Prime Minister Tony Abbott has been criticised for making comments comparing Islamic State (IS) to the Nazis. Last week he said:
The Nazis did terrible evil but they had sufficient sense of shame to try to hide it. These people [IS] boast about their evil.
It was not just a simple comparison; it implied IS was morally worse than the Nazis to the extent that it boasted about its inhuman deeds. The president of the Executive Council of Australian Jewry, Robert Goot, described the comments as “injudicious” and “unfortunate”.
Goot added that there was a fundamental difference between “acts of terrorism [which] are necessarily done in the full glare of publicity for their propaganda effect” and “a genocide systematically implemented by a state as essential policy”.
Abbott’s comments were not accidental. He made exactly the same comments a year ago in the context of US forces' airstrikes on IS targets and Australian humanitarian air drops.
This time, the question of Australia’s involvement in expanding military operations against IS in the Middle East, following a request from US President Barack Obama, is again directly on the agenda.
Does the rhetoric serve a useful purpose?
What does it mean when political leaders liken the horrific acts of an organisation like IS with the Nazis? Is it a useful way of politicians drawing attention to the heinous acts being committed? Or is it not a useful rhetorical strategy?
In 1962, the philosopher J. L. Austin taught us, “How to do things with words”. When we speak, he said, we engage simultaneously in three things. We engage in a locutionary act of saying something with meaning, an illocutionary act of using words with particular force (such as asking, announcing, permitting and so on).
We also engage – almost always, says Austin – in perlocutionary acts in which effects are produced on hearers (such as persuading, convincing, frightening, alarming, reassuring and so on).
A speaker may attempt, or intend, to achieve a certain force and consequence in speaking. But they don’t always manage it. This is because some speech-acts are “felicitious”, which means they occur in circumstances in which the intended meaning and force are achievable given the context, while others are “infelicitous”, which means they occur in circumstances in which the intended meaning and force are not able to be achieved.
An example of this from contemporary Australian politics would be the act of two women who engage the services of a marriage celebrant, hold a ceremony, exchange vows and rings and then say, “I do”. The act of saying "I do” does not have the effect the speakers desire, namely the legal consequence of marriage. Because same-sex marriage is not legal in Australia, the utterance is infelicitious.
Despite the intentions of all the speakers and hearers at the event, and however much they may wish it, the speech-act simply does not have the same legal consequences as exactly the same ceremony, vows and exchange of rings when one man and one woman undertake it.
So what are the meaning, force and consequences of Abbott’s use of the Nazi analogy?
The Nazi regime’s horrors have been well documented and are a matter of historical record. Such is the weight of the documented evidence of their atrocities that Holocaust denial is understood as a contemporary form of anti-semitism, a speech-act that does not express an opinion, but that substantively harms by perpetuating stereotypes about Jews that marginalise and discriminate against them.
The scale, horror and organisation of what was committed were horrifying and are still being recognised, as in the Berlin Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe, which was only completed in 2005.
It is widely understood that we need to face what occurred to prevent its repetition in future. We must learn the lessons of those unspeakable acts, by speaking truth to power, acknowledging and recognising the magnitude of the Holocaust and its key mechanisms, and committing to prevent its recurrence.
Clear thinking and precise language matter
Contemporary terrorism, particularly that enacted by IS, is hard to comprehend. It involves beheadings, executions, kidnap, sexual enslavement and sexual violence against women on a mass scale. In March 2015, the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights concluded it was likely that IS has committed genocide against the Yazidis in Iraq. Its actions are producing tens of thousands of refugees across the Middle East and Europe.
It is tempting to engage in analogies in an attempt to make sense of the incomprehensible. But it is also dangerous. Terrorism, as the United Nations special rapporteur on protecting human rights while countering terrorism has reported, needs to be restrictively defined.
Not doing so risks the term being misused, and human rights being abused as a result of such misuse. Failing to restrict counter-terrorism laws to activities that are truly “terrorist” puts at risk “the principles of necessity and proportionality” that must be applied to the restrictions on human rights necessary to achieve that goal.
Similarly, using the term “Nazi” to describe another organised, systematic and gross abuse of human rights – even actions as horrific, destructive and vile as those of IS – risks diluting the term, blurring the meaning of what occurred during the Nazi period and overlooking key, defining aspects of the historical record such as the state-sanctioned nature of the Holocaust.
When we blur the meaning of critical terms, we lose the power to name things as they really are. This dilutes, rather than strengthens, our understanding of what is happening in our world. It renders our speech-acts more likely to be infelicitous than to achieve our intended meaning, force and consequences.
If our politicians want to help people understand what IS is doing, they ought to use terms that straightforwardly outline the horrors they are inflicting, attempt to persuade and convince the public of their magnitude, and debate the appropriate responses to them.
There is no doubt the actions of IS should and do horrify all of us. We need to find ways of speaking about those actions that help, not hinder, our understanding of the magnitude of those crimes and what needs to be done to combat them.
Katharine Gelber receives funding from the Australian Research Council as a Future Fellow (2012-15).
Authors: The Conversation