The Twitter video of Richard Spencer getting punched in the face on Inauguration Day elicited an uproar. The punch brought with it the moral question of whether or not Spencer’s white nationalist politics warranted a good shiner. Despite my belief that he got just the treatment he advocated for others, I have yet to find or think of a sound ethical argument that justifies this use of violence. That being said, I will not deny that I have reveled in sinful schadenfreude while watching the punch scene played to Thin Lizzy’s The Boys Are Back in Town.
There is more to this Nazi-punch than meets the eye, however, especially when viewed alongside the day’s other violent events. What was it that led to clouds of tear gas, a burnt-out limo, smashed windows, and the teary-eyed white supremacist?
Obviously, these events stood as a symbolic repudiation of Trump, like all the protests that day. Spencer has been spewing the same racist rhetoric for years so he could have been punched any day; Inauguration Day was symbolic. What makes these violent protests different is that they were solely anti-Trump as opposed to many of the day’s peaceful marches which listed agendas such as minimum wage increases and higher regulations on Wall Street. This absence of an ideology – except dissatisfaction with Trump – has led many to decree the violence as the work of violent individuals (usually called “anarchists”) who take advantage of protests’ anonymity and chaos. To some extent this view is correct, but it is drastically oversimplified.
The temptation of believing the violence stems simply from evil people allows one to come to the facile solution that the answer to violence is better riot police to control the protests. This view allows one to ignore the systemic factors in our society which give rise to violent groups of people. Hence, we now have a terrifyingly militarized police force.
However, there is another way to look at the “anarchists” absence of a positive ideology: to consider their anti-ideology as its own ideology. In this case, the ideology is more fundamental than many of our political ones and to see it involves examining violence as a means of communication.
At first, this idea may seem perverse, but does violence not transmit a signal to a receiver? The car burning, smashed windows, and slug to the face all send a message, even if the content of this message is empty. Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Zizek describes this phatic function of violence in his book “Violence,” in which he compares it to a connection test on a cell phone: “can you hear me?”
So, what the violent protesters really seem to be doing is attempting to establish a voice in our society. Their anti-ideology could then be seen as them striving for a right to be heard, even if they don’t know what they want to say.
One of the things that is so interesting about “anarchists” and reflects this idea is their militant ambiguity. From what I saw on Inauguration Day, most seemed to wear all tight black clothing, face masks, and black boots. Given their name, this strict adherence to order would at first seem like a contradiction, but perhaps this embrace of ambiguity is an act of reclamation, of taking pride in their lack of party agenda.
None of this, of course, excuses the violence. Starbucks and Bank of America didn’t deserve to have their windows smashed, a car shouldn’t have been set on fire, and nobody should have been punched in face (well, maybe).
So how should society respond to ill-defined violent protests? Even if ramping up police presence may be slowly turning the country into a police state, is there any other choice?
There is also the issue of how seriously one should take violence on Inauguration Day and other similar happenings. How much do the events matter in the grand scheme of things? Do they portend more violence in America’s political future?
Naturally, this is not up to the majority, but to those who feel violence was, and may continue to be, the only way of expressing their minority voice in this nation.
My prediction is that as long as America adheres to its winner-take-all electoral system, the violence will continue to increase. It will do so because such a system only allows for two parties. For example, it doesn’t make sense to vote for Jill Stein if it means helping Trump.
In an era of sprawling political controversies, however, the Democrats and Republicans can no longer scrape together a cohesive ideology; consequently, people with political views outside of the mainstream are neglected. Without a voice, they are lead to violent communication.
The solution to this problem will not be simple. One potential electoral reform could be to start having instant-run-off elections in which voters are given a first and second vote. Thus, if their top-choice is not elected, their vote will go to their second option as opposed to a candidate they despise. Of course, this reform has its own problems. One effect, for example, may be the rise of alt-right groups in more conservative areas.
Essentially, if Inauguration Day violence revealed anything, it’s the growing need to reform our electoral system in order to give voters an authentic choice.