Who's Hitler today?
This all reminds me of Godwin's Law, which, contrary to the popular misconception of it, merely states quite simply:
As an online discussion grows longer, the probability of a comparison involving Nazis or Hitler approaches one.In fact, it is a custom in many Usenet newsgroups that, when analogies or comparisons involving Hitler or the Nazis come up, the discussion thread is over and the person who first made the comparison should be declared the loser of any debate going on. States the Godwin's Law FAQ:
So, what this means in practical terms:Of course, one must realize that Godwin's Law applies to questionable or inappropriate analogies to Hitler or the Nazis (Rick Santorum's overblown rhetoric or this comparison of Martha Stewart to Hitler in the service of reviewing television biopics on her and Hitler, for example), not to appropriate comparisons. It is certainly appropriate to bring up these topics in the context of discussing Holocaust denial, neo-Nazis, fascism, eugenics, and World War II history, for example. There are of course other situations where such analogies are entirely appropriate. Indeed, virtually all Holocaust deniers are Holocaust deniers because of anti-Semitism or a sympathy for the Nazi philosophy; and they often falsely invoke Godwin's Law when someone points out their obvious anti-Semitism or their defense of Hitler. However, far too many people use these flimsy analogies as a kind of "nuclear option" to throw at their opponents, to demonize them as "fascists," as so richly demonstrated in the post I referenced.
- If someone brings up Nazis in general conversation when it wasn't necessary or germane without it necessarily being an insult, it's probably about time for the thread to end.
- If someone brings up Nazis in general conversation when it was vaguely related but is basically being used as an insult, the speaker can be considered to be flaming and not debating.
- If someone brings up Nazis in any conversation that has been going on too long for one of the parties, it can be used as a fair excuse to end the thread and declare victory for the other side.
Personally, I wince whenever I hear such comparisons, and view the arguments or assertions of people in a much harsher light than I might have, had they not brought up such inflammatory excess--even when I might be otherwise inclined to agree with them. The reason is that most people who throw such comparisons about in verbal combat have clearly not thought about them carefully and either make no effort to explain or justify the analogy or make only perfunctory (and often historically inaccurate) justifications. (There are occasional exceptions--and here--such that, even when I don't necessarily agree with significant parts of what is written, I have to take the comparison seriously because the author has at least done his research and thought about it. These exceptions are fairly rare, however.) Given all this tossing about of the "H (for "Hitler")-bomb, I once again echo this plea, which I encountered three months ago in the comments of a post in Matt Yglesias's old weblog (he's moved):
Can we please, perhaps, just agree that invoking Hiroshima, The Holocaust, Dresden, The Rape of Nanjing, The Cultural Revolution, The Trail of Tears, The St. Bartholemew's day Massacre, Rwanda, The Black Plague, or The Extinction of the Dinosaurs are all rhetorically excessive when compared to just about any domestic social issue?To which, I now propose adding "or international" to the word "issue," and then this second plea:
Can we please, perhaps, just agree that comparing anyone to Hitler, the Nazis, Stalin, Pol Pot, Genghis Khan, or similar historical figures are all, except in rare cases, rhetorically excessive when used for almost any person now living?Such rhetorical excesses shed much heat but very rarely any light. Their usual purpose is to demonize the subject of the attack without actually having to bother to do the heavy lifting of justifying one's criticism of a policy or dislike of a person with actual evidence. When you look at such analogies with a critical eye, it almost always becomes apparent that they are vague and flimsy. When you see this kind of rhetorical excess, it is almost always a sign that the person using it either has a weak argument, is intellectually lazy, or is more interested in polemics (a.k.a. "flaming" when referring to online discussions) than in reasoned debate. That's why my estimation of a person's arguments usually goes down several notches when I hear such flawed analogies. Unfortunately, all too often these days, polemics work, which is why so many like to throw the "H-bomb" in political debate.
You know, sometimes I wish I could invoke Godwin's Law in every day life. Then I remember that, even in online discussions, invoking Godwin's law is often not so easy, even when doing so is entirely appropriate. That's when I give up on that idea. Unfortunately, people like Rick Santorum, many on the left plus many others who misuse the analogy just won't go away that easily.
ADDENDUM 6/10/2005: Don't miss the sequel to Who's Hitler today?: The zombie of Hitler's corpse is eating people's brains. Yum. "More brains!"