February 15, 2011

Thought For The Day: Reductio ad Hitlerum

Godwin's Law (also known as Godwin's Rule of Nazi Analogies) is an adage formulated by Mike Godwin in 1990. The law states:
"As a Usenet discussion grows longer, the probability of a comparison involving Nazis or Hitler approaches one."

Godwin's Law is often cited in online discussions as a deterrent against the use of arguments in the reductio ad Hitlerum form.

Reductio ad Hitlerum form is a modern informal fallacy in logic. (from Wikipedia):
The fallacy most often assumes the form of "Hitler (or the Nazis) supported X, therefore X must be evil/undesirable/bad." The argument carries emotional weight as rhetoric, since in most cultures anything relating to Hitler or Nazis is automatically condemned. The tactic is often used to derail arguments, as such a comparison tends to distract and to result in angry and less reasoned responses

The concept is very straightforward. I'm on a web site having a discussion with several other commentors about an article. We become more and more heated in the discussion. Finally I say something like "We all know that this is inaccurate because only vegetarians can truly understand the impact this will have on the environment". A commentor immediately replies "Yeah, and Hitler was a vegetarian"

The implication is that being a vegetarian is wrong because Hitler was wrong. Quite plainly this is a fallacious argument because Ghandi was also vegetarian. According to the reduction ad Hitlerum anyone invoking the Nazi's or Hitler in an argument automatically loses the argument. Bing!

Recently a major American sports team broke off negotiations with a German financial organisation regarding naming their new stadium after it was discovered that the German company financed some Nazi operations during the war. Again reductio ad Hitlerum - because I can link you to the Nazi's you are wrong. It's interesting that this only really occurs with Hitler and the Nazi's, though. I worked for a major American liquor company which broke prohibition rules in the last century by importing whiskey from Canada and selling it in New York and Chicago. In other words it was working in direct contravention of the Constitution of the United States of America. Not only did it survive doing this, without apparent censure, it then became one of the biggest companies in the market, went worldwide and later bought a major Hollywood film studio. But if it was found, for example, that it had sold whiskey to the Nazi's during the war I bet it wouldn't have been half as successful. I find that very interesting.

Writing about libel in the newspapers (or more accurately inaccurate reporting), two cases came to mind:

1) The Hitler Diaries - identifed and published by the Sunday Times. Later discovered to be fake
2) Max Mosely's sexual obsessions. Mosely was alledged to have Nazi connotations but later sued and had the allegation retracted. It wasn't the fact that he Mosely - a married man - had been videoed having kinky sex with hookers, it was the fact that these games were deemed to have Nazi connotations that was the problem.

Of course, in reality - or more specifically in business - this is all to do with perception and PR. After all, doing business which is against a crazy amendment to the constitution - whilst illegal - is nowhere near as bad as doing business with someone who systematically perpetrated the worst evil known to modern-day society. Likewise having an affair and being caught doing it is a bit of a nightmare - but less so in these celebrity obsessed days - but being seen to be performing acts which align with the Nazi ethos is almost unforgivable - especially when your father was a well known and out-spoken Nazi supporter during the war.

And that’s an interesting thing itself. Let’s look at this from the point of view of one of my favourite topics - the movies. There have been any number of movies made over the years that touch on ‘The Nazi topic’ - Think about Schindler’s List, ‘Judgement At Nuremburg’, ‘The Reader’, ‘The Pianist’ etc. They are all well received by critics and - generally - do quite well at the box office. Now lets’ look at some prohibition movies.. er - Well, whilst there are many movies (and TV series) which are set in the time of Prohibition - “Boardwalk Empire”, “Some Like It Hot”, “Once Upon A Time In America”- there are vey few that are based around the topic of Prohibition. The Untouchables is probably the closest to being a prohibition movie. Which does bring up an interesting conundrum: People are quick to use the Reductio ad Hitlerum argument to try and show you how wrong you are, but they still flock in their thousands to see movies about it (over 6 million people saw Schindler’s List in Germany alone and the film grossed £320m worldwide).

So anyone care to comment? (And remember Hitler was known to make sarcastic comments when people wrote  things he didn't agree with....)

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