As a rule, I dislike hyperbole in argument, and take the view that it generates more heat than light. And I think it’s fair to say that the signal example of argumentative hyperbole is wheeling out the Nazis. Of course, I’m not alone in this: “Godwin’s Law” exists because lots of other people also dislike arguments that punch through overstatement and come out the other side.
However, there’s a twofold downside to the “no Nazis” rule: First, a major historical event is ossified, like a mosquito trapped in amber. Second, this fossilization makes it sacrosanct, and it then becomes difficult to draw genuine historical lessons from it. This reticence, I believe, is why when people who aren’t politics, history, or foreign policy enthusiasts discuss Nazism, the result is often the cringe-worthy comparisons of Bush or Obama to Hitler with which we’ve all become familiar.
In other words, we don’t discuss Hitler because we’ve forgotten how to.
Rachel Burger wrote a piece arguing that TSA employees couldn’t ethically use the excuse that they were “just obeying orders” in the same way that SS camp guards, say, couldn’t argue successfully that that they were “just obeying orders” at the Nuremberg Trials. To my eye, she didn’t equate the TSA with Nazis; instead, she equated their excuses. However, most people saw a variation on the former, and there was vigorous (albeit polite) debate on the merits or demerits of comparing people who are merely behaving badly (on instruction) with people who are behaving like the Devil himself (on instruction).
For me, however, this is not the issue. It is perfectly possible to criticize what Rachel wrote, even when one concedes her point that she was not making a Nazi analogy. Arin Greenwood from HuffPo failed to do so. Instead, she engaged in cheap shots (lots of Alex Jones/Ann Coulter/libertarian wingnut chat) without considering the legitimacy of the “Nuremberg Defense” in non-Nuremberg situations.
All Greenwood needed to do to make her point was argue that criticisms of the “just obeying orders” or “ethically compromised by the nature of one’s employment” Nuremberg Defense are normatively limited, and should only be used when speaking about the Nazis, or perhaps the Nazis plus a small number of other authoritarian regimes. I’m not sure that holds, but it’s a perfectly respectable argument. So far, however, no-one has made it.
To that end, I’d like to ask a few questions:
When is it unacceptable to say “I was just obeying orders” or “if I don’t do what I’m told, I’ll lose my job” or “first meat, then morality?”
Is there a difference if the excuse-maker is in the military or another severely hierarchical organization?
Are any jobs ethically compromising in a liberal democracy? It seems intuitively possible that there are such jobs: one banking litigator of my acquaintance gets “RepoMan” written on his cups at the local Starbucks, because lots of people think a well-fed, well-paid lawyer taking people’s houses off them on the bank’s behalf is, you know, a bit scuzzy.
While I’m on the subject of repossession—after the confected outrage that swirled around this blog earlier in the week—I think we all need to repossess two things: (1) our willingness to talk about Nazis in ways that aren’t silly or reductive and (2) our ability to engage critically with jobs in liberal democracies that demand employees do ethically shitty things. That doesn’t mean blaming the TSA for a wingnut going postal with a gun, but it does mean thinking about the world we have made, with all its petty injustices and defaults.