The glorification of violence, and the case of Andy Ngo

Early this morning, Quillette (a conservative-leaning online magazine, founded by Australian writer Claire Lehmann) editor and photojournalist Andy Ngo was the target of antifa (anti-fascist) protest while covering a rally in Portland, Oregon. The banner photograph is from when he was admitted to the emergency ward for treatment. He also had some of his photographic equipment stolen during the incident.

I don’t like many of the views that authors on Quillette espouse, even as I’m happy to concede that Quillette is on the whole more objective than some of their critics claim them to be. But the point of this post is that this doesn’t matter: you don’t need to agree or disagree with a writer or speaker to know that it’s wrong for them to be assaulted for holding the views that they do.

This footage shows that Ngo was punched in the head, and repeatedly kicked, before being doused in milkshake (which may or may not have contained quick-drying cement).

As I wrote after the Charlottesville protests in 2017,

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.

Last week, the white supremacist who drove a car into Charlottesville protesters, killing Heather Heyer and injuring another 19 people, was sentenced to life in prison. One of the reasons he presumably did so is his racist attitudes, but another is perhaps the fact that violence in response to ideas and expressions we don’t like is now being encouraged by people on all sides of the political divide.

This doesn’t make people equally bad, and it doesn’t make their ideas equally odious (or virtuous). And I know that call-out culture, whataboutism, and the virtue-signalling that is a characteristic of just about every partisan ideological sector of social media has flattened out the intellectual landscape to the extent that someone is going to read what I say here as some sort of endorsement of Ngo and his views. Little could be further from the truth.

The fact is: it’s still possible to think that a) free expression; b) anti-violence; and c) tolerance of dissenting ideologies are commitments one can hold simultaneously. In addition, one can even say that Ngo was actively “looking for trouble” while also believing that the protesters were wrong for giving it to him, or at least giving it to him in the way that they did.

Of course he was “asking for it” in one sense – at least expecting it – and that’s the whole point of exercises such as these. You show up in a hostile space, as a known conservative, in an (ironically) conservative liberal space (by which I mean “it’s liberal, but only on certain circumscribed terms”), in order to provoke a conflict that “proves” the intolerance of liberals. Shortly thereafter, the “liberals” beat you up.

Falling for this gambit, time and time again, is a terrible tactic on the part of some of those who consider themselves as exemplars of the values of the political left.

And yes, antifa are not actual liberals, but that doesn’t matter in the war for attention and media space. They serve well enough as examples to fill column inches on Fox News, or to validate the echo chambers of conservative thinkers.

Of course, Ngo serves just as well to validate the echo chambers of many liberals, who can now say things like he was “asking for it”, while at the same time being incandescently angry at the merest suggestion of “victim-blaming” in other contexts.

Because you’re not a victim if you deserve it, I guess, and “deserving it” is defined by “you’re a person who expresses views that I don’t like”. And I do get it. I’m just as convinced that my values (or at least the values relevant here, like anti-racism etc.) are the right ones to hold.

But I’m also aware that defending your values with violence is indicative of a value that liberals have typically rejected, because it’s far too susceptible to false positives and epistemic exuberance, where the whole idea of encouraging dissent because we might also be wrong gets lost in a general atmosphere in which people are afraid to express dissent in fear of being beaten up.

To quote my Charlottesville post a second time,

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.

We can condemn ideas without celebrating violence. One of the reasons we believe that democracy and liberalism are valuable is because we know that all of us – not just the people we don’t like – are capable of excesses in defence of our strongly-held views.

So, instead of being vigilantes, we accept that we should defer the judgment and punishment to due process, rather than to the whims of a mob. Yes, the current moment (Trump, etc.) certainly explains some of this rage against people like Ngo, but that’s not the same thing as excusing or validating it.

Ngo is now a(nother) martyr for the anti-liberal cause, partly because of antifa, who often act like actual fascists rather than anti-fascists, and partly because of liberals who cheer them on, at least when they beat up the “right” people.

You don’t need to sympathise with Ngo, or conservative thought as expressed by anyone, to condemn beating people up for expressing those thoughts. And for as long as you don’t condemn beating people up for being asshats, you’re neither a liberal, nor helping to defeat those who have turned the conservative agenda into a pretext for bigotry.

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.