We’ve seen it so many times before that our reactions are instinctive, no matter the brutality. When Nazis go down, our spirits lift. Theaters full of people clap and whoop. Movies have taught generations of film-goers to revel in righteous violence.
Things are a little more complicated in the real world.
In the last weeks there have been a couple of high-profile incidents that we can file under the general category of “violence against Nazis,” to keep things simple. The first happened during Donald Trump’s inauguration when Richard Spencer, the man who coined the phrase “alt-right,” was punched in the face while giving a television interview on the streets of Washington. Spencer claims he isn’t a Nazi, though he’s been described as a white supremacist who longs for an ethno-state and wants to ban interracial marriage, so feel free to use whatever term you see fit. (He prefers identitarian.)
Then there’s Shia LaBeouf, who launched a live-stream art installation that same day. For the piece, participants are supposed to show up to the Museum of the Moving Image in New York and say the words “he will not divide us” into a camera. The protest art has led to counter-protests, though, and LaBeouf hasn’t taken too kindly to some of the Nazi rhetoric trolls have brought with them. At one point, a man tried to inconspicuously say the white nationalist slogan “1488” into the camera before the actor started screaming “he will not divide us” into the man’s face and tried to aggressively shepherd the interloper away from the camera. Later, LaBeouf was arrested after another altercation — though the impetus for that situation is unclear.
The incident involving Spencer quickly turned into a meme, with some reveling in the glory of seeing a white nationalist get punched. One was Barack Obama’s former speechwriter, who was impressed by the industrious Twitter users who set the punch video to music, including “Born in the USA” and “The Boys Are Back in Town.”
I don't care how many different songs you set Richard Spencer being punched to, I'll laugh at every one.— Jon Favreau (@jonfavs) January 21, 2017
Meanwhile, a debate over whether hitting Nazis is an excusable act erupted online.
In an interview with Newsweek, former New York Times Magazine “Ethicist” columnist Randy Cohen seemed perturbed by the very question.
“You have an ethical right to defend yourself against a physical assault,” he said. “But you do not have the right to respond to contemptible beliefs with physical violence. You organize politically. You struggle. You resist. You march. You vote. You run for office. We are not thugs and we don’t respond with thuggery!” (He did however admit that a little schadenfreude was only natural.)
But who can blame the people grappling with this question? Pop culture has coaxed us into believing that, when faced with horrible villains, the noble response is physical aggression. The vast majority of people who saw Spencer get assaulted watched it on a screen, which removes them from the true impact of the act. Zoe Daniel, the D.C. bureau chief for Australia’s ABC News, witnessed the attack and tweeted that it was “a pretty nasty moment.” Seeing something that shocking in person is very different from coming across it on social media, where the herd mentality urges viewers to join in on the jeering.
Movies and television have celebrated vigilante justice for decades, from Charles Bronson avenging his wife’s murder in “Death Wish” to “Dexter” — with a serial killer who’s likable because he murders other, worse serial killers — to the recent MTV show “Sweet/Vicious,” about two college women getting vengeance on rapists, among other unsavory characters.
But we rarely see the realistic effects of what happens when people take revenge into their own hands. One exception is the best picture nominee “Moonlight.” (Some spoilers ahead.)
The movie takes place in three parts, examining a Miami boy’s tumultuous journey to adulthood as he attempts to avoid bullies, not to mention his crack-addicted mother, while coming to terms with his sexuality. During the second chapter, Chiron (Ashton Sanders) is a high schooler who suffers through a cruel and heart-breaking incident spearheaded by his twisted nemesis (Patrick Decile). Following the violent encounter, Chiron breaks down. But then, after icing his bruised face, he decides to retaliate. He marches through the halls of his school, walks into a classroom, picks up a chair and breaks it over his bully’s back.
The movie-goer in us is trained to cheer at such a bold act. But in “Moonlight,” the consequences are dire. Chiron ends up in a juvenile detention center, where he creates an armor of muscle, makes some connections and becomes a drug dealer.
Asked about the scene, the Oscar-nominated writer-director Barry Jenkins said that audiences have reacted in varying ways.
“Some people break out into rapturous applause and some people are deathly hurt,” he said during a trip to Washington late last year. “Because you break the bully, but something breaks in you.”
Jenkins adapted the movie from a play by Tarell Alvin McCraney, who was also in town. The story is based on the playwright’s life, and he said that he often goes back to a similar moment from his past.
“One of the things to this day I wrestle with is my reaction, which was much less physically violent than that, but the hardening that happens and the psychotic break,” he said. “Does it make me a coward that I didn’t go back and kill those boys? Or does it make me smarter?”
The movie appears to say that the peaceful path is the righteous one, despite what we’ve learned from Indiana Jones and Dirty Harry. Of course, the memes aren’t as impressive.