In the mid-1970s, I read a rebuke of hawkish elements in the Israeli Knesset after their recent war, written by a fellow Jew. He likened some of their rhetoric and decisions to the Holocaust. He questioned whether they had chosen to do unto others as others had done unto them. He questioned whether Jewish moral and ethical traditions, as well as the ideals of a modern democratic state, were being desecrated.

He drew a moral equivalency between the doctrines and actions of Nazi Germany and of the Jewish state. A state in which many Knesset members and ordinary citizens bore tattoos from Nazi death camps. A state in which many people, including this man, had lost loved ones to starvation, disease, firing squads, gas chambers or unspeakable "medical experiments." For a Jew to say, "What you're doing is no better than what the Nazis did to us" was shocking. It made any valid points hard to discern or accept, even though that gentleman was making an appeal to his nation's conscience. He saw what he believed were serious breaches of morality. For better or worse, he used an extreme example to get his fellow countrymen to think about who they were. I don't think he was trying to tear down, silence or simply shame them.


That's rare — and therein lies the problem with moral equivalence arguments. RationalWiki.org says this about them: "Moral equivalence ... may be used to draw attention to an unrelated issue by comparing it to a well-known bad event, in an attempt to say one is as bad as the other. Or, it may be used in an attempt to claim one isn't as bad as the other by comparison."

The site goes on to mention "Godwin's law," which basically says that eventually, everything bad gets compared to Hitler. Formulated by attorney Paul Godwin, it's a caution against overly facile use of "the Hitler card" — or any extreme comparison concerning a topic or person with which you disagree. The comparison might be to Hitler, Mao, Stalin, Jeffrey Dahmer, the Inquisition or even the Antichrist.

Examples of Godwin's Law abound. Pro-Palestinian advocates; PETA ads; anti-Trump screeds; commentaries about college campus demonstrations; abortion rights activists; pro-life bloggers; Black Lives Matter tweets ... the list goes on. "What so-and-so does is no better than the Nazis. It's a new Holocaust. He's the equivalent of Hitler. They act like goose-stepping brownshirts." Are there times when such drastic comparisons are warranted? Possibly. It takes a wise and cautious person, though. But in general, people brandish moral equivalency comparisons haphazardly and maliciously.

Such comparisons do several unfortunate things. First, they diminish the reality of the horror and evil of those well-known and historical "bad events." Hitler, the Holocaust, and the like simply become ciphers, stand-ins for whatever current outrage is being condemned. Their own tragic particularity is deemed important only as an amplifier for that outrage.

Second, moral equivalency arguments hurt legitimate contemporary concerns. If everything gets compared to Hitler, people start rolling eyes, yawning, and saying "Yada, yada, yada." Rather like the boy who cried wolf once too often, those using such comparisons eventually are brushed off. The Israeli man I mentioned shocked many into serious discussion. Nowadays, mindlessly comparing Israel's treatment of Palestinians to the Nazis' treatment of Jews is so reflexive in some quarters as to become bitter parody.

Third, such comparisons are usually lazy as well as overdone. To take a common current example, why do folks assume it's better to assert, "Trump is the new Hitler" than to rationally articulate concerns and draw sober, not hysterical conclusions? Probably because that's not satisfying when you're quaffing a strong cup of mad!

Finally, the most common use of moral equivalence argumentation is to silence, humiliate, intimidate, delegitimize and destroy a perceived enemy. It's rare that it's invoked to provoke conversation or reflection about weighty issues of moral and ethical concern, much less to encourage or facilitate repentance, transformation or reconciliation.

The best advice I have is this. If you have genuine cause for outrage, take a deep breath. Admit that you're furious. Admit that you might want to crush, mock, humiliate and destroy your target with a scathing comparison to Nazis or some other loathsome example of evil. Confess that such impulses are unworthy of you and are unhelpful to the situation. Search for the clearest, strongest, most rational arguments or objections. Then ... put Hitler back in his grave. It's where he belongs.

Cathy Ammlung is a pastor in the North American Lutheran Church and a resident of Sykesville. You can contact her at cathycarrollcountytimes@gmail.com.