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Unofficial Prognosis

Unofficial Prognosis


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In honor of Holocaust Remembrance Day: the misuse and abuse of the Nazi analogy in modern bioethics

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.


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My introduction to the Holocaust came at a family Passover Seder when I could not have been older than six. My grandmother clasped her hand around my wrist, lamenting that it was too skinny, and pointed to the food I had swirled around on my plate, urging me to please, eat. My father explained that my grandmother’s behavior stemmed from her time in Nazi concentration camps decades earlier, where starvation was rampant, and that her instincts never left her.

From an early age, I had a general awareness of my family’s history. I knew my grandmother and grandfather were survivors of the camps; I knew my Hebrew name, Esther, carried significance for a child family member who was lost; I knew that my grandfather weighed just sixty pounds when finally liberated. There were references to beatings, torture, and public murder. I knew our extended family was limited, and that my grandparents lost many whom they loved.

Still, it took years for the most gruesome details to take shape. My grandfather passed away before I was born, and my grandmother did not talk about her past explicitly, telling me “ach, you are too young” when I asked. Yet deeply aware of the importance of passing on her history, she said she would tell me when I was older.

The conversations never happened. The same time I was growing older, so was she, and she was prevented from sharing her story with me – no longer by her own hesitation, but by illness. Alzheimer’s Disease gradually stole my grandmother’s ability to move, say my name, and finally, communicate at all. A month before she died, I could not tell if she even recognized me.

The burden of communication fell to the next generation. Bit by bit, my father and aunt filled in the details of my family tree my grandmother could not. Anonymous relatives in a sea of six million became people with names, ages, and personalities. Smiling photographs, taken on the eve of war. Places and methods of murder. Last words.

It was one thing to have an underlying awareness of my history, but entirely another to take in the brutal details of my family’s murder. There are stories I wish I could un-hear, though I realize this is a narrative I need to know and preserve. My grandparents gave life to five grandchildren; each of our names bears at least one commemoration to someone who was lost. But there are still not enough of us to honor all the victims. Our commemoration will have to spill over into our future children: the fourth generation.

***

Sixty-seven years since my grandparents were liberated, I have found conversations about the Holocaust outside our household quite different. There are certainly many people who recognize it as a historical horror to be treated with the utmost sensitivity, to which anyone victimized deserves nothing but the utmost respect. But it’s not ubiquitous. It is strange to pick up an opinion piece or listen to the radio and hear the cavalier invocation of something my grandmother was so cautious to broach, that caused both my grandparents lifelong grief and left them with voids that could never be filled.

The use of the Nazi analogy spans academic and political worlds, ivory towers and radio talk shows, and cuts across both sides of the political aisle. It has become so prevalent in online dialogue, in fact, that it prompted author Michael Godwin to coin the informal “law” bearing his name: “As an online discussion grows longer, the probability of a comparison involving Nazis or Hitler approaches 1.”

Rush Limbaugh popularized the term “Feminazi” to malign women’s rights activists and uses the phrase on a regular basis. In 2003, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) launched its “Holocaust on Your Plate” display, which placed images of animals in factory farms and slaughterhouses next to those of Jews in concentration camps. The president of the organization made comments like, “Six million Jews died in concentration camps, but six billion broiler chickens will die this year in slaughterhouses.” Glenn Beck compared the victims of a shooting in a Norwegian political camp to Hitler Youth, and then defended his right to say so by claiming, “If we’re living in a society where we can’t say X in the same paragraph as Y and not be told we are comparing it…we are going to be a society of gas chambers.” A few years ago, ads compared President Bush to Hitler; now, the same is being done to Obama.

Turn to the world of bioethics. In 2005, the nation’s debate over whether life support could be withdrawn from Terry Schiavo, a woman in a persistent vegetative state, drew many comparisons. As disagreement over scientific and medical practice grows, so does the list of subjects in which the analogy has been invoked: stem cell research, abortions, health care reform. Nothing, it seems, is off-limits.

***

What does invoking Nazism accomplish? I decided to pose the question to bioethicist Arthur Caplan, who has written a lot about the subject and who was kind enough to lend his insights to me last week. “Some use it as a kind of rhetorical attention grabber,” he said. “In bioethical debate, it is a discussion ender – it shuts off debate. It’s evil incarnate, end of story.”

But I still wondered about motivation. Is it lack of awareness – or could the offenders have more sinister intentions? Dr. Caplan’s opinion was that it is mixed. While some simply “don’t understand what is required of an analogy,” others call upon flagrant crimes to lambaste their opponents in the most powerful way they could think of.

The more distant something becomes in our collective historical memory, the easier it is to misunderstand, misuse, and abuse. The rhetorical tactic gains strength as survivors die off.

***

Is it ever appropriate to invoke the Holocaust? Absolutely. The most egregious horrors bring with them a moral force. To learn nothing from them, to have the brutalities ignored, dismissed, or forgotten, would be just as insulting to the victims. There were social and political ingredients that allowed the Nazis to rise to power, dehumanize an entire group of people in the name of science, and commit crimes against humanity on an unspeakable scale. The Holocaust, as a field of study, is critical.

In fact, the field of bioethics was essentially created from the horrors of the Holocaust. Principles like informed consent, respect for persons, and autonomy, foundational in any bioethical discussion today, grew out of the legacy of the camps. After the war, the Nuremberg Doctor Trials assessed 23 physicians who oversaw the “euthanasia program” to kill those considered unworthy of life and who conducted experiments on thousands of concentration camp inmates without their consent. Sixteen were found guilty, with seven sentenced to death. Out of the Trials came the Nuremberg Code, a set of ten ethical principles for permissible medical experimentation on human subjects.

One of the most difficult things to accept after the Holocaust was that it took place in one of the most technologically advanced societies of its time, by some of the most respected professionals in society. Brutalities were orchestrated in the name of science and medicine. Physicians assessed the genetic background of individuals to decide whether they should live or die and planned and executed murder. As Dr. Caplan said to me, “they [the Nazis] didn’t have to drag doctors and scientists in – they led the team.”

The critical components of pointing to the Holocaust in contemporary ethical discussions are understanding how to make a proper analogy and harboring appropriate motivations. The Holocaust comprised so many diverse crimes on such an enormous scale that invoking it broadly does not say much. Rather, if it is to be used to productively and respectfully advance a discussion, it would be better to point out a specific aspect, compare to something specific today, and then explain why the analogy holds.

That is quite different from what occurs. Much of the time, the analogy is not so much an analogy at all, but rather an attempt to vilify someone or something that is disliked. When someone makes that type of accusation, you have to wonder: what does he actually mean? Does a Nazi simply imply a person whose ideology we disagree with? What makes the opponent Nazi-like, and why?

When used in this way, the Nazi analogy constitutes the worst form of rhetorical exploitation. Acutely aware of the emotional reaction it will evoke, those who use it do so intentionally to get that reaction – to garner political gain and convince people to join their side. A Holocaust reference is brandished as the ultimate tool of persuasion, as an opponent cannot argue. If something is anything like Nazism, you win the debate.

But by conflating one of the most heinous crimes against humanity with any agenda found disagreeable, those who use the analogy are exploiting a tragedy. They are taking vile advantage of the victimization of others for political profit.

As Dr. Caplan put it, “Because its misuse diminishes the horror done by Nazi scientists and doctors to their victims, it is ethically incumbent upon those who invoke the Nazi analogy to understand what they are claiming.”

***

Critics of the Nazi analogy say it trivializes the experiences of the victims and is grossly insensitive to survivors and their descendants. I could not agree more.

But I would argue the problem runs even deeper. What those who exploit the Nazi analogy fail to appreciate is that their words shape public behavior and understanding. Speech influences how we think, how we react, and whether we judge something as acceptable or not. Language shapes norms.

As a result, by persistently misusing the Nazi analogy, the pundits are doing more than speaking in error. They are distorting history. Inaccurately invoking Nazism creates a moral and emotional distance from the Holocaust that has evolved into something more dangerous: a distance to the truth. For those who have not properly learned what the Holocaust was, this can be their introduction to it. Intentionally or not, the abusers of the Nazi analogy are paving the way for false understanding.

What happened with the overuse and misuse of the Nazi analogy over the years is that it ceased carrying the rhetorical force it initially had. We react differently. The fact that we don’t respond with repulsion anymore – that a student can say a professor who gave him a bad grade is a Nazi, and no one bats an eyelash – means the pundits generated long-term impact beyond offending. We are becoming desensitized to the horrific experiences of the victims. By making the analogy a part of the lexicon, those who abuse it are devaluing the Holocaust.

If there was any good that came out of the recent Rush Limbaugh-Sandra Fluke scandal, it was that it showed collective moral outrage works. Limbaugh hurled terrible insults upon a woman and the public rightly reacted, leading to significant losses in his sponsorship. Yet in the same rant that caused the backlash, he also accused Fluke and others like her of being “Feminazis.” To that, most of us kept quieter. If only we had reacted to the term with similar condemnation as we did to the word “slut.” The victims of the Holocaust can be restored the respect they deserve.

***

My grandmother had a plan. When I was old enough to understand, she would sit down and tell me about her experiences in Bergen-Belsen and those of my grandfather in Buchenwald. She had a profound awareness that it was important to pass on these stories, even though recounting them caused her pain. She knew the significance of documenting truth, even through the grief of reliving her utter humiliation, victimization, and loss. My grandmother believed in the value of speech.

Seventy years after parents, siblings, cousins, and nieces and nephews of my grandparents were shoved into the gas chambers, the few in my family who escaped them are no longer here to tell their story. As the same is happening to the last remaining survivors across the globe, the world is losing primary sources to speak up, correct false comparisons, and promulgate a historical truth.

For those whose voices were taken from them, I humbly offer mine. But I worry it’s becoming a lonely endeavor.

To those in the public spotlight: I plead with you to be aware that your words have a ripple effect. To reflect on the impact of what you say before you say it. To set the bar for discourse that is conducted with civility and respect.

To the rest of us, my hope is that we continue speaking out in the face of verbal abuse. To realize that collective action makes a difference. That our words, too, matter.

In commemoration of the six million Jews who perished. In loving memory of family members I have never known, but will never forget. For my grandparents, may they rest in peace.

Ilana Yurkiewicz About the Author: Ilana Yurkiewicz is a fourth-year student at Harvard Medical School who graduated from Yale University with a B.S. in biology. She was an AAAS Mass Media Fellow, and her work has appeared in the New England Journal of Medicine, Aeon Magazine, Science Progress, The News & Observer, and The Best Science Writing Online 2013. She has an academic interest in bioethics, currently conducting ethics research at Harvard after previously interning at the Presidential Commission for the Study of Bioethical Issues. She is also interested in general internal medicine and quality and systems improvement. Follow on Twitter @ilanayurkiewicz.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.





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