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Reductio ad Hitlerum

As formulated in the early days of online forums by Internet attorney Mike Godwin, Godwin’s Law states that: Given enough time, in any online discussion, regardless of topic or scope, someone inevitably makes a comparison to Hitler or the Nazis.

According to Godwin, the introduction of Hitler automatically brings an end to the discussion since having to resort to “that’s what Hitler believed” or “you’re just advocating what the Nazis did” means you’ve run out of sensible arguments and there’s no point in continuing the discussion.

Comparing people to Hitler is also known as the “Reductio ad Hitlerum“, as coined by philosopher Leo Strauss in 1951. According to Strauss, the reductio ad Hitlerum is an informal fallacy – i.e. defective logic – that consists of trying, in this case, to refute an opponent’s view by comparing it to a view that would be held by Adolf Hitler or the Nazi Party. (You do X; Hitler did X; therefore you’re like Hitler.)

Basically, the more defensive a person gets about the argument they’re making, the more likely they are to compare the other side to Hitler.

The more defensive a person gets about their argument, the more likely they are to compare the other side to Hitler.

Last week, for example, running out of things to say in his 22-hour quasi-filibuster, Senator Ted Cruz was reduced to saying that members of Congress who don’t agree with his position on health care reform are just like the appeasers who allowed Hitler to invade the rest of Europe. Rep. Steve King of Iowa said of the President’s canceling of missile systems in the Czech Republic that “Hitler actually negotiated with the Russians” too.  And a radical Christian website offers 13 ways President Obama is just like Hitler (#1: “They both held rallies in outdoor stadiums.”)

The reductio ad Hitlerum has also long been a last stand of people who like to harm nonhuman animals. Sooner or later, they’ll explode with “Hitler loved dogs,too”, “The Nazis passed laws against sport hunting”, or “Hitler was a vegetarian.”

So it was no big surprise, last week, to see NRA top lobbyist Tony Makris trying to defend his shocking behavior in Africa with a classic reductio at Hitlerum.

makris-nra-news-093013You’ll recall that in an episode of the NBC Sports show “Under the Skies” Makris had hunted down an elephant in Botswana, shot him twice (botching the job both times) and, after finally managing to kill him, drank a glass of champagne and joked about the whole sorry scene.

Under fierce attack from people all over the world (and with African elephants now on the very edge of extinction), Makris went on NRA News TV to defend himself.

First he explained: “You know, I’m not an elephant hunter. I’m a hunter. I hunt all things.” Then he argued that anyone who places elephants above any other animals in terms of what’s not OK to shoot is guilty of “animal racism.”

And then (here it comes):

“And now they’re shocked. And they said, ‘But they’re so big and special and they’re smarter.’ And I went, ‘You know, Hitler would have said the same thing.'”

The great 18th-Century political essayist Samuel Johnson famously said that “patriotism is the last refuge of a scoundrel.” Today he might have added today that in our modern media age the increasingly last refuge of a scoundrel is comparing your opponents to Hitler.

Well, at least the NBC Sports Network has decided to do the right thing. According to the sports blog Deadspin, an NBC spokesperson told reporters:

Under Wild Skies will no longer air on NBC Sports Sports Network due to the program’s close association with its host, whose recent comments comparing his critics to Hitler are outrageous and unacceptable. NBCSN will continue to air all of our other quality outdoor programming.