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Trumping the Hitler card

January 7th, 2010

Godwin’s Law refers to playing the Hitler card in an argument.  It was coined in the early 90’s to capture the fact that the longer an internet forum conversation goes on the more likely it is that someone will resort to a Hitler/Nazi reference.  A snippet about Godwin’s law from here,

Note that the Law does not apply to serious discussions of Fascist Germany or its policies, but rather describes the point at which a serious discussion unrelated to those topics has degenerated into mindless namecalling and is no longer worth the time spent reading it. It is generally accepted that whoever is the first to play the “Hitler” card has lost the argument as well as any trace of respect.

Godwin’s Law as logical fallacy explained here.  The basic idea is to introduce guilt by association, imply the slippery slope etc.  The “Hitler was a vegetarian” move gets it’s own page here where it’s stated simply, “The fact that Hitler was a vegetarian does not discredit vegetarianism, any more than the fact that he didn’t smoke discredits not smoking.”   So if you’re reading this as someone who’s had the Hitler card played against you, enjoy the links above and know that you’re in good company.  If you’re someone who plays the Hitler card in the ways described above … honestly, just don’t.  Hitler ate sugar.

Notice in the definition above, Godwin’s Law doesn’t apply to legitimate discussions of Nazism or the Holocaust.  This whole thing has been brought to mind by this post, to which Godwin’s law also does not apply, and the fact that I have recently had the “Hitler was a vegetarian” line brought up in a conversation.  So I’d like to look at what a legitimate Holocaust comparison looks like in the animal advocacy world, specifically at the article “Can the Treatment of Animals Be Compared to the Holocaust?“, written by David Sztybel, himself the son of a survivor.  He addresses the issue of whether or not there is a comparison to be made, what kind of comparison it is, and whether or not we ‘should’ be making it in the first place.  Godwin’s law is about dialogical temper tantrums.  Sztybel’s article is the diametric opposite of that.  Let it also be noted that he’s talking primarily about specific kinds of treatment found in “modern-day intensive confinement, mass slaughter, burgeoning animal experimentation industries…”.

Sztybel opens with the fact that the very language of the question makes it somewhat ironic.  The fact that we use the term Holocaust to refer to what happened to people under Hitler begins with, derives from, is already a comparison to what we do to animals.   That’s where the image begins, it’s not being randomly applied retroactively.  In other words, the question should be “Why is what happened to people under Hitler described as Holocaust?” The answer to that would be, “because it’s so like what we do to animals that the comparison is obvious.”

It is not often known that the very term,“Holocaust,”intrinsically involves a comparison to animal exploitation. Boria Sax points out that the term, “Holocaust,”originally denoted “a Hebrew sacrifice in which the entire animal was given to Yahweh [God] to be consumed with fire”(Sax 2000, 156). In a twist of history, then, a form of animal exploitation became a metaphor for what happened to the Jews at the hands of the Nazis. It is asked if the Holocaust can be compared with animal exploitation, even though the very term involves such a comparison, albeit metaphorically.

In addition, Sztybel points out early on that Holocaust survivors themselves make the comparison.

The comparison between the Holocaust and the treatment of animals is especially dramatic when offered by culturally eminent Jews, or else actual Holocaust survivors. One of the most often-quoted writers who voices the comparison is Isaac Bashevis Singer, who writes: “In their behavior towards creatures, all men [are] Nazis”(Singer 1990, 84). This is an emotionally-charged statement, and that is what it is meant to be. No one could lucidly maintain that everyone is oppressive towards animals, and furthermore, it is obviously not suggested here that anyone who is a speciesist is also a racist (nor, indeed, that it is only “men”who oppress animals). All that is truly being indicated, I think, is that severe oppression is equally present on both sides of the comparison.

Mark Gold relates the perspective of Edgar Kupfer,a survivor of the Dachau death camp. Kupfer was moved, after his liberation, to “furtively scrawl” the following message on the wall of a hospital barrack: “I refuse to eat animals because I cannot nourish myself by the sufferings and by the death of other creatures. I refuse to do so, because I suffered so painfully myself that I can feel the pains of others by recalling my own sufferings”.(Gold 1995,25) Others, of course, may have developed a hardened view of the world as a result of their sufferings, but Kupfer, instead, empathetically could relate to the suffering of animals. Gold also notes that a group of Warsaw ghetto survivors formed the Tivall company in Israel. It was founded in the Kubbutz Lochene Hagetaot (which means “survivors of the ghetto”). The founders “came to believe that the animal market and abattoir were uncomfortably reminiscent of their own experience”(Gold 1995, 25). These survivors, too, were moved by an extraordinary empathy for non-humans who suffer under routine forms of exploitation. We know that these Jews make the analogy with utter seriousness, and that they, at least, in no way feel slighted by the comparison.

Before presenting his own case, he highlights the existing comparative literature which I won’t summarize here, since I’m more interested in the framework he lays out.  His own 39-point comparative analysis is broken down into four categories as follows:

1) Comparable Degradations and Destructions: vivisection, genetic engineering, the politics of the language of “vermin”, hunting, skinning, hair, tallow, parts used or “wasted”, slave labor, entertainment, nowhere to go, displacement from homes, concentration and degradation, separating parents from offspring, death by starvation, voicelessness and disenfranchisement, mass graves, seemingly unending numbers, genocide.

2) Comparable Apparatus: secrecy, namelessness, bureaucratization, quiet complicity in the education system, a mockery of justice, efficiency of killing, profiteering, cattle cars.

3) Comparable Forms of Agency: ordinary perpetrators, disavowing of responsibility, deniers, minimizers, conditioned indifference, a hypocritical commitment to “humaneness”, compromising moral respect for “marginal humans”.

4) Comparable Worldviews and Discourse: Jews as “animals”, demonization, Hell, inspiration from the Bible, racism and species discrimination.

It’s a rigorous framework.  He concludes that not only can you make the comparison, but that there is “no outright unintelligibility about offering many relevant comparisons of detail between the Holocaust, and what animal liberationists consider to be oppressively discriminatory treatment of animals”.

He ends with an equally thorough handling of the common objections to making this comparison in the first place, which I’ll summarize briefly.  “Is this whole exercise a moral offense against Holocaust victims?”  It could be but is not inherently.  Reasoned, respectful arguments are nothing to hide from nor hinder in free societies.  “Does it trivialize the sufferings of those directly and indirectly involved in the Holocaust?” Only if it is done in a way that actually trivializes human suffering, which merely making the comparison doesn’t do.   “Does making a comparison ignore the differences?”  No, of course not.  However, none of the differences cancel out the similarities which do exist.  And finally,  “Aren’t animal rights people the ones who are more like Nazi’s?” Seriously?  Sztybel takes this on because people actually make that claim though I’m not addressing it any further here.

I’d like to end with a quote from the section responding to whether or not the whole endeavor is “offensive” because it ties in with a theme I’ve talked about here before, the denigration of difference.

… extreme forms of harm to animals are noted here, which appear to be visited upon the creatures just because they are different in variously specified ways. And it is always implied that animals being different entails a license to harm them, although it is never explained, in all of the philosophical literature on animal ethics, just how that entailment might work. It is right to at least suspect that there is no link between being different and having a license to harm those who are different, yet such a conclusion is always sought: harming animals is standard practice. It is never an “insult”to decry an oppressive practice. All that the liberationists seek to do is to overthrow all oppression—that, at least, it is not intended as an “insult”to anyone, but rather, to preserve whole classes of beings from both egregious and subtle insults. It simply begs the question to allege that any insult is being made, or that there is any “obscenity”in making the comparison. People feel insulted by the comparison partly because they use “animal”as a term of contempt, to refer to beings who may be virtually harmed at will, otherwise they might not be so offended. Yet animal liberationists argue that “animal”should not be a term of contempt, but a term of description, denoting a class of beings who should be treated with respect.

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