In Defense of Referencing Hitler

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Suppose
you were to make the claim that the correct policy will always be whatever the
majority decides. And suppose I were to respond by pointing out that the “Jim
Crow” racial segregation laws were the will of the majority at the time they were
in effect.

Would
you think I was calling you a racist? Or would you understand that I assume the
opposite and am therefore using a repugnant extreme to test the limits of your
position?

Now suppose instead of referencing Jim Crow, I used Adolf Hitler, who was after
all elected in a political democracy and remained popular for some time. Would
you think I was calling you a Nazi? Would you accuse me of equating Election Night
with the Holocaust?

Well,
maybe you wouldn’t, but there are plenty who would. The moment the words Hitler,
Holocaust, or Nazi come up, the assumption is that the speaker has left the bounds
of good taste and rationality and slipped into the realm of hyperbole and name-calling.

In
Internet culture, there is even a name for this phenomenon: Godwin’s
Law
, which states, “As an online discussion grows longer, the probability
of a comparison involving Nazis or Hitler approaches one.” There is also the tradition
online that once such a comparison is made the discussion is over, and whoever
mentioned the Nazis has automatically lost whatever argument was in progress.

The
tradition is not limited to the Internet. In the fall of 2003, the following exchange
took place on the public radio interview program, Fresh
Air
:

Grover
Norquist
: “[S]ome who play at the politics of hate and envy and class division
will say, ‘Yes, well, that’s only 2 percent,’ … [but] that’s the morality of
the Holocaust. ‘Well, it’s only a small percentage,’ you know. ‘I mean, it’s not
you, it’s somebody else.’”

Terry
Gross
: “Excuse me. Excuse me one second. Did you just compare the Estate Tax
with the Holocaust?”

Grover
Norquist
: “No, the morality that says it’s OK to do something to a group because
they’re a small percentage of the population is the morality that says that the
Holocaust is OK because they didn’t target everybody, just a small percentage.”

Terry
Gross
: “So you see taxes … the way they are now [as] terrible discrimination
against the wealthy comparable to the kind of discrimination of, say, the Holocaust?”

After
that show, I stopped listening to Fresh Air. I used to love Terry Gross, and I’d
never heard of Grover Norquist before that interview, but no matter how you feel
about the morality of progressive taxation – or of taxation in general –
it should be obvious to any thinking person that Norquist was challenging the
stated moral logic of a position. He was claiming an underlying principle
that an action’s ethical status isn’t determined by the number of people it affects.
But Gross was reading his challenge as a comparison of policies –
equating the Estate Tax with the Holocaust.

Search
Google on the terms Norquist and Holocaust and you’ll find plenty of people who
share Terry Gross’s interpretation of that exchange. (One of them even posted
to the Mises Blog
in reaction to a Lew Rockwell post.)

At
the time, I wrote an angry rant about the Norquist interview, to which one reader
replied, “Well, yes, but the speaker may reasonably be expected to have used the
example he did because of the emotional effect of linking these two particular
concepts.”

Is
this an objection? If so, what does it mean? Is the claim that referencing Hitler
is illegitimate in principle, or that from a pragmatic point of view, it’s bad
strategy?

The
only reason I can see for calling it illegitimate in principle is the implicit
claim that all such references are examples of the Appeal
To Emotion
fallacy, where one abandons reason and appeals instead to visceral
reflexes. But is it always fallacious to appeal to emotion? It’s invalid as
an argument, and it’s invalid if it’s expected to conclude the argument –
and perhaps this is how it’s most often used – but the appeal to emotion
can also be used to confront someone with the logical consequences of their stated
principles.

It
is true that if you support “majority rules” as some sort of moral principle,
you must also support Hitler’s rise to power. If you think Hitler’s power and
policies were wrong no matter how many people supported them, then you can’t take
a principled stance in favor of majoritarianism. At best, you can only support
it as a general strategy.

If
you still think that democracy is a moral system, then you have to deal
with the cases of Jim Crow and Adolf Hitler and decide how and why they aren’t
part of what you mean. If you think it would be OK to target a policy at 2% of
the population that would be wrong to target at 52%, then you have to give some
account of why the numbers are relevant – and your explanation had better
apply as well to the historical hard cases as it does to the present context you
have in mind.

OK,
you say, so maybe a reference to Hitler isn’t illegitimate, but it’s still
a bad idea. It derails the discussion rather than moving anything forward.

Suppose
we’re having the majority rules debate and when I bring up the popular election
of Hitler, you say, “I understand that you’re making a formal comparison, but
I think it’s counter-productive to bring up the Nazis; there’s just too much ugly
emotion tied into that for me to deal with it rationally.”

That
certainly sounds reasonable, and perhaps if Terry Gross had said something similar
to Grover Norquist I’d still be one of her listeners.

But
I think even the bad-strategy argument is wrong. The whole point of referencing
Hitler is to force you to test your principles in the extreme cases, and for most
people, Hitler is as extreme as it gets. If we disallow reference to Hitler, it
can only be an acknowledgement of the extreme position he holds in our moral imagination.
But by banishing the extremes from rational discourse, we make it too easy to
settle our beliefs with the comfortable cases, never having to follow positions
through to their logical conclusions.

The
attempt to apply logic to a disagreement is always based on formal parallels.
Their purpose is to separate the underlying principle from the distractions of
particular circumstance. Sometimes this involves finding less emotional examples,
and sometimes it requires more emotional ones.

Sometimes
they’re good parallels (“So if you were the breadwinner, then it would
be OK for me to do all the housework?”). Sometimes they’re bad parallels
(“If all your friends jumped off a cliff, would you jump off a cliff?”).
And sometimes they’re absurd parallels (“Hitler was a vegetarian, you know! You
wanna be like Hitler?”). People who can’t tell the difference have no business
taking offense at what they don’t understand.

Think
of a reference to Jim Crow, Hitler, Stalinism, Pol Pot – whoever or whatever
is your most effective symbol of political evil – as a rhetorical shortcut
to the reductio
ad absurdum
. The question is this: are you willing to stand by your logic
when I apply it in the extreme? That is absolutely not an unfair question. If
the history of the 20th century teaches us anything, it’s that these extreme cases
are relevant. They do happen. And they not only can be part of a rational
conversation about political principles, I would argue that they should be.

June
23, 2005

B.K.
Marcus [send him mail] is a freelance
writer in Charlottesville, Virginia. See his
website.

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