Thursday, February 26, 2015

Reductio ad Hitlerum

Godwin’s Law states that as an internet debate continues, the probability of somebody making an inappropriate comparison with Hitler or the nazis tends towards 1. In plain English, this means that if you get into a long argument, somebody is bound to say something crass and stupid, like “Hitler had a dog, therefore all dog-owners are nazis.” The unwritten rule is that when this happens, the debate is over, and whoever made that comparison is automatically deemed to have lost it. I imagine there is an equivalent law for inappropriate references to Stalin or communism, and if anyone knows what it’s called, I’d be interested to find out.

It’s an important point for me because I personally cringe whenever, for example, people complain that Google is staffed by Nazis just because YouTube redesigned its site. I’ve thought long and hard about why I don’t have the same reaction when people make light of the Spanish Inquisition, and come to the conclusion that it’s several generations removed from us, no longer so clearly in the collective consciousness. That, and the fact that it always makes me think of Monty Python.

Nazi Germany, though, is still just about in living memory, and not something Germans feel they can joke about. There is also the point that there are extremist political groups that draw on nazi ideology for their inspiration — which is to say, there are actual groups of people that can fairly and almost accurately be termed “nazi”. These groups do not include people who insist on criticizing every split infinitive and misattached modifier.

I recently saw a fairly old tweet (which I won’t attempt to identify, as I’m not trying to start a twit-storm) featuring an image of a Venn diagram. Various circles with labels like “MRAs” (i.e., “Men’s Rights Activists”) and “Gamers” all intersected to such a degree that very little was outside of the intersection labelled “Nazis”.

Now, I suspect this is supposed to be sarcastic, but I can’t really tell. Mostly, I can’t really tell because, well, it looks sarcastic, but then somebody tweeted to him that you can’t call these people Nazis, and he tweeted back that yes, he could. Well... yes, he can. I just don’t think it’s a good idea, and if he was being serious, he was also being horribly ignorant. Looking through his Twitter feed, he certainly seems to have it in for gamers.

I think “gamers” probably refers to the storm-in-a-teacup story known as “gamergate” which revealed to a barely credulous world the astounding fact that some people who play or create video games are (gasp!) nasty bullies who are prepared to use threats of physical (including sexual) violence to intimidate. Which is a horrible situation that should never be, but hardly a surprise to anyone who has had any kind of experience with human beings, and certainly doesn’t warrant classing nearly all gamers as nazis. MRAs, for those who don’t know, are men who ostensibly worry that feminism has gone too far, but when you speak to them they turn out to be what my mother euphemistically calls “male chauvinist pigs”.

Nasty people. But “nazis”?

In my estimation, nazis are also nasty people, but it doesn’t follow that all nasty people are nazis. Let’s be clear what we are talking about: National socialism is a political ideology which takes fascism (which itself replaces socialism’s class warfare with warfare between nations) and grafts onto it “scientific racism” (a nice way to refer to the practice of using pseudo-science to justify xenophobia). Having established a one-party state, the nazis set about imprisoning and murdering millions and millions of people, spending vast amounts of money nobody had which would have ruined Germany’s economy had they not also provoked a deadly war which laid waste to much of Europe. Estimates of the number of people killed by the nazi regime go up to about 21 million.

There is, quite simply, no comparison there. It jars to see people using the word “nazi” to mean “unpleasant” or “unnecessarily strict” because while many members of the Nazi Party were undoubtedly both, the term means a whole lot more besides.

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