Thursday, June 11, 2015

Is Western Culture Oversensitive to Hitler?

Hitler Chic In Thailand - Photo credit: Tibor Krausz / CNNGO
"Hang on", I hear you saying. "Are you about to defend Hitler?"

No, rest assured that this is not a post defending Hitler or the Nazis, or any kind of anti-Semitic statement. What I do want to discuss though, is how much we should expect other cultures to share our own sensitivities, how much we can be unaware of our own insensitivities to other cultures, and how we can deal with cultural offense in an increasingly globally connected world.

So, a recent episode of the excellent Last Week Tonight with John Oliver had a segment on the growing trend in Thailand of 'Hitler Chic', the use of Hitler and Nazi imagery for humour:

For once, this is something that I kind of disagree with John Oliver about, so I thought it would be worth discussing.


So, the obvious issue is that many people in western culture feel that using Hitler imagery for humour or fun trivializes the horrible things that he was responsible for. There is likely some truth to this, but we also need to recognize the massive degree to which Hitler and the Nazis have become the go-to example of evil in our culture. So many discussions involving politics, slippery slopes, and in fact just about anything, end up with someone playing the Hitler or Nazi card at some point. Now, this can be totally fair, as often a discussion can be clarified by taking it to an extreme to show where a line of reasoning may lead, but with Hitler this has become so overdone, so much the only reference most people seem to share, that we have even coined a term for it, Godwin's Law:

"As an online discussion grows longer, the probability of a comparison involving Nazis or Hitler approaches 1"

Basically, western culture seems to have so few common references to draw on where people can be confident that others will get what they mean, that we've practically turned Hitler into a caricature of evil, and we're on the verge (if not already crossed over) of no longer being able to reasonably include a reference to him in a serious discussion.

No Paucity of Examples

Now of course, a persuasive leader who started a world war and committed arguably the largest act of genocide in human history is not someone to take lightly, but it's not as if we're lacking in other examples. What is problematic with western culture is how little most people (and I include myself here) are aware of other examples, when there is no shortage.

One of the examples of genocide I tend to use is the horrific genocide in Rwanda of the Tutsis by the Hutus. Here is a genocide of up to 1 million people that took place only 20 years ago, yet most westerners probably know next to nothing about it. It's a fantastic example of how normal people can literally turn against their neighbours and kill them, and it even includes the church and religion playing a big part in provoking it.

Or take Holodomor, the "hunger extermination" of Ukranians in 1932-3 that killed between 2.5 and 7.5 million people, on the same scale as the Holocaust.

If you want horrible dictators, how about Pol Pot, responsible for millions of deaths in Cambodia, as just one of many, many examples.

Or what about Hirohito or Tojo and all of the horrible deaths they were responsible for before and during World War 2? There is no Godwin's Law for them.


If our view of Hitler and Nazis was kept in perspective, we would use them as examples and be sensitive to them in roughly relative proportion to other events and people in recent history. But we don't do that, and that should be a sign to us that maybe we're oversensitive to one thing and far too ignorant on many, many others.

And so, we find other cultures that, for whatever reason, don't hold the same level of sensitivity about something as we do, and we insist that they should change? Like it or not, Hitler and the Nazis generated some very striking imagery, and so it shouldn't be surprising that it would get appropriated in places that aren't as sensitive to it, such as Thailand. Why not?

We do it ourselves all the time too. How familiar and iconic is this Che Guevara image?

Photo credit: Alberto Korda - Museo Che Guevara, Havana Cuba
It has appeared on t-shirts, in art, and in so many locations with most people not even knowing or caring if anyone would be offended by its use. It's striking and not offensive to the people using it, so they use it.

Or, since we're talking about Thailand, consider the use of Yantra tattoos, which many westerners get because they look cool, despite that it's often offensive to Thai people for religious reasons.

Sak Yant Tattoo performed in thailand.jpg
Sak Yant Tattoo performed in Thailand - Photo credit: Ryaninuk

The Past, the Future

Different cultures are sensitive to different things and to different degrees, that's normal. Generally, over time, that sensitivity diminishes and what was once offensive or taboo becomes a piece of pop culture. In Thailand, a Hitler Teletubby shirt is funny, but for most westerners, it's not. But we should remember, that in the west we can open a Viking themed restaurant, for example, with no one being offended in the least, but this wasn't always the case either.

We live in an increasingly globally connected world where there is much common ground, but we're going to keep coming across differences between cultures. Some of those will be considered interesting and welcomed by other cultures. Some of them will be a sensitivity that won't be shared. I would never argue that being sensitive to another culture is likely to be a bad thing, but ironically, that also means being sensitive to the fact that they might not feel the same way about something that you're sensitive to, and not requiring them to share your point of view.

We can only shield ourselves from these cultural differences to a limited degree, and that is going to keep reducing over time. So we need to accept that either we push everyone in the world towards a lowest common denominator where no one does or says anything that could offend any other culture, or we accept that these differences are going to exist and that it's okay. The past tells us that historical things that we're sensitive to now, we won't be at some point in the future, it's just a question of how soon. So we shouldn't hold it against other cultures because they got there sooner than we did.

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