Misconceptions of “Defending Nazis”

Free speech wall in Virginia
Graffiti Chalkboard Free Speech Blackboard

Whenever an individual with far-right views is forcefully deplatformed from speaking, an incredible number of people speak out and side with the deplatformed person. Then, a second group of people voice their horror and disgust at the amount of people “defending Nazis.” Part of this group declares that anyone siding with a deplatformed Nazi must also be a Nazi, while others will suggest that if they’re not Nazis, they’re at the very least sympathetic to Nazism. Neither of these assessments are true.

This is a frustratingly common misconception that defending an individual in one instance equates to endorsing or sympathizing with the individual’s views.

Many people fall into the trap of viewing the ideological struggle in an unprincipled manner. They attack or defend people based on whether a person is part of their political “team.” If someone else’s views overlap with their own, that person must be supported. If someone else’s views strongly differ from their own, that person must be stopped. This Rules for Radicals view focuses only on accomplishing the end goal by any means necessary.

Then there are those that hold principles and apply them in a (classically) liberal and egalitarian manner. Principled individuals have an end goal, but pursue it from a principled standpoint. A truly principled person will defend not just their political allies from unjust harm, but also their political adversaries.

When an actual white nationalist is violently deplatformed, those that speak out against the deplatforming have a variety of different views. Some of them are indeed also white nationalists, speaking out only because of shared beliefs and to further their desired ends. But this is the minority. The rest are libertarians, conservatives, and of other pro-free speech ideologies defending a principle, not the person’s views. They strongly disagree with white nationalist views, but are defending that person’s right to free speech (assuming, of course, that the speaker wasn’t deplatformed for indisputably calling for violence, which is rarely the case in these situations).

The standard response to this is that “free speech” is just an excuse to cover sympathy for white supremacy. The absurdity of this claim is revealed when examining what is actually said by free speech defenders and self-described white nationalists. Consistent free speech activists often hold many libertarian views, and will defend them while opposing far-right ideology. Actual white nationalists such as Richard Spencer often criticize the free-speech movement, and, when asked, Spencer said he would not call himself a defender of free speech.

To only defend free speech for one group and not another is both hypocritical and counterproductive. To accept that someone with radical views isn’t entitled to free speech means that one’s right to free speech depends entirely on their relation to the Overton window of acceptable opinion within society. A libertarian defense of a white nationalist’s right to free speech is not only principled, but also pragmatic. Libertarians hold many views outside the mainstream. If libertarians cannot defend the right to speak for those they disagree with, they themselves might be next.

Some will no doubt respond with the misconception that even if free-speech activists are only defending the alt-right’s right to speak and not the views themselves, they’re still contributing to the spread of extremism. This is also untrue.

Back in September 2018, a report on the Alternative Influence Network was released, claiming that there are many pathways to extremism through the alternative media. This much is true. Through guest appearances, collaborations, and debates, a fan of someone like Joe Rogan could be exposed to white nationalist views. What the report gets wrong is that even though these views are widely accessible, most people reject them. The overwhelming majority of viewers of alternative media prefer libertarians, anti-establishment conservatives, classical liberals, and political centrists.

The so-called act of “defending Nazis” rarely has anything to do with defending the extremist views themselves, and more to do with defending the individual right to free speech for everyone in a principled manner.

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Nathan A. Kreider is author of the Misconceptions column for Being Libertarian, and has written for the Austrian Economics Center, the Foundation for Economic Education, and the Liberalists. He also occasionally publishes a blog and video content, including short book reviews, which can be found on his website, nkreider.com. He can be contacted by email via [email protected]