In Politics and the English Language, George Orwell observed that “political speech and writing are largely the defence of the indefensible.” He detailed how certain manners of diction are employed to that end—dying metaphors, verbal false limbs, pretentious and otherwise meaningless words all work to constitute a kind of inflated, euphemistic style of expression. This divests language of plain meaning in order to obscure brutal realities and to hide the “gap between one’s real and one’s declared aims.” As these habits are adopted and spread, clear thinking and good communication become more difficult and the process self-perpetuates. Stupid, ugly, and oppressive ideas actively distort language to create a semblance of reason and respectability; in turn, the corruption of language further predisposes people to uncritically accept and conform to the same sorts of orthodoxies.
In a vein similar to Orwell’s lexicology of apologetics, criminological theory may help inform an understanding of how speech is used in defense of the indefensible at another level of analysis—that of rhetorical strategies. Specifically, what follows is a look at the online discourse surrounding the recent assault of a journalist by antifascist demonstrators, as viewed through the lens of Neutralization Theory.
The crux of Neutralization Theory is this: acts that would violate accepted laws or norms, or otherwise contradict one’s beliefs or self-image, carry the threat of guilt and shame. That threat can be neutralized, allowing for such violations to occur, using rationalizations that deny the disparity between one’s values and actions. In a sense, these rationalizations are coping strategies for managing moral dissonance, quieting one’s conscience in the pursuit or defense of expedience.
Neutralization Theory was originally conceived as an explanation of juvenile delinquency by Gresham Sykes and David Matza. It has since been broadly expanded and applied to adult and white-collar crime, and to other acts of deviance and subcultural divergence. It has been used to examine honor crimes as well as the coping strategies of domestic violence victims, the denial of elderly abuse by both victims and abusers, the perpetration of right-wing violence and online ideological extremism, and even genocide and intergenerational war guilt.
Neutralization Theory “transcends the realm of criminology…[with] ‘universal applicability,’ as it can be applied to any situation where there are inconsistencies between one’s actions and beliefs,” whether individually or collectively. And so, while it has not yet been formally applied to the kind of context examined here (i.e., apologetic framings of leftist political street violence), the sheer breadth of the literature seems to suggest a cursory exploration in that direction may be warranted and fruitful.
On June 29, 2019, left-wing activists staged a counter-protest to a rally hosted by the Proud Boys in Portland, Oregon. Andy Ngo, a local journalist and editor for Quillette, who has covered Antifa and its conflicts with the far-Right in the city, was in attendance and recording.
Known for his critical coverage of Antifa, and having been harassed at prior events, Ngo was subject to repeated attacks on this occasion. What began with stonewalling escalated as milkshakes were thrown, and Ngo was punched and kicked, without retaliation, by a group of masked and black-clad demonstrators. A woman can be heard yelling, “Fuck you, Andy!” As he was attempting to walk away, Ngo was sprayed with silly string, egged, and pelted with milkshake as others in the crowd taunted and followed him. Beaten and robbed of his equipment, Ngo was then taken to a hospital with injuries to his face and neck, and a reported brain hemorrhage.
The incident sparked a flurry of commentary across social and news media in short order. Condemnation poured in quickly from the Right; a more ambivalent mixture of schadenfreude, mockery, and other tentative attempts at minimization proceeded more slowly from the Left. At least among relatively mainstream progressive voices, the incident was understandably problematic. Bluntly put: a masked mob publicly beat and robbed a gay, Asian journalist who offered no resistance. That should not be an easy image to digest from any respectable point of view, much less from any recognizably liberal or progressive system of values. It is also difficult to square with the professed purpose and aims of the antifascist movement, a cause which in recent years has enjoyed no small measure of sympathy and support among the left-leaning commentariat.
It is precisely these sorts of gaps—between behavior and value; image and reality—where techniques of neutralization can be expected to appear. Sykes and Matza identified five such techniques, which I have applied to the case of Ngo’s assault in what follows.
1. Denial of Responsibility: The Offender as Faultless for their Actions
Given the documentation of the attacks, it is difficult to argue that these actions were merely accidental. However, the offenders’ responsibility can be diminished in other ways, such as by couching their actions as somehow predetermined. These sorts of “play with fire, expect to get burned” rationalizations diminish the intentions of Ngo’s assailants, and thereby their blameworthiness. The indefensible becomes merely inevitable.
A more sophisticated formulation of this strategy is to excise the offending actions from the narrative chain of events, redirecting focus to some antecedent conditions. “It’s not a surprise a conservative writer was bloodied in a street brawl in Portland,” explains the standfirst to a piece at HuffPost, “far-right extremists have been freely hosting skirmishes there for years.” Implicit here is the idea that, because a skirmish has been “hosted,” the other side must participate, and that attacking a journalist somehow necessarily follows. Thus, it might safely be disregarded as mere distraction from what “really” went on.
2. Denial of Injury: The Offense as Harmless
After Ngo was hit with a milkshake earlier in the day, he tweeted a picture of his splashed backpack, with the comment, “’Peaceful’ Protest.” This was met with much derision and scorn. Some back-pedalled as events unfolded while others forged ahead, using humor and hyperbole to diffuse the seriousness of the attacks. “RIP Andy Ngo, whose brain exploded into diarrhea fragments from getting hit with a single piece of silly string,” began one comment in a since-deleted series of Tweets.
Others downplayed the assaults by emphasizing the milkshake and silly string elements, while reducing the rest to “a few punches” that “didn’t even knock him down,” or omitting it altogether. Some reduced Ngo’s injuries to “a few scratches and bruises,” while others speculated that the brain injury was a fabrication, based on as little as, for example, Ngo’s ability to send a tweet:
A subtle variation on this theme was pointedly noting the amount of publicity Ngo garnered from his attack. Of particular consternation was the amount of money raised by the GoFundMe set up in his name. The implication seemed to be that, whatever harms he suffered were offset (and then some) by the financial and reputational profits he had gained. The attack was, in one commenter’s words, “the greatest thing that could have happened to his career.” “Don’t worry about Ngo,” a columnist at the Independent reassured us, “[h]e’s been discharged from hospital with a big fat GoFundMe of around $160,000.”
3. Denial of Victimhood: Blaming the Victim
Closely akin to the book-keeping strategy of denying injury is the suggestion that Ngo did not just profit from his attacks, but actively sought to be victimized for that purpose, and that he had (to some degree) provoked his assault.
Such denials often took the form of pointing to his earlier stated fear that he could be assaulted, to imply that he somehow willed it; or, accusing Ngo of getting in “people’s faces”; or, suggesting that his refusal to back off and leave after “peaceful requests” by demonstrators who “felt unsafe” in his presence made him the aggressor.
Others reached further back in time to characterize Ngo as a “doxxer” of Antifa members, an “Islamophobe” and “eugenicist,” who is responsible for a “kill list” of left-wing journalists, and so on. And, of course, some rationalized that he got what he deserved for being a “fascist”—a somewhat necessary connection to draw at some point, one supposes, when attempting to justify “antifascist” violence. However, its rhetorical utility runs deeper than simply drawing semantic congruence between the action and the target:
Fascism is one of those meaningless words that Orwell identifies as having been untethered from any sensible intention in politicized language to become a sort of free-floating connotation of disapproval. In some corners of contemporary anti-fascist thought (and elsewhere), this lack of definitional boundaries has even been embraced. Fascism, or so the reasoning goes, is not one but many things. Insofar as it must be resisted by any means necessary in order to prevent even greater evils, the question must be left open of “those for whom violent intervention could be an ethical possibility.”
It is the (fittingly Orwellian) notion of “preemptive self-defense,” endlessly interpretable and applicable without the limitations of conventional language or logic, distilled down to a single epithet: “fascist.”
4. Appeal to Higher Loyalties: A Wrongful Action Excused in the Service of a Greater Good
If antifascism can be vague—even deliberately so—about what it is against, it is murkier still about what it for. It is difficult to frame Ngo’s assault as just a broken egg for the sake of an omelet, when it isn’t clear what’s on the menu. However, as a creature of the Left and of modern society, it is important that antifascist actions are not framed as antagonistic to the values of the mainstream.
Likewise: even though he is gay, that does not mean he isn’t homophobic; even though he is Asian, that does not mean he isn’t a white supremacist. A diagnosis of internalized hatred goes a long way towards papering over the oxymoronic.
Various allusions to WWII were also predictably common (if historically confused), anointing Antifa as the moral heirs to the veterans of the Allied forces, by tacit argumentum ad dictionarium reasoning. In this historical halo-grab, what matters is not the ethics of Ngo’s assault (“of course it was wrong, but…”). Rather, it is denying the enemy their “Horst Wessel” moment in the propaganda war.
5. Condemnation of the Condemners: Deflecting Blame with Recrimination and Whataboutism
Drifting into (and out of) Extremism
It is sometimes said that anything uttered or written before the word “but” is worthless. In the context of neutralizing speech, what comes after the “but” is the rhetorical work; what precedes it is what is most sincere.
When someone says, “political violence is wrong, but…,” Neutralization Theory would have us understand that they do very much believe that. That does not mean it is always an accurate reflection of who they are or what they are doing at any given moment. But it is worth keeping in mind that neutralization techniques are only necessary because the speaker acknowledges the legitimacy of social norms and is committed to their values. If that were not the case, there would be no need to rationalize any possible discrepancy away, as there would be no moral dissonance to assuage.
Neutralizations function to loosen the normative constraints of conventional society, to allow one to drift into deviant modes of action and ideation. However, it is in the nature of such transgressions that they are episodic and self-limiting—and in the context of political discourse, almost always a question of which team did what.
It is important that those entering such an arena with honest intentions are able to see these rhetorical gambits for what they are. Such fallacies of moral reasoning should be as readily recognized, called out, and jeered at as an ad hominem or a straw man—and avoided in one’s own discourse. Nothing is as corruptive to clear thinking or good communication, or as contagious, as a poor habits of speech.
“Political language,” Orwell observed, “is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable.” Neutralizing techniques are illustrative of this tendency. But they are not beyond the reach of self-control. Acknowledging such evasions in one’s own speech would surely go a long way towards ensuring that “when you make a stupid remark, it will be obvious, even to yourself.”
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