Following the violence (from armed Nazis, and the one side they represent) in Charlottesville, some people have suggested that the perpetrators only acted like brutal, thuggish Nazis, because people had been calling them brutal, thuggish Nazis for so long. Of course they’re going to act like Nazis if you keep calling them Nazis! Obviously it’s an attempt to take the blame away from the actual Nazis committing the violence. It’s an attempt to say, Look, these are just troubled young men not happy with the way they’re country’s going. But they’ve been demonized by SJWs, and that’s made them lash out in frustration! What do you expect when you call someone a Nazi!
There a couple of assumptions being made here. The first is that if you label someone with a negative name often enough, they’ll become what you call them. And that seems logical enough. Imagine how angry it would make you to unfairly labelled as something as terrible as a Nazi!? Except, that only really works when the label is applied unfairly, doesn’t it? So let’s take a moment to have a look at some of the people being called Nazis:
Ok, you might say, they’re Nazis now, but they weren’t before people started calling them Nazis! But can someone really adopt such an extreme position just by being called names? I can understand someone going off the rails a little, or having an outburst after getting repeatedly and unfairly labelled. But how do you get to be a Nazi – an actual Nazi – in 21st-century America from a moderate position? Nazism’s ideology is simply far too extreme and filled with hate for that, especially without the excuse of economic depression and charismatic leadership, which can help to explain the rise of Nazism in Germany in the 30s.
And I don’t buy the argument that these people arrived at their position from legitimate grievances or at least more moderate views. What’s the more moderate version of thinking that white people are naturally superior to other races? What’s the legitimate grievance behind that? No, being a Nazi is a choice to express one’s hatred deliberately clothed in the trappings of the most hated, offensive political group. Those people in Charlottesville knew exactly what they were doing.
Another assumption at work is that Nazi is a taboo term that should never be used as an insult. Again, that seems fairly logical. What the Nazis did and believed was so atrocious that we shouldn’t trivialise them by overusing the term Nazi, or using it for less serious offences and beliefs. But I have two problems with that idea. The first is that I don’t really see the term Nazi thrown around a lot. People often claim it is, but these people are usually the people with horrible views who are being called Nazis. Of course they’re going to exaggerate how often they’re called Nazis. More importantly though, is my second problem with the idea of Nazi as a taboo term:
What the hell are we supposed to call these people then? They look, act, and think like Nazis. They simply are Nazis by any definition. Sure, I get the general logic behind not using extreme terms. We shouldn’t stoop to the level of discourse of those who use hate speech, because that just increases the level of animosity in political discourse and leads us into a vicious cycle. Except that these people are actually Nazis, so it’s perfectly appropriate to call them Nazis. Not calling them Nazis would only legitimize them, give them a veneer of respectability.
And Trump has done enough of that already. It’s sadly not such a surprise that armed and armoured Nazis feel they can openly walk the streets en masse under the regime of a man who has so lowered the level of political discourse. From the beginning of his presidential campaign, Trump has used aggressive, blunt language, often referencing physical or sexual violence. And he seems to have got only more brazen. It’s no wonder that Nazis feel empowered when they have a president who refused to distance himself from the support of the KKK, who mocks the disabled, who enacts openly prejudiced policies, who advocates police brutality, who talks about grabbing women by the pussy, and who refuses to condemn Nazi violence and instead like a coward talks about violence on “many sides.” He’s very directly responsible for the horrors we saw in Charlottesville, including the killing of Heather Heyer. He’s shown these awful people that it’s ok to be hateful towards your fellow human beings through his actions and his words.
Yes, language can be a powerful tool. Yes, we have to be careful about how we use terms like Nazi. It’s a powerful thing, not to be taken lightly. But if we see a Nazi, we need to call it a Nazi, and not give them more respect than they deserve. And if the President of the United States inspires violence through his rhetoric, we need to condemn that. Equally, we need to condemn him when he uses language carefully to avoid offending the Nazis who voted for him (it’s no surprise that white supremacists online were delighted that he avoided specifically condemning them on Saturday). Words like Nazi are dangerous when we use them as weapons, but also when we refuse to use them when we should.