There’s great power in the name Nazi and Nazi imagery. That’s why losers want to claim the identity. Through this new identity they feel powerful and meaningful. It’s not all that different from losers who join ISIS or declare themselves a martyr for a man pretending to be emperor without any of the humor of the Marx Brothers.
Through the magic of our brains, the Tiki Troopers can become feared as Storm Troopers. Though I am sure my grandfather would have no problem distinguishing between the men of the Wehrmacht, SS, the U-Boats, and the Luftwaffe and these wannabe losers. But nowadays ignorance abounds and any asshole can call themselves a Nazi, get attention, and cause fear. And our primitive need to smash a squawking irritant with a rock becomes rationalized and verbalized as the “right to punch a Nazi.”
But there’s a problem with justifying violence against people who say and think things we don’t like. It seems like an obvious problem, but Ken White was forced to state it:
This is the final hypothetical come to pass: if the state asked you to give up freedoms in exchange for a dubious promise it would make you safer, would you do it? Would you convince yourself that the state would only use the power against Them, and not you?
In response, Elie Mystal wrote:
But this weekend a woman was attacked with a car for (wait for it) EXERCISING HER FREE SPEECH RIGHTS, and all the First Amendment defender crowd can think to write are reasons to defend THE NAZIS WHO KILLED HER.
FUUUUUUUUUCK you people. Ain’t nobody got time for your “first they came for the Nazis” inverse prattle today.
Elie’s post asks what good is defending free speech when people are dying. In this way, it echoes Justice Jackson’s famous “suicide pact” metaphor regarding the First Amendment. He questions how many dead bodies it will take for the free speech defenders to be quiet. It’s reminiscent of the freshman-level philosophy question of whether it would be moral for you to time travel and kill baby Hitler.
The inherent problem with this general line of thinking is that it’s heavily influenced by hindsight bias. We know what baby Hitler grew up to say, think, and do. And we now know what the wannabe-Nazi did at the rally. From that perspective, we have all the relevant facts upon which we can make a utilitarian judgment about killing, hurting, or maiming these killers. Even the Trolley Problem has a flavor of this because there aren’t unknowns when you’re making a decision.
But life doesn’t work that way. We are moving constantly forward until we stop forever. And while we’re falling into the future, we do so with highly imperfect knowledge and subject to randomness. If we knew James Fields would drive his car into a crowd, then we’d no doubt approve of a number of ways to stop him. But we didn’t and we can’t. Before he used his car as a weapon, he was just some faceless Kentuckian who went to a rally in Virginia.
Once upon a time, some monk named Martin Luther upset the entire religious landscape of the West. He and his Protestant followers were the cause of turmoil, war, and death. Protestants no doubt believed that they were justified in speaking out against the Catholic Church and “protecting” themselves from Catholic reprisals.
If you asked the Catholics at the time whether violence was justified against the Protestants, you would have gotten many to agree that it was necessary to stop them. The Protestant’s speech was dangerous, subversive, and inevitably led to violence. They were right in fact, but few nowadays would agree with the robust efforts to suppress the Christian heresy.
Eventually, the Puritans came to prominence in Parliament (Roundheads), leading to a civil war in England. The Roundheads deposed the King, and then turned the country over to Cromwell. Many who lived through such troubled times would have agreed that the Roundheads were responsible for much suffering and death, and if you could go back in time to stop them, it would have been a wise thing to do. What good was religious freedom and democracy when your children were murdered or starving?
As it turned out, without the English Civil War we may not have had the Glorious Revolution or the American Revolution. More directly, the Roundheads gave birth to the Quakers, who in turn came to America and infused the country with many of their values and established many colleges. Plus, you wouldn’t be able to read this post because I probably wouldn’t have been born, which really concerns me most of all. But we now know what those living during the English Civil War could have never known. And that knowledge influences how we judge the past conduct of the Puritans and Quakers.
Just as a substance diffusing through water does so randomly in the present moment, it is possible to retrospectively understand the path it took. But it would have been impossible to predict that path prospectively. Our culture, institutions, and organizations are all similarly influenced by random forces.
If Elie could got back to the English Civil War, he might ask what is the point of Parliamentarianism when all these people are dying. He might similarly question allowing Martin Luther and his spiritual children the ability to spread their heresy—so many are suffering and dying. And those questions would be appropriate. Indeed, many asked them at the time.
But the answer cannot be to silence speech, enforce current cultural norms, and forbid challenges to the status quo, even when the call is to avoid possible death in the future. The efforts to suppress heretics failed in the past and caused even greater suffering and death; there is no reason to believe Stalin, Mao, or Pol Pot properly solved that problem.
It may sound risky, and there is some risk in allowing minority speech, as recent events remind us. Yet it’s essentially how stubborn minorities made entire populations submit to their preferences. Taleb’s observation cuts both ways, that is, stubborn minorities, and the speech they promote, can be either good or bad. The rule of “shut up, people might die” may exclude much of the bad, but it doesn’t leave room for the good that may arise over time.
Plus, we should stop acting like punching them will resolve our fears and stop them. Advocates of this problem solving method are over-valuing the power of their fists. The real Nazis continued to fight hard after D-Day, despite years of Allied bombing and tank battles.