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'Nazi' is no laughing matter

By Vic Alhadeff - posted Monday, 3 June 2013

I'm a Seinfeld aficionado. I've watched each episode a ridiculous number of times, yet still find the humour brilliant.

But then there's ''The Soup Nazi'' - an episode about a surly delicatessen owner who refuses to serve customers who flout his excessive rules of decorum. It's witty and well scripted, but it commits a cardinal offence: it trivialises the meaning of what a Nazi is, and in doing so degrades the language associated with those who devised, planned and perpetrated the most grotesque genocide in history.

Recently, an Australian radio station decided, to its credit, to rebadge an online feature which it had dubbed ''The Name Nazi''.


''Enough of the outlandish names being bestowed upon the children of Australia!'' it declared. ''Whether it is Dayvid or Meshel or Natarsha, there is a man who can't stand the letters parents are stringing together for their kids. The time has come to say no. The time has come for the Name Nazi. No longer can we sit idly by while people of Australia walk around with terrible spelling within their names. All hail the Name Nazi.''

The ''Name Nazi'' then cited ''terribly spelt'' names which had been submitted by listeners - Jakxon (Jackson), Meiyah (Mia), Darrci (Darcy), Marcial (Marshal), Indyanah (Indiana), Tracee (Tracy), Taelah (Taylor), Danyil (Daniel).

There was no ill intent in the segment, but if a popular radio host whose most sinister activity is to poke fun at absurd spellings can be acceptably identified as a Nazi, what does that do to the integrity of public debate? How much more difficult is it to then educate an unaware 14-year-old who is being exposed to the hideous work of ''the Nazis'' for the first time that this is the real Nazi?

So how widespread is the issue? Here are some random examples.

A sports commentator on an Australian radio station described the drubbing that a football team had received as ''a holocaust'', a dietitian is cheerfully dubbed The Diet Nazi, while a university student casually acknowledges that ''Grammar Nazi'' is commonly used to describe pedantic acquaintances.

In the US, the Anti-Defamation League lashed Fox News host Glenn Beck for an ''outrageous and offensive'' link between the Nazis and Al Gore's global warming campaign. Beck drew an analogy between those who use art for political messaging and Hitler's propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels, while Congressman Steve Cohen compared criticism of Barack Obama's healthcare program to the Nazis lying about Jews.


US radio host Rush Limbaugh popularised the term ''Femi-nazi'' to denigrate women's rights activists, while People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals ran a ''Holocaust On Your Plate'' campaign, placing photos of animals in factory farms alongside depictions of Jews in Nazi camps with comments such as ''Six million Jews died in concentration camps, but six billion broiler chickens will die this year in slaughterhouses''.

And former US speaker Newt Gingrich said Obama and the Democratic Party presented as serious a threat to the US as ''Nazi Germany or the Soviet Union once did''.

This is neither about censorship nor about curtailing the right to humour. It is a concern about how we use language and the impact of that. Everything begins with words. That includes racist violence and genocide. When words are used irresponsibly, they lose their meaning, their power and any historical import they might carry. In the context of trite Nazi references they become cheapened, the experience is diluted and the words are offensive and hurtful, particularly to those who suffered.

Justice Lionel Murphy said: ''Free speech is what is left over after due weight has been accorded to the laws relating to defamation, blasphemy, copyright, sedition, obscenity, use of insulting words, official secrecy, contempt of court and Parliament, incitement and censorship.''

Misuse of ''Nazi'' borders on blasphemy, yet it invariably falls safely within the ambit of free speech. No one owns the word, yet it connotes the most catastrophic regime of modern times. So it becomes a balance between rights and responsibilities, and a matter of awareness. We need to ensure that a 14-year-old is able to tell the difference between a Nazi and a harmless radio presenter.

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About the Author

Vic Alhadeff is Chief Executive of the Jewish Board of Deputies and a former Chair of the NSW Community Relations Commission.

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