It is a peculiar habit we all share of rating things that are simply unquantifiable. Who was the greatest heavyweight boxer, the most accomplished artist, or the best poet? These are absurd propositions yet we carry on making our lists at the end of the year to reorder our selections based on the latest available data.
When it comes to the ultimate unquantifiable, there have been certain standout ‘champions’ for the past half a century. ‘Nazi’ is the word we so often use to describe something of utter barbarity and, as personifications of evil go, none are as bad as Adolf Hitler.
There are innumerable problems with this, least of all being people’s willingness to attribute Hitler the attribute of ultimate ‘evil’. In the strictest dictionary sense of the word, Hitler was evil in that he did morally objectionable things. Yet ‘evil’ as a concept also involves an unhealthy inference about the otherworldly or the bestial. It is simply unhelpful to portray Hitler as the devil or somehow not of human birth. It is wrong because reducing him to a moral absolute strips his actions of their context. We fail to understand how Hitler was the product of history, circumstance and, of course, psychology. To ignore Hitler’s popularity in the 1930s is to absolve people of their guilt. Hitler did not rise to power on the specific promise of committing genocide on an industrial scale or turning Europe into a smouldering pile of ash. He did so with the same kinds of promise that all politicians make about a greater tomorrow and better lives for his followers. To understand Hitler and his evils is to understand the nature of popularity and the psychopathology of large groups of people and their political grip upon a nation.
Of course, we rarely wish to dwell on such difficulty. It really is easier to think of Hitler as some kind of Satanic force than it is to think of him as one potential outcome of a frenzied discourse among people pursuing what they see as a moral ‘good’. It means we treat the words ‘Nazi’ and ‘Hitler’ as if toxic or as a poison with which we can pollute the intellectual watercourse.
For example, the ‘Nazi equivalence’ is one of rhetoric’s cheapest tricks. You can shut down any argument (or, at least, ensure that you deeply irritate your opponent so much that they’re thrown off their game) if you simply compare them to Hitler. The laziest casual observer will usually side with you, whether you are indeed correct, simply because nobody wishes to be seen in favour of a ‘Nazi idea’. In any televised debate the Nazi equivalence will usually trigger the loudest applause. Yet whenever you see the Nazi equivalence made, you can usually guarantee that an argument has being simplified in order to achieve a cheap ‘victory’. So, for example, this past week when Donald Trump suggested that America should temporarily stop Muslims from entering the country, social media rushed to portray him with a Hitler moustache. The outcome was that supporters of Trump hardened their positions and most of his most vocal opponents did not even bother to address the obvious flaws (moral, political, legal, and practical) of his plan. Watching the whole sorry spectacle, I could only reflect on the sad irony that to understand how Hitler rose to power, you only need witness the crudity of argument used by people comparing the opposing point of view to that of Hitler.
As a friend recently asked me: isn’t it strange that the more places and opportunities people have to discuss ideas, the fewer ideas are expressed and everybody merely parrots the rest? It doesn’t, on reflection, seem strange at all. Original ideas are rare, difficult ideas are challenging, and the natural instinct is to follow whatever is easy. Evil, I would suggest, is perhaps the easiest concept to understand.
Yet the reason I write this today has nothing to do with Donald Trump but a story I read this morning about the continued brutality of Daesh. The news that Sharia judges have ordered the execution of infants with Down’s Syndrome and other disabilities has naturally shocked all who has read about this sickening development. Unsurprising, the rhetoric has been fraught with emotion. Daesh’s actions have been described as ‘worse than the Nazis’.
Because I’ve been thinking about the Nazi equivalence since people first suggested that Trump was ‘worse than Hitler’ (an argument so specious that it’s not worth dwelling upon), my instinct was to say: ‘sorry but no, Daesh are not worse than the Nazis’. It is, I know, unfair and pedantic to make this point at this time but I think it is worth making. The worst you can say about Daesh is that they are the very same as the Nazis.
This might seem self evident and hardly worth pursuing but I think it’s important that we understand and speak of our realty as though it’s not divorced from the past. An interesting article over at The Atlantic yesterday discussed the habits of historians to write to an existing narrative that actually makes it harder to understand the current moment as it exists in the span of Time. The author of the piece, Ta-Nehisisi Coates, neatly summarises the way black history is too often written out of a sense of hope for the future when, in fact, there is a possibility that white supremacy might be something we cannot escape in our culture. I’m not entirely convinced that it will necessarily be a white supremacy that will persist (we had, for example, a Roman supremacy that existed across Europe for centuries and why might we not have a Chinese supremacy become dominant in the future) but I thought it a strong argument because it accepts the fact that human nature will continue to be flawed. Tall or short, fat and thin, black or white, difference between individuals will always be noted and very often politicised.
We face a similar charge of false accounting when it comes to the situation in Iraq and Syria. That we wish to write Daesh into history as an evil far worse than those of previous generations is understandable but simply wrong. I’m not even sure how healthy it is to put a term like ‘worse’ to a thing like genocide. If you agree that Daesh have been worse than the Nazi regime, then doesn’t that make Nazis slightly ‘better’? Conversely, if you agree that the Nazis were worse, does that then offer some degree of respectability to Daesh?
It is not only wrong to quantify evil but it’s practically impossible. By what measure do you judge the crimes of the Nazis against those of Daesh? By the number of people killed? Some estimates put the number killed by the Nazis at 11 million people. The upper limit of Daesh’s actions are a few hundred thousand. Yet, of course, the casualty numbers are not the reason why people think the Daesh are worse. It is the barbarity of Daesh that makes them leapfrog the Nazis in people’s loathing. Yet even this is to misunderstand the subject and, indeed, our history. There is certainly a twisted sensationalism about the spectacle of Daesh’s brutality but that is a product of our miserable selfie generation. As I’ve argued previously, Daesh are the Jackass Jihadists and their obsession with spectacle merely reflects our own obsessions. Yet to say that this is somehow worse than the Nazi’s industrialised genocide is to misrepresent the darkest period in modern history.
Daesh worse? Can anybody be so calculating as to count? If you did, you would conclude that the World is not at war and, beyond Syria, there is no existential threat to any nation involved in the fight. In that sense, Daesh are better. Yet terms like ‘worse’ and ‘better’ are themselves problematic. Evil is simply an indivisible quality if, indeed, it even exists at all beyond a manifestation of ignorance. Defined as such, Daesh is one of the greatest forms of ignorance we currently face. Our solace is surely in knowing that evil is no supernatural demon and ignorance can always be defeated.