After I posted that Daily Show clip demonstrating the ad hominem fallacy last week, I was delighted to discover that reductio ad Hitlerum is an actual thing. And it’s basically exactly what you would assume: arguing that because Hitler supported a particular idea, that idea is inherently bad. This is a specific iteration of the ad hominem fallacy of guilt by association.
I think it goes without saying that examples of this fallacy in our current political discourse are legion. Taking a Sharpie marker to the photographed upper lip of your least favorite political figure has long been a method of communicating how awful you think that person is. But the true reductio ad Hitlerum occurs when you try to draw a straight line from an idea you hate to the Nazis instead of actually engaging with the substance of that idea. Lately, people like Jonah Goldberg have proven that you can actually publish entire books based on this premise. Dave Neiwart has done a far better take-down of Liberal Fascism than I could ever hope to do here, but suffice it to say that people–entire groups of people, in fact–are capable of holding both horrifying and entirely unobjectionable ideas or preferences at the same time. Nazis liked vegetarianism, liberals also like vegetarianism, therefore liberals are Nazis is a syllogism that you would think would give even the most ardent conspiracy theorist pause but nevertheless seems to have gained some intellectual respectability in certain circles.
One might argue that reductio ad Hitlerum is little more than harmless hyperbole, but it has the power to undermine public discourse by skewing our sense of what actually represents a threat or a violation. I recognize that I have some international readers, so I’ll just note that I’m speaking from a U.S.-American perspective. In my mind, political discourse since 9/11 has been marked by a rhetoric of fear, by the pervasive sense that everything is threatening, everything is terrifying, everything is trying to kill us. We’ve seen how that constant state of elevated anxiety has led to scapegoating and othering entire groups of people who we see as representing that threat. The fear that the fascist/socialist/theocratic overthrow of the prevailing social order is always just around the corner can have disastrous consequences for a society.
But more generally, the in which way the word “Nazi” has become a common expression for anyone who sucks, anyone who annoys us has corrupted our understanding of the difference between rights and privileges. In fact, it is often an expression of outrage over a loss of privilege or the refusal of some individual to acknowledge our privilege. Soup Nazis, sandwich Nazis, soft serve ice cream Nazis–note that these expressions all describe food service workers who are in some way insufficiently deferential toward the customer, who insist on certain (sometimes draconian) standards of behavior in their space, or refuse to provide service on the terms demanded by the customer. I know that the whole Soup Nazi thing on Seinfeld was just a funny, funny joke, but whenever I watch the part where Elaine takes the Soup Nazi down by distributing his proprietary recipes, I think “What? This guy deserves to lose his entire livelihood because he refused to serve her when she slowed down a very long line in his restaurant?” Because that’s essentially what happens there. Yes, the Soup Nazi is an asshole, but Elaine’s sense of entitlement is a huge part of the dynamic here.
The point is, that we throw around the word “Nazi” to describe anyone who is currently preventing us from getting something we want or behaving in our preferred mode. In other words, we’re usually not talking about egregious systematic breaches of civil rights in these cases. Whenever I hear people like Jonah Goldberg or Glenn Beck talk about the coming socialist/fascist/Hitlerian takeover of the country, I sense that this is really about the fear that some white dudes might have to accede some privileges in order to allow others to enjoy basic human rights, like affordable health care.
There is a reason why I don’t use the term “Grammar Nazi” to describe the douches who go around correcting grammar mistakes in conversation. Being the target of some douchey behavior =/= being a victim of genocide. Plus, there are better, less overplayed terms we might use to describe them. I don’t even say “Grammar Police,” simply because I think that trivializes the work that police do. I prefer something like Grammar Demagogues or Grammar Cretins.