What Meaning Do Words Have When Everyone Is a Nazi?

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2020 has been tough for almost everyone. Unless you are Jeff Bezos and a handful of other tech CEOs who accrued billions of dollars of wealth during the pandemic, chances are that your life has been thrown off-kilter considerably. I say this because I want to start off by expressing my empathy for people who are going through a challenging time, which, quite frankly, they might not have been prepared for. I recognize that this causes people to act in ways that do not truly reflect who they are. The problem is, the issue I am about to discuss was already an issue prior to the pandemic, and if anything, COVID-19 acted as an accelerant rather than a change agent.

What phenomenon am I referring to? The phenomenon of calling everyone and everything that we disagree with a Nazi.

This topic caught my interest recently when I had a disagreement with a friend. My friend is Black and he suggested that living as a Black man in America is akin to how Jews lived under the Nazis during the Holocaust. While I accept and am empathetic towards his belief that he is the victim of prejudice under a President who he perceives to be an enabler of such injustices, I also found the remark offensive, because there is no widespread propaganda being funneled out by the government asking people to round up people of color, pack them on trains so tight that many of them will die during the journey, and have them shipped to labor camps where most of them will die through gassing, being burned alive in ovens, or through medical experimentation, among other things.

This has been problematic for a long time on both sides of the political spectrum. Whenever we run up against something we do not like, we compare the offending party to Hitler, and we suggest that their supporters are Nazis.

For right-leaning people, I see this coming to light in various ways. One place where I see this is when trying to refute policy positions that are deemed to be “socialist.” The reminder often given is that the Nazis were socialists themselves, and that by adopting socialist policies, we will somehow kickstart the path towards creating another type of Nazi Germany. Another place where you often see these reckless comparisons is when there is disagreement pertaining to issues of freedom of speech, particularly on college campuses. Though I agree that silencing speech is draconian, evil, and un-American, I would hardly take the leap to compare these silencers to savage murderers in Nazi Germany.

Similarly, my left-leaning friends have a habit of doing this as well – probably even more so, if I am being perfectly honest. I know countless people who have spent the last four years comparing Trump to Hitler, Trump supporters to Nazis, and comparing the American flag to Nazi symbols. The violent left-wing hate group, Antifa, excuses its violence by proclaiming that they are anti-fascist or anti-Nazi. Unfortunately, just because you call someone or something a Nazi does not necessarily make it so. It has created situations where everyday people are being attacked for their views simply because they are not in accord with far-left Marxist ideology. You do not support universal healthcare? Well, you are a Nazi, because you are committing violence indirectly towards those who cannot afford healthcare.

When Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez compared our southern border to Nazi concentration camps, I found it highly offensive. Many others felt the same way. But rather than apologize, she and my other friends lectured me about why I should not be offended. I have a hard time believing they would have given me this same lecture if the scenario were different – say if I was a woman decrying misogyny or a black person decrying racism, but it is of no matter. Some people even suggested to me that I was “jealously” clinging to my Jewish suffering for fear that the Jews could be “outdone” by another group – in this case, Mexicans at the border. The sheer idea that I would actually desire a genocide of half of my ancestors so that I could use it against people in conversation to pity me is probably one of the most offensive things I have ever been told. And yet in the forums where these conversations have taken place, no one has rushed to my defense, presumably because it is not the woke topic du jour to battle anti-Semitism. In fact, if anything, my allegedly “woke” friends have suggested that caring so much about this topic suggests I care little for other forms of human suffering. There is no evidence to make that statement true – my being passionate about something in particular does not imply I am not passionate about anything else – but I know people who will make this broad leap without qualms. One friend of mine in particular – if we even want to call him a friend at this point – always has something to say about my sensitivity whenever I raise this issue; meanwhile, this is the same individual who brags about blocking traffic for Black Lives Matter rallies. It makes you wonder if there is a deeper agenda to this type of petulant behavior.

I care about this issue because our words will have no meaning if we constantly speak in hyperbolic ways. When everyone and everything you disagree with is a Nazi, you will start to seem like the boy who cried wolf when real, actual Nazis show up. And the thing is, there are still real Nazis among us. They marched in Charlottesville not long ago chanting anti-Semitic and racist slurs along the way. This makes it all the more confusing when, say, someone like Ben Shapiro – himself Jewish and a loud critic of white nationalists and Nazis – is dubbed a Nazi for his conservative points of view. To me, calling someone like Ben Shapiro a Nazi is akin to calling any black politician a slaveowner for adopting a policy that ends up hurting the Black community. In the end, you may disagree with the words or the policies, but to call someone a Nazi or a slaveowner in either scenario would seem not to align with the intentions of the accused.

But beyond our need to allow for our words to have actual meaning, we must also be respectful towards our ancestors who suffered before us. For example, I have heard right-wing people suggest that not being allowed to own a gun is akin to being a slave to the US government. This is offensive to the memory of actual slaves who performed hard labor against their will for no pay, whose lives were completely upended and ruined by their white masters. While not owning a gun might be inconvenient – and is surely a debate for another day – citizens would still be afforded basic freedoms, like the right to earn a living wage and the freedom to make decisions for themselves. Real slaves did not have those opportunities.

It is no different when we talk about Nazis, Hitler, and concentration camps. If the Holocaust were a beacon for anything, it would likely be at the pinnacle of human suffering and what type of evil man is capable of. With that in mind, we should be awfully careful when comparing other phenomena to the Holocaust. Many Holocaust survivors voiced their displeasure at the idea that their experience was somehow more or less the same as people being detained at a border.

The argument I often hear from those who enjoy making these comparisons is that we need to be mindful of warning signs of how history might repeat itself. I agree with them in principle. One of my favorite documentaries of all time is Night and Fog, because it does such an eloquent job of showcasing the fragility of memory. With fragile memories, we are likely to repeat the same mistakes and we must be wary at all times.

The problem with this logic though is that it creates opportunity for almost anything to be a proverbial “warning sign” for something far more sinister to come. In Nazi Germany, for example, massive economic downturn was in part responsible for the rise of the Nazis. Does this mean whenever the stock market has a bad day that we suggest that the President is Hitler? While I realize the example I just gave is pretty extreme, it still does the trick. I know a lot of people who insisted that the President was a fascist and he would act like a dictator and get us into wars all over the world, but then none of that really ended up happening. Who ends up looking foolish in that situation?

Just because something is not Hitler, a Nazi, or akin to living in a concentration camp does not mean that it cannot still be bad. If I have one hope for the message I am sending with this blog, it is to encourage people to think with a more nuanced perspective. We have adopted these black and white definitions of everything. You’re either good or you are a Nazi. There are a lot of permutations between those two ends of the spectrum. When we see inhumane treatment at the southern border, we should call it what it is: inhumane treatment, people being treated like animals, what have you. It isn’t right. Refusal to compare those victims to Holocaust victims who were actively burned or gassed alive should not mean that one is complicit in their suffering; if anything, it should reveal that one is concerned about their suffering, enough so to think of ways to broadcast it that will not immediately turn off half the country.

And that leads to my last point. People who are interested in actually making a difference in the world do not speak in such charged, hyperbolic teams. It is narcissists who care about being right who speak that way. Why do I say that? Because obviously by embracing this exaggeration – and knowing full well that it is, indeed, an exaggeration – a person must know that a broad audience will not get on board with it. And if you want to be solutions-oriented, you need people on board with your ideas. Those who seek to bring as many people into their coalition as possible tend to be the types of people who want to effect change for the world. And when you sit in a corner with your rattle and cry “Nazi!” every time someone does something you do not like, chances are you are not going to end up with a lot of friends.

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