Boris Johnson is the latest public figure to follow the time honoured British tradition of associating things that are generally perceived to be bad with Hitler. In most cases, this serves the purpose of causing a splash, getting people talking, and adding a sinister gravitas to an argument. But the frequent invoking of Hitler or the Nazi State also has ramifications which Boris – and all those who wish to describe something they dislike profoundly – should consider.
The words we use have consequences. Words have potency, they determine our reality, and they come charged with meaning and cultural connotations. Among the many groups who understand this will be those who work in media, whose efforts put words and messaging into the public realm on a daily basis. The words we use are what help make sense of our reality, and if used systematically, can shape public opinion.
However, language is not a static entity. Words are not born forth into the world with an immutable meaning; instead, their significance is continually reaffirmed and reinvented through usage. Take the word ‘queer’, for example. Its first usage is documented in the 16th Century, as a synonym of ‘odd’, or ‘perverse’. From the 19th Century onwards, it was an aggressively derogatory term for homosexuals. By the late 20th Century, queer was being widely employed as a term of self-definition by the homosexual community, in an attempt to deprive the term of its negative power. Queer is now a well-established and widely utilised word, broadly used to encompass non-heteronormative sexuality.
Meaning can change and the negative – or positive – impact of word can alter with time. Using Hitler as a loose metaphor for bad things in the world undermines the reality of who he was and what he did – and this is dangerous. Hitler was a very real human who did very real and deeply inhumane things. He presided over a very real period in history, inflicting suffering beyond belief and slaughtering human beings in their millions. Constantly invoking him as analogous for negativity threatens to devalue the terrible significance his name holds, and thus insult the memory of the millions of people who suffered at his hands.
I’m not suggesting a blanket ban on mentioning him – far from it. We should talk about Hitler, lots and openly. He must be a part of discussions on 1930s Germany, present when we discuss persecution, and evident when we teach children about the past to avoid it ever being rewritten into the present. What we shouldn’t do is drop him into any discussion of things we don’t like, compare any regime that doesn’t sit well with our ideology to a Nazi state, and decry any threat to liberalism as tantamount to Nazism.
These associations are cheap, and frankly they are stupid. We have a collective responsibility to remember the past, and to uphold this we must protect the meaning and memory of certain words. With a language boasting tens of thousands of words and an infinite potential to create meaning through figurative and literal speech, this shouldn’t be hard. Next time you need to add weight to your argument on how bad something is, reach for the thesaurus, not into history.
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