It was a revelation this month to discover that calling for tougher curbs on smoking, made me a Nazi. Strike that, it was a surprise when my (admittedly provocative) Huffington Post article received a slew of 'she's a Nazi' comments, when my twitter account was inundated with trolls, when I received hate E-mail, and when three separate blog pages were dedicated to similar malice. One particularly delightful post titled its rant 'Another Little Nazi', before noting that since I am Jewish I should know better.
Thing is, I think I do. Know better that is. Having mulled the original article carefully, there're a couple of phrases I could - and should - have phrased more sensitively. That smoking and not smokers are stupid for example (except for when it comes to smoking, when I maintain they are!). And that the act of smoking around others (rather than smokers themselves) should be shamed. But this was about the worst of it. A mere opinion. About smoking. Hardly on par with the murder of six million Jews.
There has been some solace in learning about Godwin's Law - the theory that as an online discussion grows longer, sooner or later someone will compare something or someone to Nazism or Hitler. And that once this has been done, it is generally acknowledged that the person throwing the insult has automatically lost the argument, and the high moral ground.
But, defamation issues aside, while the frequency and ridiculousness of the slur goes some way to disempower it, it also suggests two worrying trends.
The first, is the trivialization of the term 'Nazi'. Perhaps those bandying the word around have no real education in what actually occurred during the pre-war rise of Hitler, or throughout the war. And if this is the case, it begs questions of our History syllabus. But I suspect that they do know and that the term 'Nazi' has simply become, for them, something with a totally different meaning, something to suggest strictness or repression. Like when entirely non-homophobic teenagers use the term 'gay' to mean lame, weak or bad. But gay communities have - rightly - railed against this appropriation of language. And I, as a Jew, do the same here. With anti-Semitism and far-right politics on the rise, again, throughout Europe, now is a dangerous time to be making flippant the memory of the Holocaust. It should be remembered how insidious Nazi hatred and intolerance was. It should remain a term dripping with horror. It should not be OK to invoke it so lightly.
Nevertheless, absurd comparisons aside, those offended by my anti-smoking requests obviously felt it as an affront to their freedom. Which brings us to the second trend: the increasingly widespread belief that freedom means being able to do whatever the heck you want. Stuff everybody else.
Freedom is of course the absolute cornerstone of our society, of our history, of our liberal culture. It is what makes Britain great and, for the most part, tolerant. It is what allows me to express one opinion, and you to express another, and neither of us go to jail for it. But freedom to should not always trump freedom from. And limiting certain personal freedoms when it causes harm to others is not the same as being authoritarian or dictatorial. This in fact was the point of the anti-smoking piece. But people do not like to be told no. No, they cannot smoke, or use a mobile phone while driving, or, if we jump across the pond, wield a gun. To demand no is to infringe their 'freedom', thus making the demander draconian, or as my troll friends would suggest, a Nazi.
Perhaps it is simply the current zeitgeist. We are after all the 'me' generation and it is at times difficult to balance this insular ambition against the demands of 'Society'. But Society must demand such balance.
Where laws stop short, Society must step in. Not to make certain behaviours illegal, but to make them unacceptable. Where smoking is concerned, even if you remove all of the health issues that were the foundation of my argument, for non-smokers, smoking is unpleasant. It sits along the lines of noise pollution, rowdy drunkenness, littering, and other forms of anti-social behaviour. Similarly, calling somebody a Nazi may not quite step outside the realms of free speech - the quenelle incident has recently illustrated the blurred lines in this area - but along with a host of other hateful terms, it should not be an acceptable utterance.
In Israel this January, first steps were taken to pass a bill that would make it a crime to call someone a Nazi. The reasoning behind it was exactly that the casual invocation of the term is trivializing the Holocaust - ironic for this to be occurring in Israel, by Jews. But while for me last week it would have been nice to utilize such a law, it is Society who must first establish its own boundaries of acceptability. Perhaps I'm alone on the smoking thing. But the use of the term Nazi in this way is too menacing a trend to ignore.