Friday, June 20, 2014

Godwin's Law and the Nazi Rhetorical Paradox

Mel Brooks as Hitler, sans Hitler costume. Source.

It all began down in Munich town,
And pretty soon the word started gettin' around.
So I said to Martin Bormann
I said, "Hey Marty, why don't we throw a little Nazi party?"
We had an election, well kinda sorta,
And before you knew it, hello new order!
To all those mothers in the fatherland I said,
"Achtung, baby, I got me a plan!"
"Whatcha got Adolf? Whatcha gonna do?"
I said "How about this one:
World War Two!"
—"To Be Or Not To Be," Mel Brooks (there is no actual nudity in it, but I can't imagine the video linked here is safe for work at all)

"Say what you want to about the tenets of [insert ideology here], at least it's an ethos."
—a friend of mine, whenever he wants to subtly compare something to Nazism*

A well-known rule of the internet, Godwin's Law, states that "As an online discussion grows longer, the probability of a comparison involving Nazis or Hitler approaches 1." A corollary to this law, one which I wish were observed more often, is that whoever uses the comparison automatically loses the argument and the discussion must immediately cease:

"Constantly stopping these briefings halfway through is becoming a pain." Source 
There's a paradoxical quality about appeals to Nazism to bolster one's argument. They don't really work because, on the one hand, Nazis were Pure Evil, and on the other, they really weren't that different from you and me at all, dear reader.**

Let me break that down.

1. The Nazis were Pure Evil

The reason comparisons to Nazism don't work as rhetoric is the same reason the words "never" and "always" don't work as rhetoric.

A few years ago, I learned to avoid absolutes in trying to convince someone of something. If say, you're trying to convince someone to change their habit of eating lots of cookies, telling them "You always eat five cookies when you get home from work" or "You can never seem to keep from eating cookies when you have the chance" is a bad strategy, because all the person has to do is think of one counter-example ("I only ate four cookies when I got home from work on Thursday!") and you're wrong, your argument is suddenly weak, and the person is unlikely to be convinced.

Similarly, comparisons to Nazism are easy to push aside, because everyone knows that the Nazis were just the worst, man, like literally. Since our culture treats Nazism as the absolute height of all evils, and Hitler as the pinnacle and archetype of that evil, comparisons to Nazi ideology or the Fuhrer don't hold much water, because it's easy to find counter-examples and undermine the argument ("Obama isn't just like Hitler; Hitler was a vegetarian!")

2. The Nazis were just some dudes

Some recent reading I've been doing has brought the opposite side of this coin to my attention quite sharply. We treat Nazism and Hitler as radical, ultimate evil, but in reality there's a discomfiting degree of continuity between ourselves and Hitler, between American national ideology and Nazism.

Dale Aukerman's book Darkening Valley: A Biblical Perspective on Nuclear War was recommended recently to me by a friend of my wife (and, I think, a new friend to me also). It initially struck me as an odd topic to read about, but the book's recommender assured me it was worth my time, and he was not wrong.

The project of Darkening Valley is to discuss nuclear war through Bible stories. Each chapter takes a particular story from the Bible and uses it to explain and engage with an element of nuclear war; the opening chapter, for example, uses the story of Cain killing his brother Abel to remind the reader that a tendency toward violence is a deep element of human nature, and then goes on to point out how dangerous that fact is in conjunction with the fact that humans now have the weapons required to destroy themselves nearly instantaneously.

Aukerman touches on Hitler and Nazism often throughout the book, circling round again and again to examine the ways in which the specter of the Nazis has been used to justify war and the threat of war. Most strikingly, in a chapter titled "Hitler and the Woman Caught in Adultery," Aukerman discusses the "dark continuity" between himself and Hitler, between Nazism and the rest of the human race, and uses the story of the woman caught in adultery and brought to Jesus to illustrate his point. I'll quote Aukerman at length here, since he's substantially more eloquent than I am:

I want to challenge the assumption that there is a sharp discontinuity between who we are and who Adolf Hitler was, and the parallel assumption of discontinuity between our particular society and Nazi Germany. It is crucial for us to recognize not only the continuity between the darkness deep in each of us and the darkness in Hitler, but also a continuity between positive impulses and longings within us and those, even if to a large extent atrophied, within Hitler. 
The evidence that substantiates this dark continuity is manifold: many of the experimental findings of contemporary psychological studies of aggression and violence; any introspection which owns up to lethal sentiments, murderous fantasies and racist presumptions within us; the final stages of World War II in Europe during which the Allied nations outdid the Axis powers in unleashing violence; the prevailing popular attitudes in Allied countries toward the Nazis then and now. The attitude that Hitler and those around him were so wicked that they simply had to be done away with, was identical to the darkness that was being combated: a readiness to do away with those seen as enemies, a driving need to annihilate those reckoned unworthy to live.
It is most of all in the scriptural witness that we are shown the nature of this dark continuity...[T]he most revealing passage is...the story of the woman caught in the act of adultery. The Pharisees and the doctors of the law could come as they did because they recognized no continuity between who they had been and were and the publicly exposed adulteress. Jesus, moving to save the woman from execution, sought also to save her accusers from perdition and to bring them to a recognition of this continuity. It may be that most or even all of the accusers had not committed adultery as a physical act. But he who in the Sermon on the Mount probed into the depths from which such acts emerge was doing the same here. He wanted to express to his antagonists that a conspicuous example of wrongdoing, rather than reinforcing an exultant self-righteousness, was to bring awareness of the sin common to all human beings and of the shared need for forgiveness and conversion...  
All the desolation of nature, the razing of cities, the slaughter of millions of human beings carried out by Nazi Germany was only a limited foreshadowing of the desolating, razing, annihilating which the peoples of West and East are prepared to carry out. During years of residence in West Germany, I often wondered how decent, good-hearted Germans could have gone along with Nazism. Some of the answer comes through asking the same question of Americans (including myself at a certain level) and nuclear weapons. There is the drivenness of both those who lead and those who are led; fear of determined adversaries; emptiness within individual and society; the lure of power; the drive to be the center of the universe; the infernal darkness within, which the Dark Powers from without align with themselves. The Yes to nuclear weapons by good-hearted Americans who are distraught by the death of a pet and full of altruism toward neighbors recapitulates that earlier yielding to the Dark Powers by Adolf Hitler and those who moved in concert with him.
Dale Aukerman, Darkening Valley, pgs. 19 and 22, emphasis added 
My point, and Aukerman's point, is not that the Nazis and Hitler were good, or even that they weren't evil. It is simply that when we use the Nazis for rhetorical point scoring, when we hold them up as the highest, purest example of Evil, we miss the opportunity to actually reflect on what Nazism was and to use that reflection for tangible, human good. We miss the chance to see their darkness in ourselves and our neighbors, and to work actively to resist that darkness. We blind ourselves, and we risk a tragic stumble.

*This is a play on a quote from the Big Lebowski.
**I mean, especially if you're a Nazi, dear reader, because I certainly can't tell who you are from this side of the screen. But even if you're not a Nazi, is what I'm saying. Get it? If not, uh, read on, I promise I explain elsewhere outside this footnote.
†It's a hypothetical example. Stop looking at me like that.

No comments:

Post a Comment