This text by Mimi Thi Nguyen brings a crucially useful complement to the considerations on violence and self-defense presented in this issue’s introduction. She argues that there cannot be any a priori legitimization of violence and that there are serious risks of thinking otherwise.
The phenomenon of political violence is not new, though the historical present seems to be overflowing with it. Vigilante, white nationalist terror, openly condoned by an incumbent U.S. president who lauds his concentration camps and praises his armed supporters threatening civil war, is met with opposition (whether with arms or milkshakes) from an increasingly conspicuous militant left. A broader commitment to community safety and mutual aid is also reviving centuries-old grassroots measures by and for populations who are most at risk, including antifascist gyms, hijabi self-defense courses, sanctuary campaigns, and antifascist gun clubs. The 13-second clip of a media-friendly white nationalist punched by an anonymous anarchist while on camera, during an interview, became a flashpoint (and a meme, mixed and remixed to sync to music) two years ago in an era of global right-wing swing: “When is it okay to punch a Nazi?” — the site Can I Punch Nazis? answers with a resounding YES. The structure of this simple question (the timing, the threat, the address to another) opens onto a broader debate on the legitimacy of political violence.
As an existential and legal claim to vulnerability and the right to life, self-defense is often presumed to resolve the legitimacy of violence. However, ‘legitimacy’ is a calculation that only makes sense in specific situations and constellations of objects, persons, and forces. All arguments for and against the use of violence as a political instrument, as a necessity, depend on ethical and political differentiations not only between categories of violence but also its perpetrators. For instance, police shootings, rapes, street bashings, are justified (or acceptable) according to the law or common belief when some persons commit these acts. Meanwhile, other acts are judged as violent — not by the act but by the actor, who is understood as presumptively threatening.