How to tarnish a view

Use of the word “Nazi” in public policy discussions

Posted Dec 09, 2010

Here is something that is beyond doubt, at least by any reasonable person. The Nazi's engaged in morally horrendous behaviours. In the name of what they called racial purity, based on hopeless flawed science they cobbled together for their own political purposes, they murdered millions of people. The word "Nazi" is, to almost all of us, associated with that which is repugnant, morally debased, frightening, and appalling. Yet this is a word that people these days frequently attach to views or positions that they dislike or wish to argue against. I find this astonishing. Or perhaps I should say that I wish I found this more astonishing, and feel that I ought to be more astonished than I in fact find myself.

I understand why people do this. It is a very effective way of tarnishing a view. If I can link a particular view with even the word "Nazi" then I have gone a long way towards people being highly suspicious of the view; I have suggested that anyone who defends the view is morally ambiguous at best, and downright evil at worst; and I have suggested that the view is not even worth discussing, thinking about, or arguing about. This is a very easy strategy to use, and so in this sense it can hardly be surprising that it is a strategy that people employ.

I think I ought to find the strategy astonishing despite this, because it is surprising that reasonable members of society are prepared to tolerate such behaviour. It is surprising that reasonable people are not horrified by what, on a moment's reflection, is surely the flagrant disrespect shown to the millions of people who died at the hands of the Nazis, when the word "Nazi" is so trivialised by using it to taint views that bear no real relationship to the philosophy espoused by the Nazis.

After all, the strategy of attaching the word "Nazi" to views (or indeed persons) that one dislikes, really amounts to a way of using the suffering of millions of people under the Nazi regime and using our natural abhorrence of such suffering, to manipulate us into also abhorring some unrelated view. That reasonable people are not horrified by the use of the word in this way is peculiar.

It is also peculiar that reasonable people are not horrified by the manipulation that is involved in this process. If someone believes that a particular view, or public policy, or person, is ethically questionable, or is unlikely to result in good outcomes, then that someone should present arguments as to why this is the case. That person might be right. Perhaps the view that they dislike is indeed objectionable in some way. Debates about contentious issues like euthanasia, eugenics, abortion, capital punishment, and so on, are debates that each society ought to have. These are important issues. It is all the more peculiar, then, that reasonable people are not appalled when some of those who are parties to these debates, instead of providing arguments for their view, instead choose to attach the word "Nazi" to some of the views under consideration.

There are lots of reasons to find this inappropriate. First, there might be good reasons to think that the view in question is a bad one. But if rather than giving those reasons, parties to the debate merely attach the view "Nazi" to the view, then there is all the chance in the world that those reasons will never be given and never be considered. Second, whether the view is a good one or not, all parties to a debate ought to be required to offer relevant arguments for, or against, a view, so that all parties to the debate are in a position to evaluate those arguments. Attempts to undermine debate by invidiously suggesting that a view is ethically dubious by doing no more than attaching the label "Nazi" to the view, are ways of preventing reasoned consideration of positions. They are ways of manipulating people into coming to think a view has certain characteristics, without ever showing that it does. Such a strategy aims to bypass reason, and go straight to those parts of the brain associated with the fear response. Associate a view with Nazism, and you no longer have to participate in reasoned discussion; your message goes straight to the amigydala (a primitive part of the part) of your listener, who comes to have certain negative responses to the view without any reasoned thought on the matter.

Notice that if we took people off the street, sat them down, and showed them (or inflicted upon them) negative stimuli, such as spiders, pain, a dark room, and if we then associated those stimuli with some particular view, the result would be that the person would come to have negative feelings towards that view. This would happen without the person ever consciously reasoning about the view, or evaluating the view. Moreover, if we did that, we would no doubt be accused of brainwashing, since that is, in fact, what we would be doing. Associating a view with the world "Nazism" is not brainwashing. But it does undermine the capacity of disputants to clearly reason about that view. It also undermines their motivation to reason about such a view - since attaching the label "Nazi" effectively suggests that merely considering the view is ethically dubious. This strategy, used as it is in discussion about public policy issues, uses a terrible period in human history to manipulate today's public not only into disliking certain views, but into refusing to engage with those views by considering the arguments for and against them.

It is a strategy that is, unfortunately, quite effective, but which is also utterly disrespectful both to those who died at the hands of the Nazis, and to those who are the subject of manipulation. I find it ironic that those who most use the epithet "Nazi" are those who are most determined to stultify reasoned discussion and appeal straight to the fear and anger centres of the brain, something the Nazis were very good at.