Monday, 4 May 2009

When smart people say stupid things

It's a common trait of the politically immature of whatever stripe that they are unable to find any label for ideas/groups which they oppose save the most extreme. For example, Lefties have a bad history of labelling those on further Right on the spectrum whose ideas are clearly informed by liberalism as 'hard Right'. And how many times have you heard someone try to argue that democratically-elected right-of-centre governments are comparable to fascism?

But what I've noticed since Labour's election in the UK, and Obama's election in the US, is that people on the Right are just as capable of this kind of thing. Simon Heffer describes the Government's decision to recapitalise the banks as the 'Sovietisation' of Britain, whilst I've seen US Righties accuse the Obama administration of being tyrannical, even fascistic. How hard is it to acknowledge that there are a lot of different political views, and actually there's quite a bit of space between totalitarianism and 'a political view/group I don't like'?

Typically these excitable accusations of fascism/communism involve identifying a couple of points of similarity and overlooking ..err... all other factors. The fact that, by simply using a couple of reference points, you could make the political view/group you don't like comparable to pretty much any other doesn't seem to matter.

Several things bother me about this. First is the idea that words that have a specific meaning are misused to the point that they become meaningless. If what is going on in the US at present is to be compared to 'fascism', the word surely has lost meaning. We know what fascism was like, we know what fascists believed, and we know what fascists did. If the actions of the Obama administration are fascistic then I think we could apply the label to most democratic governments. Like I say, it loses meaning.

Secondly, it worries me that people can actually believe this stuff. I was amazed that during the presidential election Democrats were asked - in all seriousness - whether Obama was a Marxist. But these things take on a life of their own and people start to genuinely believe ideas that are ridiculous. It's almost like an asset bubble. Views get pushed far from the underlying reality, but are fervently believed by those in the bubble. And I think that can be really dangerous.

Finally, I think it's plain unethical. I think that people using these types of comparisons often know that they distorting the truth. Speaking for myself, I know when I am ramping up the rhetoric, and I feel a bit ashamed of it when I acknowledge to myself what I am doing. I can't believe that many people making fascist/communist accusations of democratic governments don't know what they are up to as well. If it's a language game, I think they know they are cheating a bit, making a move that doesn't meet the rules. We have a choice about how to make our arguments, and what those who reach for inappropriate comparisons to the most extreme regimes in history demonstrate most of all is their own lack of ethical standards of conduct.


Tom Freeman said...

I see that you're using words in order to make a point. That's just the sort of thing Hitler did.

Nick Drew said...

A Godwin's Law medallion to Mr Freeman !

Tom P said...

five bonus points if you can tell me which blog inspired me to sound off

Gregg said...

"For example, Lefties have a bad history of labelling those on further Right on the spectrum whose ideas are clearly informed by liberalism as 'hard Right'."

I'm fairly sure they don't. What are you referring to?

Tom P said...

I mean when people refer to neo-liberal type Righties as 'hard Right' or 'far Right'.

Falco said...

My personal bugbear is the twisting of the word Liberal from negative to positive freedom.