There’s a meme circulating on the internet which righteously urges everyone to “Punch Nazis.” Promoting this phrase has become a virtue-signal in certain circles of the left, and even among some confused people in the political center and right.
The advocates of this meme — apparently incapable of thinking in principle — fail to see that if it’s all right for you to punch others when you disagree with their ideas, then it’s all right for others to punch you when they disagree with your ideas.
By saying “Punch Nazis” you are equally saying, “It’s OK to punch me.”
“But wait,” you may be objecting, “I don’t mean that it’s acceptable to punch people with good ideas, only those with bad ideas. Nazi ideas. Those people you can punch.” But how do we discover whose ideas are good or bad? The reason that free speech is sacrosanct is that it provides a forum — the only forum — in which we can work out which ideas are good or bad, without resorting to violence.
At this moment there are probably millions, or perhaps hundreds of millions, of people in the world who are certain that some of your ideas (perhaps those about abortion or religious figures or politics) are despicable and downright evil. Are they justified in punching you for your “evil” ideas? If not, why not?
The only way to ensure that you don’t get punched for your “unacceptable” ideas, is to ensure that no one is allowed to punch anyone to further political ideals.
In the might-makes-right past, the “best” idea was the one advocated by the biggest brute — the chief, king, strongman, theocrat, dictator — who had the physical power to crush you — to punch you — if you disagreed. The freedom and civilization that you enjoy today began the moment this rule of force was replaced by the principle of free speech — the principle that all words, ideas, thoughts, discussions, and debates must be protected from the realm of brute force. Because the free exchange of ideas is the only way we fallible humans have of groping toward the truth.
When you advocate for “Punch Nazis!” you are advocating a return to the pre-civilized rule of brute force — the rule of the strongman, the inquisitor, the thug with the biggest club. And that, I would argue, is far more dangerous than letting a few neo-Nazis speak their minds. After all, in a country with free speech, when a Nazi calls for genocide, he is met with immediate, overwhelming public counterargument, he is ostracized, shamed, and shown to be wrong and morally monstrous.
Free speech — and its corollary, free thought — is not just another right. It is the master right, without which no other rights can exist. It is the means by which we discover rights in the first place and defend them against attack. When free speech disappears in a society, terrible conditions follow. Slavery and mass murder are even possible, as we can see from the history of every dictatorship on earth, from the Soviet Union, to Nazi Germany, to Mao’s China, to North Korea. When you have no free speech, you have no rights at all, not even the right to plead for your own life.
Therefore, I would argue, your call to “Punch Nazis” — a call to use physical force to silence the speech of those you disagree with — is even more dangerous than letting Nazis spout their nonsense in an environment where they can be intellectually countered and corrected. By advocating “Punch Nazis” you are striking at the root of freedom itself.
And since your idea is so dangerous, by your own logic you should be punched immediately before you can spread this vicious idea further. Hypothetically, if the world were a just place, the moment someone said, “Punch Nazis” a fist would strike the speaker in the face to demonstrate the real-world consequences of the principle they have just uttered. But the world is not that just.
So we will have to explain it patiently to each one of them, as we do to children. It will require all of our patience and restraint not to deliver the punches they have so clearly asked for. But the principle of free speech — the root of civilization — is worth defending, even when, especially when, it takes all of our restraint.
[Editor’s note: an earlier version of this article was published on Areo. It has been updated to more accurately represent the author’s sentiment.]