Reader question #89: Jewishness and Language

Dear Cap’n,

So, I’m alive because my seven year old grandmother had balls of steel. She was a Jew living in Berlin with her parents and brother and sister. When the Nazi officers came to take her and her family away, her mother just had time to hide her in a tiny room concealed behind a false wall. She hid there and listened as she heard her mother and sister raped. As her family was taken away, screaming. She stayed in there for two days, only coming out when her thirst grew greater than her panic. A Polish family brought her to America with them. She lived with them, and they eked out a living doing other peoples’ laundrey and not eating very much. She had a son. Her son had me. She died a few years ago, and the last thing she said to me was, “I’m going to be fine. Just promise me you’ll marry that nice girl you’re date so she’ll feed you now I’m going home?” Well, I married her the next month. 

What I’m saying is that it’s impossible for me to tell you just how much her story means to me. How much she means to me. The family story has always been, “Sarah died. Daniel died. Aliza lived. Live everyday like she’s watching”. And that’s fucked me up sometimes, but mostly made me strong and grateful. Which leads me to my problem: You know how people append “Nazi” to shit? “Grammar Nazi”, etc? It bugs me, and I want my friends to stop doing it around me. I’m not new to problematic speech (I’m genderqueer, pansexual, in a wheelchair, and in that white-not-white ground lots of Jews occupy), but whenever someone says, “Oh s/he is such a Nazi about X!” I flinch back into hurt feelings and nervous tension. I’ve tried a couple of times asking the more frequent offenders to stop, but it… didn’t work. Friend A advised me to stop being so sensitive, and Friend B reminded me that not everyone was Jewish.

And, see, these people are my friends for a reason. I love them. I just want them to stop this. I mean, I can’t stop strangers, but surely my friends will stop being douchebags if I ask the right way? Right? 

Yours ever,
Possibly too sensitive 

Your post is making me think about why I loved Inglourious Basterds so much. Tarantino made a ridiculous homage/revenge/fantasy/alternate history, but from the opening scene he made an argument that “This is what Nazis are, they are terrifying, and they use terror to turn you against your own humanity, and all of you lazy fucks who have been putting them in your movies as the cartoonish default villain have a lot to answer for.”

I think it’s absolutely okay to mock Nazis and to look for the absurdity behind the snappy uniform and the master plan.  I think it’s okay to parody Hitler’s temper tantrum in Downfall. I thought South Park pretty masterfully skewered The History/Hitler Channel by making the argument that maybe people who watch documentaries about Nazis all day long are just secretly really into Nazis. It’s like in Harry Potter when Fred & George start selling “U Know Who, U No Poo” in the joke shop during the darkest days of the war against Voldemort – some people are horribly offended because you guyspeople died. But Harry/Rowling understand that you have to laugh at evil.  You have to tear it down to size and look at how much of it is petty and banal.  You have to make it ridiculous, because it hates to be made ridiculous….don’t you know it’s Eeeeeeeeeeevillllllllll?

Was The Great Dictator a genius and necessary piece of art?  Yeah.  Would Aliza have thought it was funny?  Probably not.  Both realities can exist simultaneously.

That doesn’t give your friends the right to continually hurt your feelings with their lazy, not really funny or sharp or witty comments.  Guys, if you’re making Seinfeld references, you’re not really on the cutting edge. Of anything.

You’ve already asked them to stop doing it around you and they’ve been pretty jerky about it.  The next time they use that construction, I suggest speaking up again.  “As a personal favor, could you not say that around me?  I know we talked about this.”  And if they tell you you’re being “too sensitive,” own it.  “Yup, I am very very senstitive about lazy Nazi-jokes.”  “You’re right, I have no sense of humor about this subject, so I appreciate your understanding.”  If they say “Well, not everyone is Jewish” (and tell me, did they pat your head when they said that?  Because:  OFFENSIVE!) respond with “Well, I am, so I really don’t have a sense of humor about Nazis! Thanks for understanding!

A friend once told me that to grow up Jewish was to grow up with the knowledge that your neighbors could turn on you, decide to hate you and harm you, at any time.  That was the cultural DNA that she had inherited.  She could not read anything about pogroms or The Holocaust without picturing herself and her family hiding behind walls or going up in smoke.  She said that those of us non-Jews who have read Holocaust histories/literature or visited the camps in Central Europe (I have on both counts) could not fully understand. While we could put ourselves in the shoes of the victims and feel empathy and horror, we also had the choice to put ourselves in the shoes of the perpetrators (with a different kind of horror that that brings), but that she never had that choice.   Two of my students are working on a brilliant documentary about an elderly German couple who met and fell in love after the war.  He is Jewish and survived the camps because of his barbering skills.  I’ll let that sink in for a second.  He was a barber.  In Auschwitz. She was a middle class German girl who grew up in a pretty rural area.  The part of the film that gives me chills is when they intercut his memories of the camps with her describing her childhood during the war and what they knew about Jews (mainly mean Nazi cartoons and the peddler who came around to sell things) and you watch it and realize that she didn’t know because she didn’t have to know.  (They met, got married, came to America, she converted, they had a boatload of kids and grandkids, he still works as a barber  – I feel like you guys could use a happy ending right now and they had one.)

Anyway, that’s what privilege is:  There are things you don’t know because you don’t have to know them. And your friends have that privilege and are using it to continually wound you, even though you’ve specifically asked them not to, and they are making “being less sensitive” and “going along with the joke” the price that you have to pay to hang out with them.  That is beyond shitty, and I’m sorry. Making fun of Nazis?  Sure.  Making fun of you for being sensitive about Nazis?  Not on.

I’m sorry if I’ve left you with the same dilemma we always end up with here:  “Ask them to stop and if they won’t stop reconsider your friendship with them” like that’s an easy proposition.  So maybe it’s time to sit down with them and passionately explain why this is so important to you and see if they get it.  I hope they do.

 

28 comments
  1. Travis said:

    Never a bad time to reference Jay Smooth’s “How To Tell People They Sound Racist”

    http://www.illdoctrine.com/2008/07/how_to_tell_people_they_sound.html

    Or in your case, “How to tell people they sound like they’re trivializing the legacy of a woman who meant to much to you that has become part of you”

    • JenniferP said:

      A classic for a reason.

  2. Karen said:

    Separate issues here: the broader question about language, joking about horrors, etc. And the more intimate question about your friends doing something that bugs you. I’m focusing on #2.

    We all have our pet peeves and our sensitivities. Some of them may be grounded in issues that many others may agree with (i.e. the word “retarded” or “gay” can be offensive when used as synonyms for something ineffective or bad, etc.) and some of them are more like personal quirks (i.e. I hate the nickname Mike so please call me Michael; etc). The thing is, when it’s your friends, it shouldn’t matter whether it’s something big or something personal. They’re your friends. They should comply with your request. You’re not asking a lot of them.

    I say this as someone who regularly uses “The Armenian Genocide” as a benchmark for anything irritating that happens to me. If a friend told me it bugged her? We wouldn’t get in some discussion about language and meaning and whether I agree with her about it being offensive and what kinds of tragedies are beyond funny. That isn’t necessary. We don’t have to agree on those issues. Because as her friend, all I need to know is that it rubs her the wrong way. I’d stop, just like I wouldn’t call her by a nickname she told me she didn’t care for.

    People will slip occasionally, and you can be gracious about it. People may also need reminders, which you can also be gracious about. But friends who are trying to talk you out of your feelings are being dicks, IMO.

    It has nothing to do with how much they understand the Holocaust or how people might feel about it today, or what their humor level is, or anything else. Right now: DICKS.

  3. …ouch.

    Look, I won’t pretend I don’t use problematic language. I can’t say for certain that I have never casually called someone a Nazi. (Though I will say, that without this family background but with a strong awareness of Nazi history, it’s a word I try not to use casually.) But there is a word for people who won’t moderate their language when they’re told that their usage is hurtful to their friends, and that’s dickwad.

    No one should treat their friends like that. Actually, I’d go so far as to say that no one should treat their enemies like that. If you’re going to be hurtful or offensive, let it be intelligently and on purpose, not just because you’re just too lazy to think up a better way of phrasing things.

    “I’ve tried a couple of times asking the more frequent offenders to stop, but it… didn’t work. Friend A advised me to stop being so sensitive, and Friend B reminded me that not everyone was Jewish.”

    I’m not Jewish. I think Friend B was being a dickwad, and Friend A was being a special dickwad. When people tell you “stop being so sensitive”, could you run your wheelchair across their toes, and when they scream, tell them to “stop being so sensitive”? No, maybe not, but I wish to hell and gone that no one would ever say to someone who is in pain, “You shouldn’t be so sensitive” because that is classic victim-blaming. It’s not their fault for hurting you: it’s your fault for being so easily hurt.

    Well, it’s not. It’s their fault for hurting you. And they should stop, or they’re not your friends.

    “A friend once told me that to grow up Jewish was to grow up with the knowledge that your neighbors could turn on you, decide to hate you and harm you, at any time.”

    Like growing up LGBT is growing up with the knowledge that your parents could turn on you, decide to hate you and harm you, at any time. Or your children might. Or your neighbours could. Or your church will. What really hit me twenty-five years ago, when I first discovered the history of the homosexuals and trans people who had gone to the concentration camps, was that I had to discover it – I was nineteen, and I had studied that period at school, and my history teacher had never once mentioned the LGBT people who had been systematically killed by the Nazis. Nor, I found out when I checked the indexes in many well-regarded histories of the period, had many other “mainstream” historians – I searched through a dozen books in the local university bookshop, and found one line on one page that referenced a list of the “other victims”. Eight or nine years ago a Holocaust Memorial service in my city (each year on Holocaust Memorial Day in Scotland, a city or a town will host the national memorial service) omitted all mention of the LGBT victims – and when asked, they said that as the service was aimed at schoolchildren, they’d felt it was “inappropriate” to mention sexuality.

    The Nazis killed people like me, and my friends. And then other people decided it was really very inappropriate to mention people like me had been killed.

    So there’s that.

  4. geekgirl99 said:

    Ironically, anytime someone tells you to “stop being so sensitive” it’s really because they’re the overly sensitive one. They are too sensitive to handle the fact that they just made a mistake; it makes them feel too uncomfortable so they need to deny anything wrong happened. And if they need to change their behavior going forward, well, that’s just WAY too uncomfortable to deal with!

    Stick to the Captain’s script! Keep it boring! “Please don’t make Nazi jokes around me.” “Yes, I am very sensitive to lazy Nazi jokes.” Rinse, repeat.

    • anytime someone tells you to “stop being so sensitive” it’s really because they’re the overly sensitive one. They are too sensitive to handle the fact that they just made a mistake; it makes them feel too uncomfortable so they need to deny anything wrong happened.

      this. the good news is, it may mean there’s hope for your friends who acted like asshats the first time. in the moment, they reacted defensively and horribly because it doesn’t feel good for anyone to realize they’ve made a mistake and hurt someone. but then there’s the “now what?’ of how they will respond to the request when not in the moment of embarrassment.

      there’s a lot of good script suggestions in Capt. Awkward’s response, as well as here in the comments. i also recommend abruptly ending the conversation and leaving the room when an offensive reference/joke is made. some people need straight up behavior conditioning to show cause and effect. it also helps release the pain and anger in yourself, to leave it behind with them.

      i’ve also been known to turn the shame and frustration back on the verbal perpetrator, rather than carry it by myself, so the next time someone says “______ Nazi”, i’d immediately reply, “wow, way to pull from the lazy joke file dated 1998” then shake your head like you are disappointed in them (because you are). or whatever else snappy you can think of. i usually have to rehearse these things in my head for awhile, and sometimes it takes a few times before i can work up the gumption to fire back in the moment. and i don’t always love how i feel afterwards for throwing down an insult, or engaging in tit-for-tat, but when i do do it, it tends to shut people up and rethink things. this might not be your style of rapport, but even that actually could work in your favor, your friends might finally hear the pain and anger that they are causing you and shape up.

    • Copcher said:

      This is so true. To use Jay Smooth’s language from the first comment, I think people often interpret the “What you did” conversation to be a “What you are” conversation, or maybe conflate the two. Their logic seems to go, “You say that what I said was discriminatory or oppressive in some way, but since I am not a discriminatory or oppressive person, I do not discriminate or oppress. Therefore, what I said was neither discriminatory or oppressive.” It would be useful if instead they thought, “Since I am not a discriminatory or oppressive person, I do not want to discriminate or oppress. Therefore I will think carefully about the language I use so that I do not discriminate or oppress by accident.”

      I think the best way to turn their thinking from the first example to the second one is basically to follow the Captain’s advice. By talking about it in a calm, boring way (or walking away like raymondj suggests), you might give them the space they need to think about why their language is hurting you without feeling like they need to defend it because they’re embarrassed that they did something wrong.

  5. clairedammit said:

    Yeah your friends are being dickwads. I’m not defending their actions, but there may be a specific reason why they’re hanging on to the word Nazi. It’s because it’s a useful word for them to communicate something and they don’t have another word handy.

    I’ve been guilty about using ableist language in the past (I probably still am, but I’m working on it.) I remember the first time I encountered someone explaining why “lame” was hurtful. I remember thinking “But, but, how am I going to describe something that’s lame?” As soon as I realized I could say “weak” or “insipid” or “cliche” then it was easy for me to stop using “lame.”

    So, maybe you could supply them with another word or two to use. The only thing I can think of is “stickler for…” or “… boss” but I’m sure there are better ones out there.

    • C said:

      It’s not a huge step, but I replace incidences where “nazi” is typically used with “fascist”. So a grammar fascist is forceful, narrow-viewed, and wants to make everyone else feel the way they do about punctuation (or wevs). It’s not strictly the correct use of “fascist”, but then again neither is the original phrasing.

  6. LadyParticles said:

    Hi Possibly too sensitive –

    For what it’s worth, I do not think you’re being too sensitive. We’re talking about people who wanted you off their planet and did everything in their power to put an end to your family. If there was a word that symbolized that for me, I’d want to throw up every time someone used it flippantly. That “too sensitive” crap is how people with privilege protect it. You’ve earnestly stepped back, asked yourself if you’re being unreasonable, and decided you’re not. I respect that and I would hope others could too.

    Is there a written version of your family’s history? If not, there really, really should be. Your grandmother sounds amazing and her story should be immortalized for future generations. Oral history only gets you so far.

    It’s easy & even intentional for careless people to brush past your objections because, as the Captain said, they don’t have to know and they really don’t want to know. However, if your friends had a chance to sit with the story of your grandmother’s survival, to read it and feel it, they are going to have to work a lot harder to ignore their privilege. I think it might be worth a shot to hand them a written family history and say “Here. Please just read this. It’s my family history and it’s what flashes to mind when you mention Nazis.” If they can read it privately, they have no one around to whom they have to defend their privilege. Without the immediate need to defend themselves, they are more likely to simply listen to the story.

    After they read it, talk to them a bit about it. Something like, “You say ‘Nazi’ and think of Seinfeld and soup and silly mustaches, but I think of soldiers raping and killing my family. That word is synonymous with violence and fear for me. It’s ok that the word doesn’t have that affect on you, and I’m glad your family was safe from this, but mine wasn’t. Please respect that.”

    Less mature alternative: make a Glenn Beck joke at their expense every time they do it. There is no moron on earth more obsessed with calling people Nazis than that a-hole, and being told I sound like him would shut me the hell up.

  7. RQbrain said:

    Hi PTS

    I just wanted to tell you that your letter’s description, short as they were, affected me deeply. (not in a language-police way for those who are wondering) It reminds me of my own grandmother, who was older at the time, but “the war” was the worst time of her life, no questions, and I haven’t had the courage to read her story yet.

    I don’t know what your friend meant by “not everyone is Jewish.” It’s not like that has to be rubbed in any more, especially when talking about this subject.

    I also want to tell you that no, you’re not being too sensitive, but I have no stable reference frame for what the “right” amount sensitive is. I used to be called too sensitive all the time. There’s definitely such a thing as “not sensitive enough” though. (Example. Intentionally being offensive because you know it bothers someone with no other point but spite.)

    The other posters suggestions of “Yes, I’m sensitive, but please stop anyway because it hurts me the most when my friends say it” is probably the best way to go.

    The best I’ve ever done, for a much more direct offense, was to look confused at the person because I didn’t understand, and when they explained, probably changed to shock and horror. Although I was younger at the time and really didn’t understand, perhaps that could work too.

  8. libelle said:

    I’m a German with Jewish ancestors and it is my first time commenting on here, but this issue is really important for me, so I will speak up although I’m kind of self-conscious about my language skills…

    I think what the LW bothers most (and me, too, btw) is not the HUMOuR about nazis, but the SERIOUS comparisons made by ignorant people.

    Everyone knows that without humor & laughing, you can’t survive. I learned the best jokes about Hitler from Israelis! Mocking nazis (especially contemporary neo-nazis, who are just so stupid and absurd I have no words for them) is one of my favourite pastimes.

    BUT! I’ve noticed that many Americans have the tendency to compare EVERYTHING to nazis.
    but they don’t do it jokingly, they are absolutely serious. And that’s so so sooooo fucked-up.
    How is correcting peoples grammar the same as killing 6 million human beings?

    If you make fun of nazis, you make fun of nazis. the end.
    but if you casually dismiss the horrible suffering and death of 6 million humans, you are an ignorant ass, no excuses.

    Fun fact: Only Americans do this. (Am I racist? But it’s true! Well, at least Glenn Beck does it!) If a political figure in Germany makes stupid comparisons to nazis, he/she will lose his/her job immediately and be shunned by society and that’s the standard procedure for most european countries.
    I guess that’s because here, the past is still present to a certain degree. Many grandparents still have stories to tell, there are houses in Berlin where you can still see bullet holes on the facade… so we don’t have the chance to be ignorant.
    But WW2 didn’t happen in the USA, so yes, they have the privilege to ask a German exchange student if Hitler is still president. (By a teacher! He was serious!!)

    Dear LW, I beg you, on behalf of all Jews, Sinti, Roma, LGBT people, people with disabilities, mentally ill people… survivors, children of survivors, grandchildren of survivors… and Decent Germans Who Are Not Nazis: SPEAK UP! Even if it takes years to explain to your friends why “being a Nazi” is not a casual comparison and no small insult, don’t stop explaining.

    (Yes, this took an hour to write.)

    • JenniferP said:

      Your language skills (and arguments) are great. Thank you.

    • Thanks for this great post; this is an important point in fairness to us dumb Americans.

      I grew up with Nazis existing in my life as characters in movies. They had no other reality to me. We learned about them in school in the same class where we learned about the Know-Nothings or the Whigs or the anti-Federalists.

      When I was in high school I took German and we made a lot of Hitler jokes. Not making fun of Hitler, but making light of Hitler. It was awful. I look back on it with shame.

      But I had to grow up. There’s no shortcut. I was an immature jerk who didn’t get it. Now I’m more grown up and I realize that Hitler was real and he put seven year-olds in camps where things were so horrible that the mind recoils from even thinking about it. It’s not OK to make light of that.

      “Nazi” should be retired as a term that means anything but “Member of the National Socialist Party.”

    • When I was 9 (or so), I joined a group of kids teasing another girl. She was the granddaughter of German immigrants. So obviously calling her a Nazi was HILARIOUS.

      She told a teacher, who told various parents, who, to our surprise, DID NOT find this hilarious.

      My father pointed out our last name was German. He was half German (and half Irish). “So you’re German, too. Are you a Nazi?”

      I cried. At first he thought I felt bad for my actions. Until I explained I was upset because I didn’t WANT to be a Nazi! He couldn’t tell people I was German too!

      My dad (probably mentally rolling his eyes) went through a history lesson about the difference between “German” and “Nazi,” and also explained that this girl’s grandparents, while not Jewish, had been in a concentration camp themselves.* So not only had I wrongly and stupidly extrapolated German heritage into “Nazi,” I’d been accusing her of being the very people who had imprisoned her grandparents.

      On the plus side, none of the adults who got involved in the incident thought the girl was being too sensitive, etc. They made us learn something, and they made us apologize. While I am not necessarily saying that your friends have behaved quite as badly as I did then — if a 9-year-old can acknowledge her mistake, surely they can too.

  9. R. said:

    While I agree with the general sentiment behind your reply, some fragments made me feel really uncomfortable. I’m sure you fully realize that the Jewish weren’t the only people murdered at Nazi concentration camps, so I don’t really hold it against you, but I think it’s important for you to know that members of other groups targeted by the Nazis may be offended by the “non-Jews can’t possibly understand” part.

    (I’m ESL, so I apologize if any part of my comment is hard to understand, language-wise).

    • JenniferP said:

      Your English is fine.

      Yes, I am very aware that Hitler singled out many groups for murder (and work from an assumption that is common knowledge). You’re right, though, I missed an opportunity to point out that as a wheelchair-driving genderqueer person the Letter Writer has many reasons to be offended by her friend’s “Well I’m not Jewish” comment.

      As for the story about my friend, I’m relating a specific personal story about her experience that my friend told me that made me understand how privilege works with her (Jewish) and me (not Jewish, studying the Holocaust in college). It’s not meant to be a statement that Jews own the Holocaust and are the only ones with the right to be upset about persecution. I hope you didn’t take it that way.

  10. araliya said:

    Would you say this usage of ‘nazi’ is a lot like the trivial use of the word ‘rape’? Like for describing how your team lost or how badly you scored on a test or something, I mean? I personally find the verbal repetition of the word triggering and can see how a person with a history with (or sensitivity to) the word ‘nazi’ would react in a similar way. While those who use it may be referencing the anal-retentive caricatures who have served as the butt of so many comedies since WWII (‘allo,’allo, anyone?), it’s important to remember that those caricatures are based on something genuinely monstrous.

  11. k said:

    Yup your friends are being jerkfaces. Especially the “not everyone is Jewish” comment, wtf is that?

    I want to echo Captain Awkward and libelle, and say that your friends are acting out of ignorance. Indeed, they don’t have to know what people went through in the Holocaust and what it really means to toss around the word “Nazi”. So they don’t give a fuck.

    Here’s where it gets extra weird, though: Normally, one of the reasons we have friends is to learn from and with them, to empathise with their experiences and to, in some way, grow larger and more thoughtful through that meeting of minds and hearts. It’s really unfortunate that some of your friends are turning a blind eye not just toward a rather abstract legacy of historical human suffering, but toward your thoughts and feelings about this subject. To be frank, that upgrades their ignorance to willful ignorance. It’s not just that they have neglected to inform themselves about the words they toss around. You’ve informed them yet they refuse to be informed. I’m extremely sorry you have to deal with that. And you’re not being too sensitive.

    It really does sound like you might need to have one of those Big Conversations with these people – probably one on one. When I talk to people about things they do that offend me, I usually say something like, “it may not be a big deal to you, but it is to me, and I really thought you and I respect each other.”

    If you talk to them and they continue to brush you off and use hurtful words… well, it’s time for a little cost-benefit analysis on your part. What are you getting out of these friendships? Is their callousness in one thing indicative of callousness in other things? Etc. Shakesville has a really honest and searing post about interacting with people who hurt you, written in terms of feminism and casual misogyny: http://shakespearessister.blogspot.com/2009/08/terrible-bargain-we-have-regretfully.html

    None of this stuff is easy and I hope you find a path that works for you. Good luck.

    • Copcher said:

      I just wanted to mention that the Shakesville post you linked to is awesome. I read part of it a while ago and I couldn’t remember where it was from, so thanks for linking to it.

      Also, you are completely right that the fact that the LW has asked these people not to use those terms makes what they’re doing willful ignorance. I think that the friendship cost-benefit analysis that you mention is one of the hardest things to do, especially if you have a long history with the people you are doing it about or if they’re friends with most of your other friends. Good luck to the LW.

    • Diamond Shoes said:

      This is why I am always gobsmacked by people who refuse to respect people’s chosen names and pronouns. How much does it cost you not to be a dick on something so minor for you and so painful for people you consider friends or family? And yet, people repeatedly do this on this subject and so many others.

    • Blythe said:

      k- I really love your description of friendship! anyone who fits that bill would certainly be a great friend.

      I agree with that the “not everyone is Jewish” comment is awful. Saying “not everyone is _____” is so dismissive.

  12. What a great question – personally, my blood pressure soars and I start foaming at the mouth when I hear people use the term “Nazi” to describe their political opponents. Jon Stewart did a great episode about Fox and others using the term “Nazis” repeatedly on The Daily Show a while back, and while he used humor, he also drove the point home that using the term Nazi interchangeably with “people who disagree with me” is phenomenally ignorant.
    Perhaps that’s a larger issue than your question, but either way, if your friends persist in doing something that bothers you after you’ve asked them to stop, they’re really not your friends. I highly dislike rape jokes or using the term “rape” to describe something happening to you that you dislike. So, if someone I know does that, I ask them to stop, and if they persist or tell me I’m “too sensitive,” all their invites start getting mysteriously lost in the Internet hole, and pretty soon they’re out of my life.

  13. Kate Hutchinson said:

    I don’t normally comment, but this hit on something that has come up in my office. I work for the US office (almost a start up really) of a major German company. My boss and our technical head are both German, and until recently it was just the three of us. Mr. Technical and I have lots of conversations about culture differences between American and Germans, and the word “Nazi” has come up before. I was telling him a story about being strict about library policies when I worked at a college library and I was nicknamed the “Library Nazi.” He was shocked that anyone would use this language. It came up again later when someone used the word Nazi to mean Draconian on a Facebook thread that was contributed to by another coworker (in the German HQ).

    I think the problem is that here in America, the word has been defanged somewhat, and we use it to mean “strict” or “Draconian” and don’t think about it. But like the letter writer points out, there are people for whom Nazi means something very very different. In the letter writer’s case, it’s because of what his grandmother survived. In my office, it indicates a deep source of national shame.

    The letter writer should see this as an opportunity to educate others about how we think about language. One thing I love about my job is that because Mr. Technical is not a native speaker, he asks me about certain idioms, and we often look up the history or cultural implications of phrases like “kit and kaboodle” or “douchebag.” So maybe the letter writer could create a conversation about why someone uses the word Nazi instead of “strict” or “mean.”

    • JenniferP said:

      Comment anytime!

      I think in the US we are dealing not so much with a legacy of actual Nazis but with a legacy of cartoonish movie Nazis, who are just lazily plugged into stories as the default villain as a shorthand for something evil. See also: Child molesters. It’s just code for “bad guy” at this point. So when you read The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo and the villains are “Nazi Child Molesters” it’s like “Oh, of course, obviously, that is the most evil, whereas run of the mill misogynists wouldn’t have packed the same punch.” Sometimes when people throw Nazis into stories as villains it’s because it’s more easy and comfortable than talking about evil and villainy and fuckery that’s happening here and now. So when the word gets thrown around in pop culture (Soup Nazi) there is an aspect of making fun of this trope of villainy we’ve grown up on – They’ve been overused so much that they’ve lost some of their power to terrify. Not surprising that it’s very different in Germany.

      Again, this is why I love Inglourious Basterds so much – let’s take all the silly, lazy tropes and put some teeth back into them while also making them ultimately ridiculous.

      • k said:

        I saw Inglourious Basterds at a midnight showing in Germany. You should’ve heard the collective laugh/gasp/cheer/sigh of relief when they machine-gunned Hitler!

  14. Veronica said:

    Out of curiosity, have you ever/can you bring yourself to explain to your friends your family’s backstory? Not that you should have to, since a good friend shouldn’t need an excuse to stop being a jackass, but since they are being asses, maybe sitting them the fuck down and explaining them just how deep that rabbit hole goes might knock some sense into them. Just because somebody isn’t (insert minority here) or a victim of (insert crime here), doesn’t mean they can’t find it upsetting. But more importantly, a person should never assume the motivations or reasons of those around them.

    Personally? I cannot watch/read scenes or rape or excessive interpersonal violence. I have never personally been a victim of either. But my sister was raped when she was fifteen, and she’s also the third generation of women (after my grandmother and mother) in my family to survive domestic abuse. I can’t handle it these things because I can’t watch it and not think of my family. They are a part of my life narrative – the same way that your grandmother and her courage in the face of such tragedy are part of yours. Nobody has the right to dictate how that has impacted you, especially the people who are supposed to be your friends. They keep that shit up, you let them have it, and if they insist on casually disregarding your life after that, then dump the motherfuckers. All they have to do is change one word, but you have to keep hurting – where’s the fair trade in that?

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