“Is it OK to punch a Nazi?” is a question that has ricocheted around Twitter ever since Jan. 20, when “alt-right” provocateur and American white supremacist Richard Spencer got slugged on video by a masked protester during Donald Trump’s US presidential inauguration. Footage of the punch spread quickly around the internet, where it became a topic of much debate, a website and even a meme.
But while some people celebrated the punch, others wondered if, on a more philosophical level, sucker punching a neo-Nazi is ever acceptable behavior. Most respectable types said no, while others, including many on the so-called “Dirtbag Left,” pointed out that punching Nazis is a time-honored American tradition.
I asked controversial Slovenian philosopher and professor at the European Graduate School Slavoj Žižek what he thought. His answer might surprise you. (Editor’s note: the following transcript has been edited for clarity.)
Quartz: So, is it OK to punch a Nazi?
Žižek: No! If there is violence needed, I’m more for Gandhian, passive violence.
I once made a statement, maybe you know it, which cost me dearly. I said the problem with Hitler was that he wasn’t violent enough. Then I said, in the same statement, that Gandhi was more violent than Hitler. All Hitler’s violence was reactive violence. He killed millions, but the ultimate goal was basically to keep the system the way it was—German capitalism and so on—while Gandhi really wanted to bring down the British state. But his violence was symbolic: peaceful demonstrations, general strikes and so on.
If a guy talks like that jerk [Richard Spencer], you should just ignore him. If he hits you, turn around. Don’t even acknowledge him as a person. That’s the type of violence I would call for. Not physical violence. Because, you know, people say symbolic violence can be even worse, but don’t underestimate physical violence. Something happens when you move to physical violence. I’m not saying we should greet everyone, embrace them. Be brutal at a different level. When you encounter a guy like the one who was punched, act in such a way that even hitting him, even slapping him is too much of a recognition. You should treat him or her or whoever as a nonperson, literally.
Quartz: In other words, leftists should “go high?”
Žižek: I remember when [Greek leftist party] Syriza was still competing for power in Greece. A representative of [far-right political party] Golden Dawn threw glasses full of water at his Syriza opponent at a TV round table. A couple of times, Syriza members of parliament were attacked in parliament, and so on. Today it’s these new alt-right people who are acting physically violent. They represent the decay of common morality and decency. And I use here the the very precise term, Hegel calls it Sittlichkeit. It’s not simple morality, it’s a set of thick unwritten rules which makes our social life bearable. And, paradoxically, I think that progressives should become the voice of common decency, politeness, good manners and so on.
Here I see also the failure of political correctness, because political correctness is, for me, a desperate reaction to this disintegration. But they are doing it in a suicidal way, by precise regulations, saying this word is forbidden and so on. If it has to proceed like this, the left has already lost.
Quartz: But the “when they go low, we go high” strategy didn’t actually work for Democrats against Donald Trump in 2016.
Žižek: It’s much more complex than that. I think that’s their biggest mistake. Isn’t is sad that the best left-liberal critique of Trump is political comedy? People like Jon Stewart, John Oliver and so on. It’s nice to make fun of him, but you laugh at him and he wins. My God! There is something terribly wrong with playing this game of ironically making fun of Trump. You know, in medicine they call it symptomatic healing, when you take some things, they just neutralize the effects, like you have this pain, but they don’t heal the disease itself. Criticizing Trump is just symptomatic healing. Trump is an effect of the failure of the liberal-left. Everybody knows this knows this now. The only way to really beat Trump is to radically rethink what does the left mean today. Otherwise he will be getting ordinary people’s votes.
Quartz: What do you think Trump will do?
Žižek: You know what my fear is? Not that Trump will fail and there will be chaos, but for some real period of time, what if he succeeds? You know what happened in Poland? The Law and Justice party, they did such a tremendous social transfer to the poor that no elected European government would dare to do it. They lowered retirement age, they made better conditions for health care, more help for mothers with children and so on. No wonder that people like them. My God! They did something that no left government dares to do. And for me this is the sad truth of Europe: it’s a paradox.
When I was young I remember when former US president Nixon went to China. The idea was that only a right-winger can do something like this. If a left-winger, or a Democratic president had done this, he would have been attacked as a traitor. The same paradox in France, you remember. Only De Gaulle was able to recognize an independent Algeria. A left-winger would have been considered a traitor. And we are at the end of this crazy logic. If you want better conditions for the working class, you have to be populist right wing.
Quartz: What will you do?
Žižek: The only way to survive such shitty times, if you ask me, is to write and read big, fat books, you know? And I’m writing now another book on Hegelian dialectics, subjectivity, ontology, quantum physics and so on. That’s the only way to survive. Like Lenin. I will use his example. You know what Lenin did, in 1915, when World War I exploded? He went to Switzerland and started to read Hegel.
In these desperate times, I’ve begun to look at old Hollywood musicals. Now everybody’s seen it, but I found a good pirate copy of La La Land. And then I saw one of the old musical masterpieces: [from 1935], Ginger Rogers, Fred Astaire. Top Hat. And it occurs to me, I want to write something in defense of these old musicals, where they tend to act without psychological depth. They just move like puppets. It’s too psychological for me, La La Land. I prefer the total puppets of Ginger Rogers and Fred Astaire. Maybe I will write something.