Punching Pepe: Meme Magic and the Ethics of Free Speech

by Cam Netland

The “alt-right,” a white supremacist movement that originated within extremist internet forums such as 4chan’s /pol/ in 2010, has become the subject of controversy and media fanfare surrounding the 2016 presidential election and American political climate. Largely condemned by politicians, the alt-right has recently resurfaced in ethics debates after the movement’s representative, Richard Spencer, was assaulted on inauguration day. The attack has forced many Americans to question the moral implications of publicly-condoned violence. Can one morally condone those who assault neo-Nazis? Do violent words merit violent response? What would be the most entertaining song to synchronize with the punching? Why does Grandma care so much about free speech all of a sudden?

Let us examine the underlying factors that prompted the punch. First, take meme culture.

Richard Spencer was in fact discussing memes; more specifically, he was discussing the “Pepe” meme at the time he was punched. Pepe the Frog, considered an amusing cartoon when it first circulated the internet in 2005, has been adopted by the alt-right and recently declared a hate symbol by the Anti-Defamation League. The controversy surrounding Pepe underscores the alt-right’s controversial use of internet speech. Deep internet forums, such as those in which the alt-right gained traction, often incorporate memes to emphasize a position or encourage “lulz”.


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“Lulz” are schadenfreude-derived laughs at the misfortune of others which are often enhanced through the ubiquity and influence of meme culture. Along with memes and lulz, the internet features millions of activists who are overjoyed to see bigotry punished. After the overwhelming support for the assailant was spread online, Spencer commented: “I’m afraid this is going to become the meme to end all memes. I’m going to hate watching this.” He also commented on his fear of traveling without a bodyguard but has so far taken no legal action in regard to the punch.

The minority of people upset by the assault on Spencer argue that supporting violence against speech of any kind could lead to an uncanny social acceptance of violence in the future. Opponents of the punch, such as comic book writer Nick Spencer (no relation), argue the pleasure one derives after seeing a bully get what they “deserve” should be quenched. Spencer, after all, has legal tools at his disposal to respond to the assault in court.

The argument seems to follow that punishing a bully constitutes bullying itself. Yet this doesn’t hold. The hatred of Nazis does not equate to the hatred Nazis harbor for innocent people. Moreover, the violence involved in assaulting a Nazi who chooses to publicly spew his or her bigotry and hatred is comparatively preemptive. Whereas the Nazi spews racial hatred in order to proselytize or even incite violence toward minorities in the moment, a good Samaritan who hates Nazis and assaults one does a public service by stopping the dangerous flow of racial diatribe and taking the trash off the street.

From the perspective of people concerned for the future of America, the general consensus has been: yes, it is OK to punch a Nazi. Hate begets hate. You get what’s coming to you. Free speech does, and should, have its consequences.

Now, how would these activists respond if Spencer had contacted police and arrested his assailant? Could the puncher’s actions be justified from a legal standpoint? The answer is no. Spencer is within his complete jurisdiction to report and arrest anyone who has done harm to his person.

Yet what about the legality of hate speech? In many countries, a Nazi would be committing a crime by disseminating hateful ideology. In the United States, where hate speech is legal, a simple punch reveals the degree of freedom average citizen possess to distribute justice on their own.

In today’s world, especially in Trump’s world, we have to be especially scrupulous about how we define free speech.

People may resort to violence, or other instinctual responses to dissent, more often than not in the age of Trump. While we may derive some sense of justice from watching a Nazi get socked in the face, this violence reflects a civil decorum that is spilling through the hourglass as we transition into a new political leadership. As a citizen, I condemn the actions of the person who punched Richard Spencer, but as a person I applaud it. Whether these two personas are mutually exclusive or not, in the blurred lines of Trump’s America, we may lose both altogether.

Cam Netland is a student at Connecticut College and a contributor to The College Voice, where this piece originally appeared.

The views expressed in this article are those of the writer. The Contemporary takes no institutional positions on matters of policy or opinion.

The graphic above was created by Andrea Acevedo, The Contemporary‘s Art Director. It depicts Milo Yiannoplous.

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