A contrarian, in common usage,1 is simply someone who goes against popular opinion, but there’s also a subtle implication that they do so only because they’re obstinate or because they take some perverse pleasure in it. There’s no rhyme or reason to their counter-argument, the term suggests, so one certainly needn’t really listen to them; they’d tell you the Sun is filled with ice and the sky was never blue2 if you say that it’s lovely weather we’re having. It’s a dismissive term, in my opinion: a way to avoid having to deal with an argument on its merits.
Now, I’ve never been one to walk away from an argument. (A friend once told me: “Pick your battles,” to which I replied, “I do. I pick all of them.”) So I’ve been called a contrarian by the exasperated on many, many occasions, but I don’t think that’s accurate: I’m just habitually wary of simple answers. (As well as True Believers3 of any stripe, who are often the ones pushing those reductive answers—but that’s another subject.) It’s no wonder that the First Amendment holds a particular importance to me.4
And so, in turn, it’s no wonder that I find myself particularly worried about most other folks’ approaches to that amendment and related topics. Frankly, I don’t think the majority of people at either end of the U.S. political spectrum really understand free speech well at all. I’ve seen arguments from the Right alleging that any kind of criticism of their speech is tantamount to censorship, and from the Left, the idea that “only the government can censor.” (The implication being that boycotting, book burning, calls for firings, “no-platforming,” and blacklists aren’t actually censorship . . . it’s just that free speech has consequences, you see. That’s not ominous at all.) Lately, though, there’s one particular position that I find especially troublesome, if not outright dangerous: that we should advocate for “punching a Nazi.”
“Oh, it’s too easy to just call anyone you don’t like a Nazi,” you’re thinking. Well, you’re right. It’s wildly overused (Godwin’s Law5 exists for a reason). But that doesn’t mean that the real thing isn’t also out there. It has long been a strategy of white supremacists to try to appear respectable in order to make their reprehensible ideas seem legitimate. David Duke didn’t suddenly cease to be racist once he took off his Klan hood in order to run for office.
No, the criteria for being called a Nazi fairly are pretty straightforward: is the person a racist, authoritarian nationalist? Are they advocating for ethnic cleansing? I tend to take people at their word: if you say you’re for the elimination of entire ethnic and/or religious groups, then I accept that you mean it, and will categorize and treat you accordingly. So: Nazis.
Now, back in January of 2017,
Nazi white nationalist and coiner of the term “alt-right,” Richard Spencer6, was punched by an antifa7 activist. I certainly understand and share in the intense satisfaction that many people felt at seeing that. However, in the intervening months, the idea that “punching Nazis” is a moral good has rapidly grown from something we don’t condone (even if we understand the desire to do it) to something that not only do we openly advocate for, but if you don’t advocate for it, you yourself are a Nazi enabler, and should be punched/curb-stomped as well, for your cowardice in resisting the creep of fascism.
Here’s one problem with that: even Nazis have a right to speak freely. They have the same right to march, protest, and express their ideas that any Americans do. We’ve affirmed that over and over, since 1977, when the ACLU defended the Nazi party’s right to march in National Socialist Party of America v. Village of Skokie.
* * *
A brief word about the American Civil Liberties Union: contrary to their critics on the Right, the ACLU is a nonpartisan organization. They’ve defended Rush Limbaugh, former Republican Senator Larry Craig, Lt. Col. Oliver North, and have worked with the NRA to prevent the creation of a national firearms registry. They have both fought to prevent school-led prayer and to protect the rights of students to pray in school.
The key to nonpartisanship is not whether they’ve defended positions you don’t agree with; it’s whether they’ve defended people equally and consistently, and I would suggest their track record says they have.
In the wake of Trump’s election and his attempted roll-out of several policies, donations to the ACLU have increased 8,000%; the weekend after Trump’s swearing in alone, the ACLU received over 24 million dollars, more than six times its annual online donations; the “largest surge in donations in its 97-year history,” which they used for hiring two hundred new lawyers.8
So although the organization is nonpartisan, it should also be clear that many on the Left feel the ACLU protect values dear to them, and it’s with that in mind that I’d like to point out a few things that some on the Left could use a reminder of.
First: the ACLU recognizes that censorship doesn’t purely stem from the government.
“Censorship, the suppression of words, images, or ideas that are ‘offensive,’ happens whenever some people succeed in imposing their personal political or moral values on others. Censorship can be carried out by the government as well as private pressure groups. Censorship by the government is unconstitutional.
In contrast, when private individuals or groups organize boycotts against stores that sell magazines of which they disapprove, their actions are protected by the First Amendment, although they can become dangerous in the extreme. Private pressure groups, not the government, promulgated and enforced the infamous Hollywood blacklists during the McCarthy period. But these private censorship campaigns are best countered by groups and individuals speaking out and organizing in defense of the threatened expression.”9
Second, as I said above: even the speech of Nazis and Klansmen is protected. Indeed, the ACLU has in fact protected those rights on numerous occasions, the most famous being Skokie in 1977, but there are two other cases worth emphasizing.
First, in 1993, when Texas demanded that Michael Lowe, the Grand Dragon of the Texas Knights of the Klu Klux Klan, turn over the organization’s membership list, the ACLU chose to defend him against the state. Lowe’s lawyer, Anthony P. Griffin, was a prominent civil rights attorney who volunteered his time to both the ACLU as well as the NAACP, where he was chief counsel to the latter organization’s Texas branch.
Griffin said, “The Klan says some vile and vicious and nasty and ugly things, but the Klan has a right to say them. If you ask whether they have a right to organize, to assemble, to free speech, those people we hate have such a right, and we just can’t get around that. Because if you take away their rights, you take away my rights also.”10
Then David P. Baugh, a Virginia lawyer, who demonstrated for civil rights and was tossed out of a courtroom for questioning a judge’s racially disparate sentencing—jail time for blacks but probation for whites, for the same offenses—defended Barry Elton Black, a virulent racist and a member of the KKK with a prior criminal history, in Virginia v. Black, when Black was arrested for burning a cross on his private property, but where it could be viewed by the public.
Oh, and incidentally: both Griffin and Baugh are black.
As Baugh said: “. . . Your principles aren’t really yours until they are tested. It’s the hard cases that should test them. The measure of a person, like the measure of a nation, is the ability to adhere to principle in times of chaos and strife. I mean, who is the hero? The guy who leads the lynch mob, or the guy who stands up against the vigilante, even to protect the guilty? The hero is a person who would stand up against his friends.”11
Integrity is: “Having integrity means doing the right thing in a reliable way. It’s a personality trait that we admire, since it means a person has a moral compass that doesn’t waver. It literally means having ‘wholeness’ of character, just as an integer is a ‘whole number’ with no fractions.”11.5
Perhaps instead of looking for exceptions to our principles, we should start looking for opportunities to test their firmness. Because once you start doing the former, you’re failing at the latter.
I can anticipate some of the objections:
“But that’s the law; the law isn’t morality. It isn’t human decency.” True enough. Slavery was legal once. But you can’t force someone, either through threat of penalty or public shame, to not think things you don’t like; you can only prevent them from acting on those thoughts in ways that impinge on your rights, via the law. You cannot create the power to do something and then expect it to only ever be used for things you personally approve of; eventually the same tactics you employ will be employed against you.
And by stifling the rhetoric of bigots, it grants them the legitimacy of perceived persecution. “They don’t want me to tell the truth!” they yell, and that can seem plausible when they’re silenced. They must have hit a nerve, right? Better to let them make their case, so that we can see the lack of substance underneath all the bluster. “The PC Police are suppressing my speech!” Okay, then go on; what’s so important? “. . . I think brown people are everywhere now.” Oh, great, thanks for sharing.
“But we have to punch Nazis; you can’t debate them, because they’re not actually interested in arguing their case; they want to do violence to you.” You’re not really arguing to convince Nazis. (And there have been instances where those particularly bigoted leopards have changed their spots, although I’m not naïve enough to think that will happen in any great number.) Debate is rarely for the purpose of convincing your immediate opponent (after all, you can’t reason a man out of a position he didn’t use reason to get himself into); it’s to educate and persuade third parties.
“Being nonviolent is privilege!” Perhaps that’s true to some degree. But it’s the systematically oppressed that adherence to free speech principles most protects, and it’s those without privilege who suffer the most from violence. If we decide that politics is red in tooth and claw, simply a matter of might makes right, then those without power are doomed to remain so. Without power, you cannot take it. (If you could, you wouldn’t be without power, ipso facto.) If you really care about communities of color, then perhaps giving people who have been itching for an excuse to do violence to them for decades just that excuse is the dumbest possible thing you can do. Nicholas Goroff wrote: “it’s worth noting that the only manner in which the Reichstag fire could have been more advantageous to Adolph Hitler would have been if his political adversaries had in fact carried it out themselves.”12
In the end, perhaps I simply find it ironic that many people who otherwise readily attest to the importance and power of words and narrative and the media in almost any other instance suddenly seem to hold the opposite stance when they’re faced with a tough but vitally important rhetorical fight. “Words have power!” So they can fight fascism, then. “Oh, no, you have to punch Nazis. Words just, like, make people feel guilty for liking the wrong TV shows and movies.”
Again, let me be crystal clear: much of this bigoted speech is demonizing and scapegoating vulnerable populations for political gain, and it is dangerous. But the response is not violence in kind. That’s tugging a thread that nobody should want to see pulled. And the response is not suppressing that speech, vile though it may be. That merely creates a power structure wherein speech may be stifled, and how long before that’s used to oppress, do you think?
Their speech can be beaten. That speech will be beaten. But with more, better speech.
1 As opposed to its investment usage, which is someone who goes against the market.
2 Apologies to Willie Nelson.
3 That term doesn’t apply exclusively to religious zealots.
4 I’m also pretty fond of the Twenty-First. And the Nineteenth. And . . .
5 https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Godwin’s_law—“If an online discussion (regardless of topic or scope) goes on long enough, sooner or later someone will compare someone or something to Hitler or his deeds.”
6 Spencer is on video leading hundreds of people in a Nazi salute, with the chant “Heil Trump,” and has advocated for “peaceful” ethnic cleansing (“America . . . belongs to [white people.]”)
7 Antifa are far-left anarchists.
11.5 Via www.vocabulary.com