November 18, 2004

Over on LDS-Phil we were having a discussion about Heidegger and a discussion of what was basically Goodwin's Law came up. The context was Sheri Dew, who gave the prayer at the Republican National Convention, and her comments earlier this year where she made a Nazi connection in the gay marriage issue. Especially among more liberal groups there was quite the uproar - probably an uproar beyond what the poor rhetorical choice warranted. What was interesting though, was the question of whether invoking the holocaust as basically a metaphor for evil devalues or trivializes the holocaust. A lot of people I respect suggested that it did. Specifically, Jim Faulconer said that, "to use it as a general term for evil acts or events is to trivialize it." I disagree rather strongly.

One big problem I have with the way the holocaust or other Nazi attrocities are treated is how that treatment devalues all other atrocities and genocides. The fact we want to distinguish the holocaust from evil bothers me since one would think that the holocaust is a rather prime example of evil. Thus the holocaust exemplifies evil but sure the evil it exemplifies is more essential and fundamental. Indeed evil itself is hopefully the more troubling to us.

I think that the holocaust is seen as a particularly good representation or symbol of evil and thus directs us towards an evil that can't ever be directly thought properly or fully. Yet to make the holocaust itself the object of a kind of veneration or fear is to in a sense trivialize it because in so doing we trivialize the actual evil itself. What I'm trying to say that when we treat the symbol as what is important rather than what it symbolizes (or exemplifies) that we've reversed things in a very disturbing way.

The reason I find this disturbing is because the holocaust, as being in the past, is dead, complete, determinate and thus in a sense under our power. The future is incomplete, unfinished, and indeterminate. Thus it is in a sense out of our power. By making the past events more important than the evil they exemplify, we in effect suggest a power over the future we don't really have. It is that movement to death that allows new genocides like Darfor or Rwanda to take place and not have the power the holocaust does. We've made evil dead when it is unfortunately very much alive.


Posted By: Clark | November 18, 2004 11:53 AM

One brief comment. Clearly the last paragraph is taking a bit of a Heidegger-influenced riff on what I see the problem to be. However Nathaniel over at LDS-Phil brought up the very real historical point I was trying to discuss more philosophically.

I also think that there is a subtle form of prejudice at work in our treatment of the Holocaust. The fact is that the deaths of 6 million people are not *that* uncommon. Try Pol Pot or Stalin. Furthermore, genocide is not *that* uncommon either. Try Rwanda or Darfur - just to name two in the headlines. None of this makes the Holocaust less evil. Evil does not increase with rarity.

Yet I think it is very telling that only the Holocaust has a proper-noun name associated with it. I'm not sure that we are really justified in making the Holocaust the mascott of all evil. We need to worry less about trivializing the Holocaust (as Clark said: it's in the past) and worry far, far more about trivializing current and future genocides. 6 million Jews were killed 50 years ago - and you're not allowed to even make a comparison to the even without stirring controversy - while hundreds of thousands of people are being killed more or less as we speak - and that's not even front-page news. Does anyone else see a problem with that?

Posted By: Clark | November 18, 2004 01:41 PM

Jim made some excellent rejoinders to my comments on LDS-Phil. I'll not quote everything here, mainly some excerpts from my response. This gets into a more philosophical mode - so if you are more concerned with the direct political application you'll probably not enjoy the following too much.

My fundamental question is to ask how using the events of the holocaust to symbolize an unspeakable evil trivializes the holocaust. That hasn't become clear to me at all.

Jim's basic response gets into the difference between three aspects of the holocaust. The name of the holocaust which I'll designate as the "Holocaust." The events of the holocaust, which I'll designate with the word in lower case. The unspeakable transcendent aspects of the holocaust, which I'll designate as what the holocaust exemplifies. I think that we must keep these three separate, and I think in discussions like this we often do not. (And of course many might completely deny the possibility of the latter category)

Now, why can't particular events be symbols for what they exemplify? So far as I see it, a problem arises when a symbol for evil is used to symbolize something that actually isn't evil, thereby diluting the power of the symbol. How does it dilute it? By expanding the connotation of the term we expand the realm from which we must decide what the symbol means. If it might mean not just its primary sense, but also the senses entailed by all the kinds of active connotation, I in effect can transform what it, in general, designates. It is that factor of undecidability as I interpret the symbol that both gives symbols their power, but also enables them to be transformed and lose their power.

I think that is the claim with say Sheri Dew. Some would say that homosexual marriage isn't really evil and therefore to use a symbol for evil for something which isn't evil modifies in a dangerous way the connotation of the symbol. Through semiotic drift, the connotation ends up changing the denotation, if repeated enough in a significant way.

That's what I think happens with Goodwin's Law. Nazis, which were once a rather fine symbol for evil, have become a joke because they are evoked so often and in so many inappropriate settings. Once satire and irony came in, with shows like Hogans' Heros, the symbol lost its meaning.

But that seems quite different from the position I find so interesting, which is that even to use the holocaust as a symbol for what it exemplifies is wrong. Now Jim says that the holocaust itself is an evil that is unspeakable. "When an event

| becomes a symbol that directs our attention toward something else, it tends to cease itself to be unspeakable."

I disagree, and I think that this confuses the three categories I mentioned above. The holocaust, as the event, as the history, always was speakable. Indeed we speak it quite regularly in film, in history books, and so forth. So to base an argument on the holocaust remaining only a name and being unspeakable beyond that, seems to me to treat the symbol as if it were the thing symbolized. In Levinas terms, to treat the face as the other.

What is unspeakable about the holocaust isn't the holocaust itself, but the meaning of the holocaust. That is, the things which the holocaust exemplifies. The unspeakable within the holocaust is, in fact, the very evil some say it ought not symbolize.

When we cease to speak about the holocaust then we are left only with a name; with a word. Those who claim to use the holocaust is to denigrate, claim that by using it as a symbol for evil we have only a word, a representation for evil. But really, it is that by rendering the holocaust unspeakable that we deny all of the holocaust except the name. It is at that stage that we have only a word. The way to avoid that is to use the holocaust to symbolize evil. To keep it as a living symbol.

What is the point of disagreement here? Those claiming the denigration of the holocaust say that to use it as a general term is not to argue that it is more important than what it designates. (As I claimed earlier)

But here there is a confusion. What is it that is the general term? The word or the event? Is it the holocaust as the holocaust that is the symbol for evil or is it the word holocaust that is the symbol for evil? I think that it is the former. No one wants to merely make the holocaust into a word without substance except those who say it should be a name and unspeakable beyond that. To render holocaust unspeakable without symbolizing is to treat it as a name - as a word. To keep the holocaust speakable and unspeakable is to keep the entire history of the holocaust as an essential part of the symbol. In effect to merely mention the name without intending that other part of what was given to us is to not mention the holocaust.

Put more simply, we must distinguish between mentioning the name of the holocaust and mentioning the holocaust itself.

Posted By: Clark | November 19, 2004 09:36 PM

A few more thoughts.

Jim responded with the an argument more or less based on breadth of reference. To use a particular event to refer to other events weakens the reference to the original event. Its reference not includes the reference to these other events. It has become muddied or expanded.

I think, though, that this misses my point about the holocaust exemplifying evil. We are not using an event to refer to an other similar event. Rather we are using an event to refer to what is immanent in the event. It seems that is a fundamentally difference. So I don't think this addresses the fundamental argument I provided as it overlooks the fundamental issue of immanence vs. otherness. That's not to say there aren't weaknesses in my argument. Just that I think this is avoiding the approach I took.

Jim raised a good point though. Ought we use the term holocaust to refer to the Turkish genocide of Armenians or Stalin's purges of the Jews or the genocide of 10% of Cambodia by the Khmre Rouge?

My personal feeling is that all entities have some >iconicity to them. (An intrinsic ability to reference the similar) Indeed human beings instinctive notice when two things appear very similar, whether they be events or faces. I'd go so far to suggest that we only notice what is "behind" two entities exemplifying something they share when we see both of them and notice the similarity. I don't think one need be too empirical or too platonic to recognize that this movement is necessary to recognize universals, whether you think them real, transcendent, or common in the mind.

For instance to be able to group the events of the holocaust as a single event, The Holocaust, one must notice that they have something in common. We must be able to distinguish what belongs from what does not. For instance to distinguish a Jew shot in the French Resistance as they participated in an act of disobedience from a Jew sent to a death camp simply because he was a Jew. But this move is only possible precisely because of the very appeal to the iconic nature of the holocaust that you would have us put aside.

If there is something common in the holocaust that allows us to bring and notice the unity within individual events so as to see it as a common event, then that something common must also be noticeable elsewhere. If there is "something" or "somethings" that unify and make whole the holocaust as the Holocaust then that "something" can not be disregarded nor can we control it by limiting it. To say that this "something" is only in the holocaust is to say that we control this "something," to put it under our power, to hold it as we will. I'd go so far as to say that the very act of saying that its reference should not be extended is to do violence to the holocaust itself.

What is wrong, and where I think Jim and others are on the right path is when we use the holocaust to refer, by similarity or what is supposedly shared, to something else that does not actually share this unifying unity that unifies the holocaust as such. Put in less convoluted language, when this other thing referenced does not exemplify the evil that the holocaust exemplifies making it the holocaust.

Posted By: David King Landrith | November 20, 2004 01:16 AM

This is only tangentially related: An article a few years back in The Atlantic talked about the history of Holocaust literature. Until the 70s, very few books written on the Holocaust. It’s only been in the past few decades that the Holocaust has “captured” people’s imagination.

I can’t turn up the article, but in the Feb issue of this year they interview Holocaust scholar Christopher Browning under the title “An Insidious Evil.” The article begins:

In 1968, when Christopher Browning was a doctoral student at the University of Wisconsin, he proposed a dissertation topic centering on the Nazi era. His advisor responded with mixed advice: “This would make a great dissertation, but you know there’s no academic future in researching the Holocaust.”

Of course, what gets lost here in all this talk of symbolism is the notion that whether or not the Holocaust is actually trivialized is an empirical question. One could make a strong case that over time, the use of the Holocaust as an example (or symbol) of evil has done precisely the opposite of what Jim Faulkoner alledges (viz., to have trivialized it).

Posted By: Ethesis | November 20, 2004 09:30 AM

One big problem I have with the way the holocaust or other Nazi attrocities are treated is how that treatment devalues all other atrocities and genocides.

That is something that recently very much has been a topic of much debate, much like an effort about fifteen years ago to redefine discrimination as applying only to situations where very specific groups were discriminated against and to no other (so, that as a matter of definition, Jews [for example] were impossible of being discriminated against. I sat through that and kept a poker face, but was amazed, as I find it hard to think of anti-semitism as "not discrimination").

What is interesting is that Hitler justified his genocide, in part, by referring to the Armenian genocide, and noting that the world had forgotten it. Current Holocaust scholarship is divided on whether or not to remember what happened there (though, as my daughter remarked, the real lesson of Armenia is how they struck back and every principal in that genocide who did not commit suicide or die in custody was assassinated. Looking at Armenia my first thought would have been -- gee, it is harder to get away with one of these than one would think -- well, if I were evil and not concerned about things like shedding innocent blood, etc.).

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