Violence and Immorality

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(Credit: Alejandro Alvarez/News2Share via REUTERS)

Let’s start with two quotations from Trump’s press conference yesterday:

“You had a group on one side that was bad and you had a group on the other side that was also very violent. And no one wants to say that, but I’ll say it right now.”

and

“I’m not putting anybody on a moral plane, what I’m saying is this: you had a group on one side and you had a group on the other, and they came at each other with clubs, and it was vicious, and it was horrible, and it was a horrible thing to watch.”

These two phrases have a lot in them.

They encapsulate quite nicely why Trump’s response to the crisis in Charlottesville has been both inadequate and disturbing. And they reveal that his thinking about this sort of subject — when speaking off the cuff and not from a teleprompter — has been chillingly consistent. They show how he has completely failed to grasp the horror of the weekend’s demonstrations in Charlottesville. They either show that he doesn’t believe in the moral reprehensibility of Nazi and white supremacist groups, or doesn’t care enough to act on it.

The first quotation is particularly interesting because it sets up the second, but itself reveals a misguided conflation of issues. Basically, Trump seems to believe that the issue of violence and ideology are one and the same, or at least the violence is more important than anything else.

In his view, since both the fascist demonstrators and the left-wing counter-protestors were responsible at least in part for the violence over the weekend, they should be treated equally. Trump has, in part, a point: the chance of violence would have been greatly reduced (but certainly not eliminated, they’re Nazis after all) had Antifa and groups like it not showed up. The justification of violence from the left, when directed against fascist groups, is well-documented, summed up in the phrase “punch a Nazi.”

So, divorced from any sense of why that violence is happening, it’s hard to argue against what Trump is saying. It seems to me just a statement of fact that it takes two parties to make violence happen: the fascists and the anti-fascists, in this particular case.

But that’s not the problem with Trump’s quotation. That problem stems from imprecise language. The president says that one side (the fascists) were “bad,” while the other side was “also very violent.” The problem here is that he didn’t say that both groups were violent. That would have been a true, if inadequate statement. The issue is that he condemned in general terms (“bad”) the fascists, then called the counter-protestors “violent,” seeming to equate “bad” with “violence” and thus inferring that the only thing that made the fascists bad is that they were violent.

So Trump has conflated being “bad,” usually taken in a moral sense, with the more simple taboo against violence. In this view, anyone who commits violence is equally bad, regardless of their reasons for doing so.

The issues of violence and morality are separate, but linked. The degree to which they are linked, or how much morality justifies violence, is perhaps the most important debate coming out of Charlottesville.

The taboo against violence, especially in protests and counter-protests, is a well-established and important societal norm. The possibility and right to free, safe protest and demonstration is a critical part of living in a liberal democracy and should be protected. Violence, I believe, is almost always bad — by which I mean morally wrong.

Almost, of course, is the key word in that last sentence. In some cases violence is obviously justified. Few would disagree that making war on the Nazis in the Second World War was wrong, or that the fight against al-Qaeda or ISIS is best pursued through peaceful means. Moreover, no one is arguing that you do not have the right to self-defence: if a Nazi punches you, punch back.

The trouble is that those are obvious cases. But is it alright to punch a Nazi outside of demonstrations, simply walking through the streets? What if the person you think is a Nazi is “just” your run-of-the-mill racist, who has found common cause with the (initially) widely disparate groups of people in Charlottesville that weekend. What if you, when you “charge at them,” as Trump said, are the one who is instigating the actually violent part of the protest?

It’s a difficult, difficult set of questions. I am personally torn between upholding the taboo against violence and my revulsion toward the ideologies and symbols that were on display last weekend. It’s a debate that we should not take lightly.

I actually wrote two different sections trying to sum up my views:

(1) In the ideal scenario, I think it’s probably ill-advised to attack fascist groups if they are demonstrating peacefully, within the bounds of the right to protest. They should be condemned, shunned, and contained as much as possible within the law. But the American state is not in the business of policing thought or legal expression, nor does that right fall to private citizens who go about it violently. The right to demonstration, protest, and freedom of speech is so important that it goes beyond any specific situation or group. Crucially, the same rights apply to protestors from groups like Occupy Wall Street, Black Lives Matter, and Antifa itself. Eroding those rights degrades the protections that should be held by all citizens, even those we disagree with.

(2) In general, violence may be an undesirable outcome of ostensibly peaceful protests. But in some cases, there is simply such a moral obligation to fight against people who would, if they could, persecute and oppress vast portions of society, that to not fight against them— even outside of the law — would amount to a moral failure. If there is any group that fits this description, it’s Nazis. Therefore while violence in general should be avoided, it can be understood here. The mere presence of these emboldened groups, whose symbols and beliefs harken back to (and seek to return to) the very worst moments of human history, cannot be tolerated. Nazism, self-described, is an absolutist, violent, totalitarian ideology that cannot coexist peacefully in a democratic society. Thus, making sure that these beliefs are countered is well worth the price of eroding the taboo against political violence.

I don’t know which of these sections more accurately represents what I think.

I’ve addressed the issue of political violence in idealized, general terms. But there is no need for generalities when it comes to the morality of the issue, bringing us to our second quotation. Again, Trump conflates violence directly with morality, and refuses to specifically call out the horrifying aspects of the fascist’s beliefs. This is unacceptable.

To even suggest that fascist thought — which expressly endorses violence anyway — is somehow morally equivalent to the aims of Black Lives Matter, or Antifa, is irresponsible beyond words. As president, Donald Trump has a duty to take a moral stand against groups like the KKK, yet he has often refused to do so. When he has, it has been a stumbling, inconsistent and short-lived condemnation. It is rarely convincing.

And if Trump is actually only concerned with violence, as he seems to indicate, then he shouldn’t have to look far. The most extreme and tragic examples of violence over the weekend, including the vicious beating of DeAndre Harris and the murder of Heather Heyer, were committed by members of the Nazi or white supremacist groups.

Under normal circumstances, I would call this a case of moral cowardice: the president was not strong enough in his convictions, or was swayed by political concerns, and thus did not make a clear moral case against these sort of groups.

But Trump is not a normal president, and I think this is just a part of who he is. He is not concerned with morality, plain and simple.

The president has demonstrated a remarkable talent for moral relativism and moral apathy. We’ve seen it before, with his comments about Vladimir Putin. And he gave us a master class yesterday, comparing George Washington and Thomas Jefferson to the leaders of the Confederacy.

While it is personally condemnable, this sort of behaviour is made worse by the fact that it will have real implications. Trump, as the most visible and important figure in the country, has the power to change minds and set norms. He is making the wrong choices when it comes to how he treats discussions of morality.

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