Somehow the very words “Nazi” and “Hitler” have become almost unique synonyms for pure evil.

Godwin’s Law has formalized this – the moment “Nazi” is mentioned in any discussion, rational debate stops and you’re in the territory of moral absolutes.

For example, we can’t complain about over-the-top “Gestapo” tactics when SWAT teams are used for everything from drug raids, to high-profile debacles like Waco, to desperados wielding open wireless routers or rescuing Bambi.

No, we have to call these “Stasi” tactics. Because no matter what the reality, it can’t possibly be as bad as – or even rationally compared to – the Nazis. By definition.

And we have to invent new terms like “crony capitalism” instead of using the proper word “fascism”; because as soon as you say “fascism” you’re a crazy kook with no sense of proportion.

Not that Nazis weren’t evil – they were every bit as horrible as their reputation.*

But why are they perceived as uniquely horrible? What about Pol Pot, or Vlad the Impaler, or any number of historical conquerors who routinely murdered every single man, woman, and child in a captured city?

The Nazis were indeed evil, but the only thing unusual about their evil was how efficient they were at it and their proximity to the center of Western culture.

I can’t think of another defeated enemy that has become so demonized.

*If you like horror literature, try The Theory and Practice of Hell (Eugen Kogon, 1946). Unfortunately, it’s non-fiction. (Not for the weak of stomach.)

Sometimes I’m best at pointing out the obvious – this may be one of those times.

I read a sentence today in The Economist and realized why people (nerds of a certain sort, always) invent “logical” languages.

The most famous example of an artificially constructed “logical” language is probably Lojban/Loglan– but the earliest example I’ve heard of was John Wilkin’s Real Character, around 1668.  These things seem to be created by small groups of fanatics who think their language will change the world and make people more rational.

Here’s the sentence:

For the past few decades the hole in the ozone layer over Antarctica has been shifting the way in which winds move round the continent, driving them round the Southern Ocean ever faster.

Earlier in the issue there’d been something about the direction of antarctic winds reversing, so I read “way” to mean “direction”.  Later in the sentence, it becomes clear that “way” refers to speed, not direction.

“Way” is in this case ambiguous.  A better writer would have been specific and said “speed” instead.

A logical language can make this kind of ambiguity impossible.  You avoid including vague and ambiguous words and constructions, forcing writers to say what they mean (in theory, anyway).

But this is (a) completely unnecessary, and (b) doomed to failure.

It is perfectly possible to write clearly and unambiguously in English or any naturally evolved language.  It takes a little extra effort – the writer has to think about what she really means.  People fail to write clearly because they are lazy, rushed, attempting to hide their own confusion, or simply bad at expressing themselves.  These human failings will not disappear with the invention of a new language.

Evolved languages have ambiguity for good reasons – it serves the purpose of writers and speakers.  Any new language without this flexibility would quickly (assuming it were adopted at all)  grow to include it.

Action vs. Passion

August 27th, 2008

Just as active is the opposite of passive, so action is the opposite of passion.

Desire acted upon is action.

Desire suppressed is passion.