#Charlottesville – “I think a lot more people are going to die before we’re done here”

There is something to be said for the idea that anti-fascist protesters can resort to violence too quickly. But this idea can be debated without endorsing or excusing fascism, which you do when you describe these acts of violence as morally equivalent.

There is merit in the idea that anti-fascist violence gets judged by a more charitable standard than fascist violence. But it’s understandable, and appropriate, to condemn violence committed in the service of oppression and racism more harshly than violence committed in opposition to that.

The idea that anti-fascist activism has encouraged or provoked a rise in fascist activism is not obviously implausible. But being able to provide a historical account of the origins of some fascist activism explains, rather than excuses, (some of) that activism.

A focus on social justice causes such as anti-sexism, or #BlackLivesMatter, could well have played a part in exacerbating conservative white fears related to a loss of control over, or alienation from their culture and values. But if your culture and values are premised on racist or sexist impulses and stereotypes, there is no place for them in nations that are committed to equal liberty and humanism.

Yes, the political left has problems to deal with. Many of us – broadly defined – have arrived at incoherent positions on free speech, where we appeal to subjective or unprincipled definitions of harm to suppress speech we don’t like, and promote speech that we do.

Many of us have arrived at incoherent positions regarding when violence is justified, as is the case with the “punch a Nazi” trope where it seems to be entirely up to the eye of the beholder who counts as a Nazi and who doesn’t, and where there’s little thought given to articulating why it’s okay to punch them but not to kill them, or how we’ve found ourselves in a position where we’re glamourising violence in the first place.

But all of these things do nothing to make a moral equivalence between fascism and anti-fascism remotely plausible. The far-right have killed many more people than the far-left, and they are also greater in number and more organised.

And finally, one side is often motivated by, and leads to, erosion of democracy and freedom, while the other attempts to combat that erosion.

There is a discussion to be had regarding the tactics of that combating, and whether we sometimes get things wrong when pushing back against those who promote racism, sexism, or the toxic nationalism of many on the far-right.

If you haven’t watched the Vice documentary of the events in Charlottesville this past weekend, please do, and decide for yourself whether the time for that discussion is now.

Should we, now, be engaging in whataboutery, criticising the alt-left, or mentions of violence “on many sides”? Or should we be making it clear that whatever the severity of those problems are, they pale into insignificance compared to the problems presented by folks like Christopher Cantwell, the white nationalist quoted in the title of this post, and featured below.

As for me, while I’ll not be going around looking for Nazis to punch, I’ll certainly be doing my utmost to remind people that not all speech is equally virtuous or valuable, and that a commitment to free speech doesn’t suspend our ability – or our obligation – to defend civilisation against fascism.

By Jacques Rousseau

Jacques Rousseau teaches critical thinking and ethics at the University of Cape Town, South Africa, and is the founder and director of the Free Society Institute, a non-profit organisation promoting secular humanism and scientific reasoning.