In Defense of Referencing Hitler

[Note: I wrote this last fall with the intention of submitting it to LRC. When I finished writing it, I decided against submission. It’s only about one idea. I like a piece to combine two seemingly unrelated ideas before I consider it interesting enough for a broad readership. Since I haven’t come up with a way to fill it out, to make it more dimensional — and since I’m constantly wanting to refer to my full argument as stated here — I’ve decided to post it to this blog instead. (A friend of mine, predicting a firestorm if I ever published this, asked, “Why not just take the word ‘Referencing’ out of your title?”)]

In Defense of Referencing Hitler

By B.K. Marcus

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 majoritarian 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. A year ago, 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.

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3 Responses to In Defense of Referencing Hitler

  1. freeman says:

    That is a quality essay! I’m glad that it is now published, even if it is here as opposed to a place like LRC.

    I don’t believe I actually wasted about 20 min. of my time reading that horrible exchange on the Mises blog that you linked to. That Gary guy made my head hurt.

  2. Vache folle says:

    I agree wholeheartedly that comparison to the extreme is appropriate in the circumstances that you describe.

    Part of the problem with the device is that Hitler, the Holocaust and other extreme cases are frequently employed as rhetorical atomic bombs in circumstances where there is little or no logical basis for doing so. Conversely, being quick to take offense at the perceived comparison as an ad hominem attack is also used as a discussion-ending ploy. In New York politics, for example, one cannot publicly describe an Italian-American politician’s ideas as fascist without being accused of making an ethnic smear.

    Perhaps some guidelines could be expounded for when it is proper to deploy the comparison to the extreme case. Any number of blog comment moderators might be able to contribute ideas based on experience.

  3. Great work. My problem is deploying the word “fascist” without people thinking I’m taking the word lightly.

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