On April 20th, 1889 a little boy was born. He would grow up to move from then Austria-Hungary to Germany, develop a passion for singing and the arts and even considered becoming a priest. Rejected from art school later in life and after suffering emotional pains from the loss of his brother Edmund and abuse from his father he eventually became a decorated war hero. Oh, I suppose I should add that he was Adolf Hitler and led the Nazis in WWII along with orchestrating the mass killings during the Holocaust. In 1945 his life came to an end along with the war after committing suicide.
Now when you think of a politician you don’t like, or a particularly bossy employer are you really going to say they are “Literally Hitler?” Probably not, and if you are either you need to call the ICC in The Hague, or you need to rethink the words coming out of your mouth. In today’s edition, we’ll be diving into the argument of declaring that someone is “Literally Hitler” and other such poor invocations of Godwin’s law, why this argument gets used, and why it needs to stop.
Ignoring the obvious misuse of the word “literally” why are people so inclined to make the comparison of individuals or politicians they disagree with to one of the top five most genocidal leaders in recent memory? As terrible as the internment of people by ICE at the border is, it’s not really comparable to the mass extermination that took place at Auschwitz or other similar camps. As bad as excessive use of executive orders from the POTUS is you’d be hard-pressed to make a solid comparison to a real dictatorship. As mean as your gym teacher was, they weren’t Hitler just because they made you do push-ups when you got mouthy.
The main reason is the emotional power that rests in the comparison. When we think of dictators, genocide, or the potential evils of totalitarianism, Hitler is immediately the one that comes to mind. We don’t think of Mao or Stalin, or even Leopold II. We jump directly to Hitler because of the effect of WWII on world history and development, and the general western focus of education. The emotional correlation and gut reaction of wanting to disassociate with Nazism many in the west have leads to this being a powerful attack on one’s character, albeit and weak argument if you’re opposing the target’s stances.
There are three fallacies at play here: Ad Hominem, False Comparison, and Appeal to Emotion. I covered the concept of what constitutes an Ad Hominem argument in volume 2 of this series so I won’t repeat that information here in the same depth. Ad Hominem is a fallacy because it attacks the person rather than the argument thus neither proving or disproving anything related to the argument. Calling someone literally Hitler is an attack on the person rather than the stances.
Now a False Comparison Fallacy is a pretty straightforward issue. Its the fallacy of comparing two dissimilar things to argue for their similarity in order to make one look better or worse than the other. If I say “American cell phone prices are way lower than Canadian prices” this would be a false comparison because it fails to account for the massive disparity of populations, laws in place, competition levels, etc. It would be similar if I said “Cardboard has fewer calories than a T-Bone Steak” sure, both are edible, but cardboard isn’t truly food. I can’t say that someone is literally Hitler just because they’re anti-smoking, vegetarian, and want to increase old age pensions or most other reasons for that matter.
Lastly is the Appeal to Emotion. Referencing of the Holocaust, the Nazis, and all that happened leads to an immediate gut reaction of negativity. They look upon Nazi Germany as the epitome of evil and thus any comparison will lead to that emotional response. How someone feels about a topic doesn’t prove or disprove any points or arguments. Simply declaring “I hate that” or “I like it” does nothing to support or counter an argument, yet support for many politicians and causes are banked on this type of emotionalism. While emotional pleas can be a powerful push for action and sway public opinion, in the realm of debate and discourse it remains a logical fallacy to build an argument around feelings.
Racism, authoritarianism, and many of the other key qualities that Hitler came to embody should continue to be opposed wherever it is seen to be on the rise. The lessons of the risk of pure totalitarian power that the world learned from WWII are important and must be kept alive and in the public mind to prevent a similar rise to power and subsequent tragedy from happening again. Don’t let the lesson lose its importance or power by being the boy who cried wolf every time you disagreed with the actions of a politician. As always, review the facts of the situation, weigh the information, then argue from there. Much like the result of that faithful bullet in 1945, it’s time to let “Literally Hitler” as an argument die.
Read more articles from Killian on Think Liberty here.