Weaning yourself from the Analogy That Cannot Be Topped
So you are passionate about an issue. It might be your obstructionist city council. It might be the mass cruelty inherent in factory farms. It might be the lies a politician seems to be using to further his political career. You also consider yourself highly moral and sympathetic to the atrocities committed against Jews during the Holocaust.
You’re called upon to write an article, offer an opinion to a reporter, or make a statement to a town council about that subject that inspires so much passion in you. You want to influence people; you want people to understand the depths of your passion and make that passion their own. But how to do it? How to quickly and succinctly make them understand?
Eureka! “I will make the most powerful analogy possible,” you think. I will offer up the Analogy That Cannot Be Topped. I will compare my issue to the Holocaust. Or the Nazis. Or Hitler.
So how does it go over? Well it never has the effect you intend. Ever. Despite your passion, people do not think that the city manager is just like Hitler. They don’t think that the code enforcement agency in your city is worse than the Gestapo. They don’t think that Sarah Palin’s speech at the Republican National Convention was exactly like Hitler’s Nuremburg Rally Speech in 1934. And the lamentable and preventable deaths of millions of unwanted dogs in our nation’s shelters is not evidence of a “Doggie Dachau.”
People tend to find your arguments silly. They know that you’ve trotted out the Analogy that Cannot be Topped, so you’ve eliminated any gray area from their response. They cannot partially agree with you; and since you’ve put Hitler/Nazis/The Holocaust out there as your point of comparison, they are likely to come down on the other side.
They also might likely find your argument highly offensive. It’s not just the millions of people who’s family’s died at the hands of Nazis in the camps of Auschwitz, Sobibor, Buchenwald, et al, that would find virtually any allusion between your passionate subject and a regime that murdered millions of people to be offensive on its face. Your glib comparison would in fact have the opposite effect on these folks; that is, if your intention was to influence them.
There are clearly issues and subjects that warrant careful analogies to the Holocaust, Hitler, and the crimes of the Nazis. But ironically these issues are so clear cut that there is little need to draw the parallels. 800,000 Rwandans were massacred because of their ethnicity in the mid-1990s. Few were offended by connections made to this massacre to the Holocaust.
So in this spirit, the Worse Than Hitler Blog offers the following tips and techniques that will help you avoid the Analogy That Cannot Be Topped. By carefully choosing alternate analogies, you will look smarter and quite possibly actually influence the thinking of those that your are hoping to influence.
Ah, the Gestapo. This is often brought up by people hoping for a lite version of the Analogy That Cannot Be Topped. The thinking goes that the Gestapo isn’t as directly connected to the extermination of the Jews, and it’s a bit removed from Hitler and the Nazis, sort of like a step cousin. But sorry, people are just not going to take it that way. You may think that by describing the local code enforcement agency as “the Gestapo” that people might get that you are trying to describe them as an obtrusive agency that oversteps their bounds and hinders your ability to operate your business. But what your audience is hearing is “The code enforcement agency is the Gestapo. As in the Nazis. As in the people that killed 6 million Jews.”
So try to think of some other examples that aren’t loaded with so much baggage. How about the KGB? They certainly made life tough for average Russians during the cold war. How about the Stasi? The dreaded East German agency was much more pervasive than the Gestapo ever was, and using them in your analogy has the added benefit of maintaining a strong German connection. Want to get obscure? How about the Savak, the Shah of Iran’s dreaded security service and intelligence agency? Real nasty group, that lot.
The key is to offer an example that your audience would understand without further explanation. Do you have a literate crowd? Try the Savak, or the Stasi. Trust me, you’ll seem smarter to them. You have a little less brainpower in your audience? Go for the KGB. Everyone’s heard of the KGB. Either way, you will have made an effective analogy with any of that whole Genocide baggage.
Hitler is a perennial point of comparison used by people of simple intellects everywhere. Obama? Yeah, he’s just like Hitler. John McCain? He’s looking a bit like he might be a new Hitler. Dick Cheney? Hitler. Rupert Murdoch? Hitler. Putin? Definitely, 100% exactly like Hitler.
Come on, guys! This is so lazy! There are so many better, more effective, and well, hipper examples to choose from. Are you trying to say someone is a mass killer? How about trying Stalin? A good 20 to 30 million people died at his hands. How about Mao? Somewhere between 3 to 6 million people were killed during his Cultural Revolution and one historian argues that 77 million deaths can be attributed to him. Need to go smaller? It’s hard to go wrong with Pol Pot, killer of 1 to 2 million Cambodians.
Are you trying to say someone is amassing dangerous amounts of power? Well why not offer up Mussolini? Or Castro? What about Kim Jong-Il of North Korea? If you’re talking about your town’s supervisor, do you really think Hitler is the very best analogy to make? Why not try something more homegrown like Huey Long, even Joseph McCarthy? Unless you really, really think your town supervisor is ultimately planning to exterminate 6 million souls, you probably want to avoid the Hitler comparison because no matter how much you actually intend to only refer to Hitler’s accumulation of power, your audience will actually hear; “the Town Supervisor is Hitler. After taking over this town he will move on to his real plan: Killing lots and lots of Jews.”
Comparisons to the Nazis are closely related to Hitler comparisons, except it is typically used to refer to organizations or governments rather than individuals. So we get examples like “The Republicans are modern-day Nazis.” “The Democrats cannot hide their Nazi-like quest for power.” Hamas? The same as the Nazis. Isreal? Yeah we know they’re Jews and all, but dammit, they are just like the Nazis! The editors of the Opinion Page of the Wall Street Journal? Nazis. Same goes for the editors at the New York Times.
As with the Hitler references, Nazi references are just so lazy. Put on your thinking caps folks! You want to influence people right? You’ve got to earn their respect and offering up the 10th Nazi analogy of the day simply won’t do it. What about “The People’s Party of North Korea?” The actual party name is the Democratic Front for the Reunification of the Fatherland, but nobody knows that, and they’ll know exactly what you mean if you say “with all of these new, oppressive regulations, our city council is just like the People’s Party of North Korea.” Want something a little more au courant, yet edgy? Try using Hugo Chavez’s Fifth Republic Movement. Or what about the Burma Junta? If you’re in the right crowd, they will be smart enough to get your reference, or at least smart enough to not look dumb by asking you who Hugo Chavez is or what exactly is a Junta. (Quick tip: pronounce the “J” as an “H” or risk looking like a tool).
The Holocaust is a special case in the realm of the Analogy That Cannot Be Topped. Invariably when someone who brings up the Gestapo, Eichmann, the Nazis, and Goebbels is challenged, they will defend their analogy by claiming that they were not actually referring to the killing of millions and millions of Jews. They were simply referring to an accumulation of power, or an oppressive regime, or someone who is merely being an asshole. But they certainly had no intention of bringing up the Holocaust.
But it’s much harder to claim that you didn’t intend to bring up the Holocaust when you actually bring up the Holocaust.
One would think that it would be obvious that comparing something–anything–to the Holocaust might be treading on thin ice. Apparently there are Holocausts going on against chickens living in intensive factory farms, against the unborn in millions of unwed teenagers, against America’s poor, against companion animals in shelters, against Palestinians in Gaza.
Is your subject actually, truly comparable to the Holocaust, as in the mass killing of a specific population? Then you are talking about genocide. And if you’re talking about genocide, then use that word. Trust me, it’s really, really powerful. Using “genocide” allows you to have a more effective case, because the singular facts of the Holocaust tends to lessen the enormity of legitimate examples genocide by comparison. “Only” about 8,000 people were killed during the Srebrenica Genocide in 1995. But it was a clear case of genocide, and it happened in all of our lifetimes. So when you hear of a government targeting a population through mass killings, consider a more recent and directly comparable example, like Srebrenica. Want to put some energy into crafting a perfect analogy for your argument? Visit Wikipedia’s Genocides in History page and read up on 20 different genocides that have occurred since the Holocaust.
Is your subject only tangentially comparable to the Holocaust? Like the cruel deaths of farm animals on industrial factory farms? In cases like this, consider the thought that a Holocaust analogy is simply never going to be an effective analogy and there might not be a substitute. No matter how much the animals suffer, a significant portion of the population will be deeply offended by comparisons of the deaths of chickens to the deaths of Jews.
So here’s a thought. Look up public opinion surveys. Find out what concerns people DO have about factory farms, and focus your arguments on those issues. You’ll find that people may not be willing to give up eating chickens or eggs, but they want the animals treated humanely during their care. Letting someone know that typically 8 chickens will spend their entire lives together in a cage the size of a file box, with no room to sit or spread their wings, will be a more effective argument than telling them that chickens are dying in daily Holocausts across the country.
There are myriad other terms to watch out for, lest you unwittingly invoke the Analogy That Cannot Be Topped. Brown Shirts, the SS, Eichmann, Nuremburg (the Rally, not the Trials), etc… they”re all problematic. And using the swastika or other Nazi iconography on anything, anything, is bad. Always.
Some terms don’t seem to have the baggage of the big four terms above: the Jewish term “Shoah” has a different connotation that “Holocaust,” if for no other reason than it implies the speaker is more worldly and literate. Occasionally you will find people using specific “good” Nazis, like Stauffenberg or Rommel in their analogies, but these are the flip-side to the Analogy that Cannot Be Topped. Either way, it helps to remind yourself that any reference to the Nazi era is fraught with the danger of making you look like an asshole. Tread carefully.
It’s not that hard, folks. You CAN influence people while weaning yourself from the Analogy That Cannot Be Topped. Just put a little thought in your examples beforehand and your audience will thank you for it.