When a descriptive term carries a negative connotation, there is a widespread tendency to associate the term with its worst referents. When critics of Obamacare call it “fascist,” for example, they are regularly accused of absurdly likening Obamacare to the Nazis’ campaigns of mass slaughter. Yet “fascism” is a word with a meaning, and the kind of expansive business/government partnership represented by Obamacare seems to fit that meaning fairly well.
To be sure, the critics of Obamacare use the term “fascism” because it has a negative connotation, and it is the extreme forms of fascism that have played the largest role in giving it that connotation. But the point of using the term, as I see it, is not to give the misleading impression that Obamacare is equivalent to more extreme forms of fascism in the scale of its badness, but simply to point out that they’re bad for similar reasons. (Of course some idiots do seem to regard Obama and Hitler as equivalent in degree of evil, but they’re a different problem.)
Another example is the term “slavery.” When libertarians call taxation or conscription forms of slavery, their claims are often dismissed, on the grounds that taxation or conscription are hardly comparable in thoroughgoing awfulness to antebellum American slavery. But while this is certainly true, it is also true that antebellum American slavery represents one of the worst forms of slavery that has ever existed. Compare, for example, the much milder form of slavery that prevailed in medieval Scandinavia. In the 13th-century Icelandic Gisli’s Saga, we’re told that Gisli’s slave Kol owns a sword (!) which his master must ask permission to borrow (!!). This was obviously a less thoroughgoing form of slavery than the one that reigned in Dixie. Given the many and varying degrees of awfulness that slavery can take, treating all comparisons to slavery as comparisons specifically to antebellum American slavery is historically myopic.
That’s not to say that such comparisons don’t often mean to invoke antebellum American slavery. Often they do; consider Robert Nozick’s “Tale of the Slave,” or this more recent parable by Larken Rose, both of which invoke the image of the plantation. But the point of such references is not to show that political democracy (the target of Nozick’s and Rose’s parables) is as bad as plantation slavery, but rather that it rests on the same principles.
As Plato writes in Republic II:
Suppose that a short-sighted person had been asked by someone to read small letters from a distance; and it occurred to someone else that they might be found in another place which was larger and in which the letters were larger – if they were the same and he could read the larger letters first, and then proceed to the lesser – this would have been thought a rare piece of good fortune.
In the same way, one reason it’s useful to invoke the Nazis or the antebellum slavers is that it’s easier to detect mistaken ethical principles in a clear and vivid case, from which the appropriate moral can then be transferred to cases where the wrongness is more moderate and thus harder to see. Parables like Nozick’s and Rose’s are doing precisely this: pointing first to slavery written in large letters in order to help the reader recognise slavery when written in small letters.
(This, after all, is why moral philosophers use thought experiments. To take another of Nozick’s examples: if you have trouble seeing why it’s wrong to kill cows for food, try looking at a case where the pleasure you get is not from eating beef but from bashing a cow on the head with a baseball bat, since the wrongness in that case is written in larger letters, as it were, and so is easier to grasp.)
It’s common to charge that comparisons involving fascism or slavery trivialise the latter evils by linking them to phenomena that are obviously much less bad. But the charge of trivialisation seems to me to apply only when the evils are claimed to be comparable in degree. It is not trivialising the Black Death to point out that it and the common cold are alike in being infectious diseases.
I think the widespread resistance to comparisons involving fascism or slavery is functional; it serves to immunise advocates of mild degrees of fascism or slavery against recognising the true nature of what they are advocating, and thus enables advocacy of fascism and slavery to survive and prosper. (When I say it’s functional I don’t mean that it is consciously employed for this purpose; spontaneous-order mechanisms can produce and maintain bad orders as well as good ones.)
The same dynamic can be seen in common reactions to the charge that one’s ideas are racist, or sexist, or homophobic, or transphobic, and so on. The term “racist,” for example, tends to conjure up the image of the Ku Klux Klan or something of that sort. Thus if people know they don’t share the ideas and attitudes of the Klan, they presume that they must not harbor any ideas or attitudes legitimately describable as racist.
As I’ve written previously:
There is a tendency … to treat racism and sexism as equivalent to hostility toward persons of a different race or gender. Thus where such hostility is absent, racism and sexism are presumed to be absent also …. For example, Walter Block argues that because heterosexual male employers are attracted to women, they are more likely to be prejudiced in their favour rather than against them.
But racism and sexism are found in more forms than simply that of hostility (not that there isn’t plenty of that form around too ….). A white male employer who feels no hostility toward women or minorities may still be inclined to pay them less or deny them positions of authority if he holds, say, prejudicial expectations about their likely capacities.
But what if these expectations are rationally justified? The problem is that they generally aren’t. And the arguments on behalf of such expectations are so shockingly sloppy (as,e.g., Anne Fausto-Sterling shows [and today I would add Cordelia Fine]), and the historical track record of such arguments is so wretched, that an employer’s indulgence in such expectations is overwhelmingly likely to be the result of an irrational bias, most often one unconsciously absorbed from the culture. In such cases we will say that the employer’s decision is shaped by racism or sexism – but in saying that, we are not(necessarily) saying that the employer is an evil, hate-filled person. After all, by analogy: most people are statists, but that doesn’t mean that most people are filled with hatred for individual liberty.
And indeed racism, sexism, etc. are quite a bit like statism in being typically acquired by “semi-conscious osmosis” rather than “forthright embrace.”
Someone may hold the view that blacks are genetically predisposed to be less intelligent or less provident than whites – or that women are genetically predisposed to be more risk-averse and less scientifically talented than men – and quite sincerely disavow any racism or sexism because their views are not motivated by hostility to women or blacks. But terms like “racism” and “sexism” are not words for emotions. They denote interlocking networks of beliefs, practices, assumptions, and institutions. The view that women or blacks tend to be innately inferior to men or whites is, straightforwardly, racist and sexist in the descriptive sense; it is so in virtue of its content, not in virtue of its motivations. And the additional pejorative sense is warranted because the case for such views is generally so bad that only some distorting factor can explain their adoption. But the distorting factor needn’t be hostile feelings. It can just as easily be a set of assumptions so ingrained that they have retreated into the background of the mind so as to become invisible – as happens with statism too.
People tend to hear the accusation “your ideas are racist [or sexist, or etc.]” as equivalent to “you are a racist – and therefore a bad person.” The accusation can also sound as though it is being delivered from some height of purity, by those who could never be guilty of such evils themselves.
Of course the accusation is often delivered in such a way as to reinforce both impressions. But such impressions, whatever their cause, serve to mask the nature of racism (or sexism etc.) and so help to perpetuate it. Racism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia, and other such malign patterns of thought and action – including statism, I would add – are so pervasive in our culture that it is very dangerous for those who charge others with committing them to assume themselves free of such contamination. But that is not a reason to refrain from criticising racism, sexism, etc. where we find them, any more than the fact that we ourselves may stray from a trail is a reason to refrain from pointing out when others are straying from the trail. As Ayn Rand writes, the right rule in such matters is not “Judge not, that ye be not judged,” but rather “Judge, and be prepared to be judged.”