Home

It's time to put down our rhetorical crutches

Thursday, June 8, 2006

On the internet, there’s a rule known as Godwin’s Law. In its simplest form, it holds that as soon as one side in an online argument invokes Hitler or the Nazis to support their case, that side has automatically lost the debate. Moreover, the longer such an argument continues, the greater the likelihood is that one side (or both) will resort to such a tactic.

Liberal-in-exile Warren Kinsella recently expanded the rule to include debates in the real world. In his column in The National Post, Kinsella argued that “language is regularly denuded of meaning, as everyone knows – by technology, by popular culture and by the pervasive data smog that suffocates all of us every day. It happens. Language changes, like the seasons. What is de rigueur one month is passé in the next. But when considering Naziism and its murderous symptom, the Holocaust – an ideology, and an event, which recall evil for which no serviceable explanation has been devised – is it appropriate to use any of it as a rhetorical club, to advance a wholly unrelated argument? Has language lost so much meaning – has it become so hollow, so empty – that it is now, at long last, acceptable to make genocidal analogies to advance to the Debate Club finals?”

He went on, citing numerous examples that I won’t repeat (although I will add that Mr. Kinsella’s own debating tactics are sometimes a bit over the top, albeit without any Nazi references). “I am being deliberately rhetorical, but this much is true: in our enlightened era, to call someone who is not a "Nazi," or to liken something that is not mass murder to the shoah, is now so commonplace that we barely notice… Analogies to the crime of the Holocaust -- and to its perpetrators, the Nazis -- are more than an inappropriate use of language. They are a gross, vile insult to the actual suffering of millions who perished at the hands of the Nazis: Jews and non-Jews, rabbis and priests, communists, gays, Jehovah's Witnesses, gypsies, trade unionists, non-whites, dissidents and disabled persons.”

But, it’s not only Nazi Germany that gets used as a convenient prop for lazy debaters. Of late, I’ve noted an increasing reliance on what used to be called red-baiting (when there were still reds in the world). Cheryl Gallant, Conservative MP for the riding of Narrow-Minded-Bigot, made a speech a couple of months ago about the Harper government’s plan to destroy quality, affordable child care in this country. But, rather than take about the virtues of paying parents $3.28 a day (less tax) to pay for child care, Gallant instead went after previously existing child care programs, calling them “Soviet-style child care.”

In fact, she used the term more than once, so she can’t argue that it was just a slip of the muzzle. “The drive to provide Soviet style institutionalized day care is being pushed from the top down, not the other way around that has been suggested by the opponents of giving parents choice in child care…. For the previous 13 years, Canadians had been saddled with an interventionist government that without a doubt has been anti-family. The worldwide trend away from Soviet style institutionalized day care has been very pronounced in those countries that were formerly part of the old Soviet empire and are now democracies. Our plan to provide benefits directly to families is in tune with the experience of other democratic countries.”

When a Liberal MP pressed Stephen Harper to account for his MP’s remarks, Harper was unrepentant. “I would observe that after 13 years in office over there the Liberals had not created any child care spaces. They had not given any money to parents. I would say their plan did crumble, just like the old Soviet Union.”

Likewise, Dr. Brian Day, who is slated to become the next President of the Canadian Medical Association, uses North Korea as his debating prop when arguing for the privatization of Canada’s health care system. According to Toronto Star columnist Thomas Walkom, Day insisted during a recent debate that “Canada's health-care system is like North Korea's; medicare is a failed Soviet-style experiment; its supporters espouse a ‘Marxist philosophy’… Ontario's ban on queue-jumping is reminiscent of Communist China.”

Day’s ascendancy to the top of the CMA has so concerned many doctors that they’ve formed a new group called Doctors for Medicare. Just so you don’t think I’m only going after people with whom I disagree, I will hereby predict that this group will soon join others in bemoaning the “Americanization” of our health care system. I’ve certainly been guilty of doing that in the past, not only in discussing health care, but also in discussing criminal justice and human rights issues. Not that calling something “American-inspired” represents the kind of sledgehammer that comparing someone to Hitler does, but it is still a fairly transparent attempt to short-circuit discussion.

It is definitely fair game to point out whether something has worked or has not worked in other parts of the world, but we can’t keep trumping debate by immediately applying labels to our opponents. And, if our political debate is going to consist of one side calling the other “Nazis” and the other screaming “Commies” in response, no one is going to listen. Here’s an idea: What if we all agree to start debating ideas on their merits? I’ll try to do my bit.
| More
Bookstore First Year