I grew up with this saying. It was meant to convey a message to children that if someone
insultedyou, their words alone could not cause harm. As an adult, I wholeheartedly disagree.
Words do matter. In 2014, David Yanagizawa-Drott studied a popular radio station in Rwanda. During the 1994 genocide, this station had repeatedly called for the extermination of the Tutsi minority. The message, however, only reached the parts of the country with a radio signal, creating built-in control groups. The results were clear. As more areas received radio signals, killings increased. According to the study, one in ten acts of violence could be linked to the station’s messages of hate.
I could give countless examples of how words matter when it comes to conflict, but I’d like instead to share a personal plea: Please stop trivializing the word “Nazi” and use it in its true context.
As a Jewish person, I was taught about the Holocaust from a very young age. Whenever I heard the word “Nazi” it only meant one thing: Members of a fascist party controlled by Adolf Hitler during World War II who killed six million of my people in horrific ways.
In the last several years I have noticed a disturbing trend in the US. People now use the word “Nazi” liberally to describe everything from a strict or harsh person to someone who insists on following rules. I’ve heard everything from “my teacher is a grammar Nazi” to “those guys are like Nazis with that new law!”
I’ve also heard politicians use the words “Holocaust” and “death camps” to describe policies they disagree with from their opposing side.
As a Jew, when I hear these words used in this manner, I feel a thousand cuts inside. Imagine how a Holocaust survivor feels. Jewish comedians sometimes use the word humorously to take back its power and I understand that, though I can’t get on board myself. In this case, am referring to everyday conversation. As strongly as you might oppose a rule, comparing that to an actual Nazi or Holocaust is just wrong.
When these words are trivialized, there are consequences. Russian President Vladimir Putin’s use of the phrase “de-nazifying Ukraine” to justify the invasion is beyond unconscionable. Unfortunately, the propaganda works, at least on some.
What’s more, people are already starting to forget the Holocaust. Younger generations may not even know what it is. I can picture that twenty years from now, the original definition of the word “Nazi” could become lost altogether, only appearing when people joke about their harsh new math teacher.
When we forget, we leave the door open to a repeat of events that must never, ever be repeated.
Let me be clear. I am not asking you to stop using the words “Nazi” or “Holocaust.” In fact, just the opposite. Say them loud. Say them often. In fact, we need that discussion now more than ever as we see a rise of authoritarianism around the world. Just mean what you say. Use those words for what they are. Use them to debate, disagree, or discuss, but use them thoughtfully and with clarity.
I hope that you hear my plea, and I urge you to send support and care to those in Ukraine fighting for their lives and their freedom. Ukraine and Russia are the lands of my ancestors. May an end to their suffering be on the horizon.
To learn more about the Holocaust or to teach your kids, please explore this resource: https://encyclopedia.ushmm.org/content/en/article/introduction-to-the-holocaust