The Hitler Card, Godwin’s Law, and Argumentum ad Naziumby Don Lacey on Apr. 09, 2013, under Atheism, Critical Thinking, Ethics, Freethought, Government, History, Language, Logic, Reason, Separation of Church & State, Skepticism, Willful Ignorance
Jim Wilson has some thoughts on calling others Fascists…
Fascism is defined as: a. A system of government marked by centralization of authority under a dictator, stringent socioeconomic controls, suppression of the opposition through terror and censorship, and typically a policy of belligerent nationalism and racism. And b. A political philosophy or movement based on or advocating such a system of government.
The collusion, between government, military and business interest that we often have in this country is of great concern as well as the associated waste and corruption. For example, the $39.5 Billion Dick Cheney’s company Halliburton made from government contracts in Iraq. However, the casual use of the “fascist” label is not particularly helpful or conducive to constructive discourse.
Aside from government and business collusion, “fascism” usually means much more, including an absolutist dictatorship, dissent being outlawed, a system where all but one political party is outlawed, no independence between branches and levels of government, a lack of elections or any form of government account ability, an official state sponsored personality cult around the dictator, etc. If there are self-identified fascists out there, they wouldn’t point to our current system as an example of what they advocate or consider any of our major political leaders part of their movement. In short, the mere presence of collusion or corruption hardly makes the fascist label justified and such use is not consistent with what the term means to most people.
Of course, one could argue that our two party system often acts like a one party system. Supporters of some of our presidents/candidates have created huge personality cults around them and the people within the different branches and levels of government have so much shared ideology that choices between any two of them often may not be particularly meaningful. Concede all these things and it is still difficult to equate our current political environment with Nazi Germany and Mussolini’s Italy. Attempting to do so is not constructive and a bit dismissive of those who survived such regimes. Furthermore, overuse tends to water down the meaning of terms like fascism, which represents one of the darkest chapters in human history.
Many of us habitually like to equate conditions or people we dislike with the ultimate evil and invoking “fascism” is very handy for doing just this. Unions, bosses, vegetarians, cat lovers, Christians, Atheists, and Muslims are all guilty of using the F-word, in various contexts, especially on the Internet. A closely related phenomenon was well described in 1990 by American Author, attorney, and staff council for the Electronic Frontier Foundation, Mike Godwin. He observed, “As an online discussion grows longer, the probability of a comparison involving Nazis or Hitler approaches 1… ”
This became known as Godwin’s law and the related concepts of “fascism and fascist” just as easily apply. Note that Godwin was not making any claims about the validity of such comparisons, just the likelihood of their occurrence. Despite this many people wrongly use the term “Godwin’s law” to end discussions and claim undeserved victory in their debates.
Godwin’s observation often holds true. People throw out the words “NAZI”, “Hitler,” and “fascist” around with an amazing ease. Unsurprisingly, this is often done fallaciously and there are few known fallacies related to claims of fascism, Nazism, etc.
There is also the practice of denouncing any idea as evil, fascist etc. for having some, often tenuous, connection to Nazism. It’s a form of guilt by association fallacy that’s referred to as the Argumentum ad Nazium, Reductio ad Hitlerum or “playing the Hitler card”. If the Nazis or Hitler did it, it must be bad. For example, people argue against vegetarianism by pointing out that Hitler was a vegetarian and against Atheism by claiming Hitler was an Atheist (a claim that is contradicted by Hitler’s declaring himself a Christian). Many more examples of this fallacy can be found here.
Recently Bill O’Reilly calls the American Atheist President, David Silverman, a fascist for apparently wanting government to get out of the holiday/religion business. Whether you agree or disagree with him, it hardly seems appropriate to call someone a fascist for wanting to limit the role of government in promoting a religion, philosophy, or whatever.
Labels like “fascist” are way over used, and often should be reserved for the most unambiguous of tyrants; otherwise they do not promote a productive conversation.