More moral relativism… only not

By Madeleine Somerville

Last week, Alan Cho wrote a rebuttal to a piece of mine that ran a week prior. Here are responses and clarifications to some of the points that Cho brought up:

1.Cho summarized my argument by saying I was discussing the concept of moral relativism. The only problem with this is that nowhere in my article did I say that the concept of evil was subjective. In fact the whole point of the article is that evil is not subjective. What I did say was ” I have been trained to think about the definitions of right or wrong as culturally subjective and open to interpretation… Evil, it seems, is too obscure to be covered in black and white and while the notions of right and wrong exist on a moral plane, evil tastes like mystery, a wrong doing so dark that it is beyond our imaginations.” Therefore the focus of my article was not on moral relativism but its opposite: evil, a concept that seems universally agreed upon and beyond the scope of definition or comprehension.

2.Hitler. Ah yes, Hitler. I agree to some extent with Cho’s opinions about the trite process of trotting out Hitler to make a point. An important fact to consider however, is why this occurs so often. Why do people rely on this particular historical figure to emphasize their point? It’s because Hitler is thought of as evil. He is a caricature, an exaggeration. When something goes beyond “bad’ or “horrible” or “appalling” or “cruel”, when something or someone seems to exist beyond everyday adjectives and the normal moral judgment of “wrong”, we invoke Hitler. It makes a point and a dramatic one at that. It’s not up to me to debate the validity of this tactic; it’s used in different instances each time with varying degrees of effectiveness.

In my article however, I was not likening someone to Hitler as a smear tactic, I was not using his image or character to further my own agenda, I was examining absolutes. Good and Evil. Period. To invoke an extreme example of such as Hitler was necessary to demonstrate the dichotomy between the two concepts. As I stated, Hitler leaps to mind as the ultimate example of evil incarnate. It’s a fact that most everyone agrees upon. I definitely could have brought up Vlad the Impaler or William Joseph Simmons, but I predict that the majority of people’s reactions would have been exactly the same as mine were: “Who?” In the article itself, I identified my reasons for choosing to discuss Hitler, the fact that he is the individual that most people are comfortable identifying as evil and therefore the most effective example to use when examining an evil individual and whether or not it is correct to characterize him as such. Convincing people that George W. Bush is anything but evil is a simpler task, there are millions of Americans who believe this already. To make the argument that we should give pause before dismissing an individual like Adolf Hitler as evil is a challenge.

3.Nowhere did I state that “Hitler + hugging children x human heart = Auschwitz not that bad.” In fact I went out of my way to say just the opposite, stating “It goes without saying that none of this [Hitler’s relationships, childhood or identity as a human being] excuses his actions, there cannot be and will never be any excuse for the holocaust. If anything it is the fact that Adolf Hitler was just a man that makes his actions so horrifying.” Enough said.

Once you get right down to it, Mr. Cho and I are making very similar arguments; that you cannot resort to extremes or absolutes simply to make a point. I argue that we should not trot out evil as a convenient excuse for a human gone wrong. People need to take the time to see Adolf Hitler as a human being who committed atrocities, rather than dismiss him as evil we need to realize that he did not act alone. He was elected democratically and there were thousands of officers carrying out his horrible commands. To dismiss him alone as evil would be to absolve the rest of the world of the responsibility for turning a blind eye while events unfolded, unwilling to challenge such a charismatic individual.

Cho argues that we should not resort to invoking Hitler as some sort of cultural boogeyman, to strive to go beyond cliches, honour the memory of Holocaust survivors and think twice before likening an opponent, political rival or unsavory character to Adolf Hitler simply because it’s the easy way out.

While I think Cho’s advice a bit misguided in relation to my article, there is a valid lesson to be learned here. In order to be taken seriously it is essential to deviate from absolutes, to get away from viewing things in terms of white and black, good and evil, Jesus and Hitler. If we can examine the circumstances involved rather than simply likening them to Hitler, well then we will be that much closer to getting to the root of the problem and having a discourse people would be willing to listen to.

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