Digging at the confluence of culture and everything else
Tragedy of the Hitler Commons (Or, Making the World a Better Place for Assholes)
04/01/2014Posted by on
A prefatory note: I’ve been reading that one of the problems with young, inexperienced writers in the post-blog world is that we have a tendency to publish reams of controversial material before forming a relationship with an editor. 1 So here is my entry into the genre.
Over at The Anchoress Elizabeth Scalia is taking issue with the use of “homophobia” explaining:
So, “homophobia” is inexact; it is divisive; it is over-used. Most troublingly for a thoughtful writer, it is a word whose use risks an idea going unread — often by an audience that most needs to ponder it — or getting so bogged-down in ideological cant that its point is lost.
Scalia is trying to protect the ability of writers to have good faith discussions and reasonable but unpopular differences. Great! She’s also underselling the problem. Homophobia is a real problem and an absolute murderous scourge on the world. Homophobia has torn apart families, created enormous amounts of psychic harm, and has actually motivated murder. So no, it isn’t a good idea to freely declare anything insufficiently progressive and enlightened vis-a-vis gay folk to homophobia, and it isn’t just because it is troublingly inexact to do so.
No, the problem is that when you indulge – and it is a slothful, wrathful, and prideful indulgence – in classification-as-argument you’re defrauding your audience and harming the people you claim to be protecting. If you, say, call President Obama (or former President Bush) a tyrant in general or Hitler-esque in particular, you’re invoking the whole class of murderous historical figures, stealing all of the revulsion your audience feels and hoping no one notices when you slip in another figure whose major offense is frustrating your moral imagination. Instead of convincing me on the merits, you’re trying to blackmail me into both agreeing with you, but also into pretending, as you do, that it is so Very Important. 2
Even if you’re not trying to manipulate your audience on purpose – you are, but we’ll pretend for the moment – every single time you try to amplify the awfulness of your pet peeve it comes at the price of making the class of horribles you invoked more likely to occur! You cannot expand a class to include a poor-fitting member without damaging the class. For example, when the list of things that make you a felon includes both writing a bad check and writing out an order to have someone killed, the class of “felon” is less horrifying than if it only included writing out orders to have someone killed. 3 This is one of those places where being a lazy writer makes the world a worse place – you weaken the word through over use, stretching it past its breaking point, and like over fishing a sea, you, along with everyone else destroy all the moral weight left in the word and the ideas behind them.
You already know this to be true, because I can give you a simple example nearly universal to the English-speaking audience: “sin”. 4 Sin doesn’t mean much anymore, and that is in no small part due to a centuries of hucksters, schoolmarms and the occasional well-meaning hand-wringer labeling anything remotely fun or discomforting with the word. “Sin” invokes two ideas simultaneously: trivial indulgences and long discredited kill joys. So much so that the very idea of sin as a harmful indulgence, a wrong done to the self and others has receded back into our cultural memory. 5
Please, by all means, talk about tyranny, and how terrible it is. Talk about homophobia, and racism, and antisemitism. Talk about the evil that exists in the world, and our little tiny contributions to making the world a terrible place. We do need reminders of the pervasive nature of evil. But we also need to remember that evil is also boring and banal. For all the high-profile causes of mass misery, you’ve done more evil in your day by being an asshole to some stranger that you don’t even remember. And every time you get high calling some stranger on the internet a nasty name for being nasty to weak people, every pat on the back you give yourself for “standing up” from the comfort of a comment box makes it that much less likely you are actually going to give a damn about the people you actually encounter every day.
That, I think, is the most infuriating aspect of the whole thing. There is the almost understandable tragedy of the commons – so many people demand you care about their cause and they are all competing to be sure, and that makes the verbal pollution spewed forth by sanctimonious partisans disgusting, but at least supposedly linked to some good. It is really the smug self-satisfaction that comes from people dressing up scarecrows like dragons just to slay them and the very real corrosion of their moral sense in the process.
So stop. Just stop it. That means stop calling people Hitler, stop calling people homophobes, stop calling people racists, stop calling people antisemites. Just stop doing it, because it makes you a bad writer and a bad person. Stop it because you are aiding and abetting the enemy. Stop relying on big nasty words to do your work for you. Stop it because it is unnecessary almost all the time, and you’re fishing the pond dry. When the next Hitler actually comes, we’re going to need all the help we can get.