Godwin’s Flaw

In public discourse, comparisons of X to the actions of the Nazis or Hitler are frequently invoked too easily and too recklessly. They are often used as a crutch for, or a substitute to, a real argument…to the point where there now exists an informal rhetorical rule that any reference to Hitler automatically results in one losing the argument – Godwin’s Law.

It’s a shame, because the rise of the Nazis in Germany, the initiation of World War Two, and of course the Holocaust offer many useful warnings for us today. It’s unfortunate that the plethora of irresponsible comparisons have made it difficult to make responsible comparisons and study and apply the lessons of the past.

The Vancouver Province’s Jon Ferry attempted to take to task what he thought, I suppose, was the former:

Comparing teachers’ treatment by the B.C. legislature to that of the Jews by Hitler and the Nazis, for example, works against the very thing they say they’re fighting for.

This was done by Wendy Turner, president of the Cranbrook District Teachers Association who, Ferry says, apparently wrote a letter to The Province that did so. I say apparently because for the life of me I can’t find Turner’s letter in the online version of the letters to the editor section of The Province. Or, indeed, anywhere. Based on the use of quote marks around it, the following bolded text is what Turner actually wrote (that Ferry selectively shares with his readers):

Yes, Wendy Turner, president of the Cranbrook District Teachers Association, wrote to our newspaper to say that, as a child, she’d read Anne Frank’s Diary of a Young Girl and had asked her parents: “How could they do this to people?”

Her parents told her it was because the German people didn’t realize what was happening until it was too late. “Why was it too late?” she apparently asked. “Because by then it was the law!”

Turner said she’d forgotten those words until she realized “history was repeating itself” with the Liberals using legislation “to legitimize their stripping away of employment rights for a targeted group of people — teachers.”

Now look at the bolded text again. Is what we are allowed to see really a comparison of the plight of B.C. teachers with that of the Jews at the hands of Hitler? Or is it actually speaking to the dangers of apathy when rights are “legally” stripped away? Because the Holocaust was not the only terrible thing the Nazis did and it’s not the only example of danger they present to us. For they were a democratically elected government who did in fact begin to slowly strip the rights of German citizens away including the rights of labour to organize independently.

We don’t know if this is the comparison Turner is making. She may well have explicitly written that the B.C. Liberal government’s behaviour is akin to the Holocaust. Conversely, she may have explicitly written she was not making a comparison to the Holocaust. But based on the text surrounded by quote marks, it’s an extremely plausible interpretation she was making a comparison to the slow rollback of democratic rights by a ruling political party and the apathy of the populace.

Maybe her letter is in the print version of The Province. I will attempt to find some old issues and have a look and if I find anything I will update this post.

All in all it’s a touchy subject that requires a deft hand and perhaps Jon Ferry – being of that generation – is simply extremely sensitive to it’s mention.

So I’m sure, when his Province colleague Dan Murphy compared B.C. teachers to Hitler in an editorial cartoon, he was deeply offended and took Murphy to task.

Or maybe not.

Which would make Ferry’s outrage here selective, exploitative and very, very hypocritical.