Améry describes his torture. His hands were cuffed behind his back and were raised to the ceiling by a chain. “The balls sprang form their sockets. My own body weight caused luxation; I fell into a void and now hung by my dislocated arms… Torture, from Latin torquere, to twist.” The effects of his torture went beyond the physical: his own body, the very thing that allowed him to be an “individual,” the grounding of his freedom in the world, his most intimate “home,” now became the source of pain, was no longer “his,” but was now the weapon of the enemy.

Nor is Améry simply describing the harm visited upon him as an individual, by the fists and sticks of the Gestapo. His scope is broader. In twisting the body, torture twists all of reality and “becomes the inversion of the whole social world.” Torture wounds the flesh and the spirit, but also the very conditions of possibility that make our world human and all that the concept “human” entails — morality, creativity, sociality, and freedom. Torture annihilates humanity.

Torture is the essence of fascism. Fascism is the total control of all aspects of society — politics, economy, media — and in controlling these, controls the bodies and minds of the individuals of that society. Historically, this has been tied to theories of racial purity and superiority. While it might be possible to imagine a fascist society that is not racist, to advocate ordering the world along racial lines is to advocate fascism. Racism destroys plurality, creativity, and freedom. Racism destroys the very idea of a “human individual.” Racism twists and tortures the human world.

Are there situations, per Améry, where it is acceptable, even required, to punch another human being in the face? Even most pacifists, when pushed, will acknowledge that violence is acceptable in cases of self-defense, where “self” can extend beyond the individual body or dignity to one’s property, family, community, or society. (This is precisely the purported rationale for most wars).

Améry’s argument for Nazi face-punching isn’t a version of the argument for self-defense, however. Crucially, he acknowledges that his punch was not only futile, but would lead to even more pain being inflicted upon him, perhaps even death. In this way, Amery’s argument cannot be seen as a mere act of self-preservation, but as something that was demanded of him, as a human being, to preserve the integrity of the human world. His reasoning for Nazi-punching moves beyond ethical discourse into an ontological justification: what is at stake is not his individual body, but all of our bodies, and, perhaps, our world itself.

Perhaps Améry’s and the protester’s punches are significantly different: Améry having been a direct victim of torture; Améry having “nothing to lose;” Améry not punching in public under the gaze of cameras, running the risk of having the footage propagated and manipulated for various agenda, or, even worse, turned into a joke, thus diluting the image.

Another possible objection: “Sure, Richard Spencer propagates hate speech. Richard Spencer extends his arm in Nazi salute and says ‘Hail Trump.’ But he doesn’t lynch people, or drop Zyklon B gas into a chamber. ‘Sticks and stones.’ Besides, if you think that torture and fascism destroy the human world, isn’t punching someone in the face, even if that person is a hateful Nazi, doing the same thing?”

(That these “critiques” often come from people — both conservative and liberal — that are secure in their bodies is no small point).

In fascism and racism, human bodies are on the line. To condemn punching Nazis in the face is to condemn anyone who fights back against violent assault. It is to ask them to give their bodies and their lives over to an abstract ideal of “free speech.” It is to say that morality and reality exist on some ethereal plane, beyond faces and flesh and blood. It is, quite possibly, to accept the annihilation of the world itself.

A racist is not evil because he holds a certain set of beliefs or uses certain racist words. A racist is evil because he is part of a historical and systemic violence that does destroy people — economically, politically, psychically, and, all too often, physically. (Richard Spencer advocates “peaceful ethnic cleansing.”) The racist not only destroys individual minds and bodies, but makes it impossible to be at home in the world, much less to share this home with others. The racist turns the friend into the enemy, the neighbor into the stranger, and the brother and sister into an alien. By destroying these bonds, the racist annihilates humanity. The racist is an acolyte of death.

Maybe there are other, more effective ways to stand against the Richard Spencers and Milo Yiannopouloses of the world. But the two punches — that of the torturer and that of the tortured—are not equivalent, logically, morally, or otherwise. The first punch destroys. The second restores. The first punch is death. The second is life. The first punch is the enemy of humanity. The second punch is a friend, maybe even a hero, with the courage to confront the face of the enemy.

Postscript: Améry writes that, “Whoever was tortured, stays tortured.” Despite his great contributions to philosophy, he never was able to feel at home in the world again. In 1978, he committed suicide by overdosing on sleeping pills.

Eric Anthamatten

  • A well crafted and well argued post in favor of punching Nazis. I agree when Nazis present a clear and present danger, disagree when they don’t. I also believe that on pragmatic grounds there are times when the best way to oppose Nazis is to not punch them. Effectiveness is key. What is the best way to oppose Nazis. For the time being, I don’t think the answer is to punch them.

    • EA

      Agreed, especially in the “viral” era where the propagation of the image dilutes, decontextualizes and retroactively “defines” the act. And perhaps the sucker punch against Spencer isn’t quite the same as Amery’s punch of his torture. Was only trying to draw out this line of thought from Amery to capture something that I think was missed in much of the discussion surrounding this incident, much less the relationships between violence and resistance. – EA

      • Joe Detroit

        Implicitly, I think the article proposes an essentialist logic for classifying who is a Nazi and what being a Nazi means. Are the cultural blowhards and trolls here in the US who spout racist rhetoric “Nazis”? Are they the same folks and would they desire the same goals as those Nazis over in Germany? And was every “Nazi” the same? How much did you have to subscribe and have full knowledge of the Nazi state and its actions to be classified as a
        “Nazi” and therefore puncheable? While I might just like to throttle someone like Trump on principle for being an ignorant, dangerous individual (note: this is hypothetical, not an actual intent to engage in violence), I think a battle of words and reason is vastly preferable to an escalation of violence. The two punches may not be equal, but both rupture the engagement and hope of democratic dialogue, enabling our opponents to indulge in violent fantasies of their own.

    • Michael Corey

      I’m concerned about the use of violence. Few people really understand how something as simple as a punch can be as harmful as it can be. A punch on occasion can kill, cause brain damage, loss of sight, etc. Terms have been broaden so widely, I’m not sure that people can recognize what a Nazi is or isn’t, and whether or not someone is being physically threatened. Obviously, we are not referring to defending ourselves during a physical attack when the use of violence is justified. Somehow the use of violence has become more common and seems to be more acceptable by far too many.

      • Andrew Johnson

        To clarify my position on the act of violence itself as a punch in conceptual terms and not to be defined by physical actions. Does not a unexpected relationship breakup produce a “punch in the gut”? A physical punch can heal much faster and create Pavlovian responses of both mimic and aversion, whereas a nonviolent punch of passive resistance or ostracisation can produce lasting behavioral change.

  • Andrew Johnson

    You fools. Please wake up. Nazi Germany did not begin to gas Jews in 1931 when Hitler won the election for Chancellor. The final solution took years of dehumanizing Jews and all lower races. The fight is now, not after Mexicans, African-Americans, Jews, and other races have been dehumanized. Punch them now, Punch them often. This is not a fight for political ideals, this is a fight for humanity.

    Their speech is to dehumanize with the ultimately goal to segregate and denigrate. Sociopaths like Trump and Hitler do not stop, will not stop on their own. They will never be satisfied, therefore, their hate and greed must be met with resistance at all times and all places. Stop thinking this will pass over.

    • Joe Detroit

      Let me invoke that “fool” Gramsci. As Gramsci pointed out, you must first achieve hegemony before you can actually resort to revolutionary force. A war of position (the battle for hegemony), he said, takes priority over a war of movement. Without that shared moral framework established through a struggle for hegemony, punching a fascist will be seen as merely a deviant act of violence. Your resorting to force will merely justify the repressive force of the state and spark the conservative reaction of the mass of the populace.

      • Andrew Johnson

        Mr. Detroit, while I consider your argument of nonviolent democratic discourse a preferred method of civil disagreement, I am challenged to understand how dialogue with a narcissist can ever be won. A person like Trump will never lose because their goal is only to win. Principal is irrelevant, so their position changes based upon the antagonist. If they are caught cheating on their spouse, which I am sure has happened to Trump many times, the accused will deny. Once the infidelity is proven to have occurred, the accused will attack with accusations they were driven into another’s arms. Discussions with a person such as this is pointless, with the only solution to keep the person at a distance to a place of trust.

        Having read Gandhi’s autobiography many times, I subscribe to method of passive resistance to violence, but please reply to me this. How can the Indian and Pakistani people throw off the English with only some death, while the Jewish population in Europe were devastated? When should have the European Jews stood up? When the stars of David were required?

        Hegemony is only acquired after resistance has been made irrelevant. If the only goal of the narcissist in power is to acquire hegemony, the resistance must avoid becoming irrelevant by disengaging from their authoritative control entirely thereby making the position held by this position powerless. The caliphate of 8th or 9th century Baghdad became powerless after group of eunuch Turks went from protecting the caliph to controlling the caliph. Many times through history Kings were made irrelevant by a more powerful Regent.

        My point, which is wandering, seems to be, although you may not perform an act violence upon tyranny, at some point you will be faced with resistance or submission. How do you decide how violent your opponent could become?

        • Joe Detroit

          Punching someone in the face (whom you have somehow identified as a “fascist” or narcissistic) is an individual, violent action that is morally wrong and strategically foolish. Moreover, I would not equate some macho acts of violence with broad social resistance. You ask when should the Jews have resisted (and of course they did resist), I say let the resistance start now or sooner. Let’s mobilize now with agitation, solidarity and active engagement. Now, when crazed killers are letting loose their violence across the globe, most notably in England, is not the time to argue for more self-destructive fantasies of violence.

          • Andrew Johnson

            Mr. Detroit,

            Looking back over our discussion and rereading the article, it seems the “punch” has been altered from the author’s intend. Whereas Amery was a torture victim of the Nazi’s, whereby a punch was his attempt at feeling human again, our discussion is occurring before physical violence has occurred.

            So, in order to find a resolution to the escalation factor, I think it is prudent to define differences. Amery referred to violence against soldiers torturing him, whereas we are describing violence against “Hitler”, the voices inciting the violence. The question becomes should we act violently toward the voices advocating violent acts or should we wait to act violently toward the soldiers conducting aggressive violence. Here in lies the free speech dilemma purposed by Socrates, can democracy survive a challenge to it’s own existence? Advocating for a fascist authoritarian regime should be protected by free speech, but should a democratically elected government, whose laws protect that speech, allow treasonous speech that calls for its destruction. Would you not be allowing for the destruction of the vehicle, democracy, that allows free speech to occur, if you allow authoritarianism advocacy to flourish without punishment. Should not a system such as democracy protect itself and force a new political philosophy to overtake it through violent revolution?

            Punching a single professor in the face is a punishable crime. But if you were a minority and a professor was preaching to a group of five simple minded white men to walk over and kill you, would you not be better off to silence the professor and have the five men never realize you were a threat.

  • Scott

    Moral outrage is not a license for violence. It is not necessarily altruistic, and can be contrary to the supposed justice which is its purported goal. Example: students at Middlebury College not only shut down conservative scholars Charles Murray’s talk, but also attacked a professor (a liberal democrat mind you), and pulled her hair so hard that she suffered whiplash and a concussion so severe that she was hospitalized for a week. (Just collateral damage in the “fight” against Fascism I suppose). But do go on about how violence is the answer…

  • d-_-b

    so the first punch is restored by a second? ergo, the first punch at richard spencer requires a punch back? either we are talking about offense or defense. he who punches first is the offender.

    this is not a justification for racist ilk or any other ism with the goal of control. this is using the above defined philosophy. the difference is that after Amery’s freedom was taken he had the right to punch before the torture even came to light. when his own body was stolen he had the right, he had already been aggressed and deserved to defend. he should have punched then.

  • Yasmine Amber Carlson

    Are cops and laws not a thing anymore? Hmm, tough philosopher guy? I suspect that most are projecting their own evil and dark impulses onto their ideological opponents. Antifa thugs and neo-Nazis are simply two sides of the same coin.

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