Author: Salvador Pitta Gouveia
Godwin’s law (1990) states that “As an online discussion grows longer, the probability of a comparison involving Hitler approaches”. Twenty-seven years later, this ‘law’ seems to be more accurate than ever! Indeed, comparisons to one of the worst villains of history are quite common, whichever the means of communication we use.
But this would not be a 2017 article if it did not mention Donald Trump, and here is the link between the Orange man and Godwin’s law: probably no one has served more as a confirmation of the ‘law’ than Donald Trump, and we should not be happy about that. ‘Alas! The author is defending Donald Trump!’, I hear you cry.
Worry not! I could not be more against having a man whose wisdom and soundness resemble those of an ape as President of the United States, and it is precisely for that reason that I shiver whenever I come across the frequent comparisons made between Trump and the most horrible man that has existed. This is part of a wider problem which seems to be affecting public discussion in the West. The fact is that almost all of us have come across at least one comparison between Trump and Hitler. My purpose here is to try to convince the reader that this is not a good sign.
Yes, even though Trump says he’s “the least racist guy on the planet”, it’s quite evident that he is not. Far from it! What’s more, he makes fun of disabled people; he lies all the time; he says the press is the enemy of the American people; he has no idea of what he is doing, neither does his team; not to talk about the disgraceful manner in which The Donald treats women, which we have learned about from his own words.
Nevertheless, the guy hasn’t committed a genocide (nor does he plan to commit one, as far as I am aware). There are many, many other traits present in Hitler which I could have mentioned that are not present in Donald Trump, but this is precisely my point: the fact that Trump (or any other living person in the world) has not gassed six million people to death is enough to prove that the comparison between Donald Trump (or any other person of our time) and Hitler is intellectually flawed, if not dishonest. This is what can also be referred to as a Godwin’s law corollary, which put formally, could be something like “In a discussion, whoever makes comparisons to Hitler automatically loses the argument.” A similar idea can be found in what the political philosopher Leo Strauss called the reductio ad hitlerum fallacy. Someone commits the fallacy ad hitlerum when he/she tries to defeat someone’s argument by comparing and associating it with Adolf Hitler’s own views or acts.
I am afraid that we see too many instances of this fallacy, and this tells us a lot about the state of our current public discussion. Have we got bored of fighting people with ideas, rather than sound bites and weird hyperbolic comparisons? Have we given up on persuasion? Are we too sure of our own ideas that we feel it is not worth debating them? Should we not prove others wrong with strong arguments rather than weak analogies?
This year’s TEDxLSE theme is ‘On the Brink’, a spot on description of the world of our time. Trump’s election has contributed very significantly (perhaps decisively) to the accuracy of our theme as a descriptive element of the world we live in. With his election, among many other things, a whole new conception of debate and discussion in the public sphere (which has been developing for a few years) seems to be establishing itself as the new normal. It is an ever more fragmented way of presenting different arguments and ideas. The times when people with different opinions directly debated with each other and confronted their opinions with their opponent’s are increasingly becoming memories of an irrecoverable past… Some call it polarisation.
Personally, I think this is something different. As an apologist for adversarial politics, I am not necessarily opposed to a somewhat polarised state of affairs, as long as people are willing to debate each other, because it is usually from the confrontation of ideas that we get closer to the truth, as John Stuart Mill has so compellingly argued. But currently, I do not think that polarisation is the right description of what is happening. It’s more than that: there is an isolation of ideas, of perspectives of the world, and every day there is less and less room for discussion - which brings me back to the first paragraph.
I would like to be able to say that this ‘argumentative isolationism’ is all Trump’s and his gang’s fault. Unfortunately, I don't think that I can say that. Sure, he plays the major role in this new way of avoiding discussion: by, for instance, refusing to answer questions, shouting “fake news” almost every day, and (if you can still remember), performing terribly in the debates with Hilary Clinton, because he just wouldn’t properly and directly debate her ideas or let his own ideas be honestly discussed. But, whenever someone compares him to Hitler, they are giving in to his own way of approaching serious debate (which is avoiding it).
Ad hitlerum fallacies’ main purpose is exactly to end discussion, to silence one’s opponent by comparing him/her to Hitler. Those who want to fight Trump’s views shouldn’t do it by giving his supporters the best present they could get – an opportunity to avoid discussing the real issues of today. The strategy should be exactly the opposite: take Trump’s views in the most serious way you can, let those who stand for Trump speak their minds, and fight them with arguments – which still is, and will always be, the best way to defeat your opponents – and you will rejoice in watching their house of cards collapse! No ad hitlerum needed.
Note - for practical purposes, I assume the reader is not exactly satisfied with Trump’s election… This may be prejudicial of me, but why read TEDx articles if you can spend a nice evening surfing on the wonders of Breitbart?…