Occasional blogging, mostly of the long-form variety.

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Godwin's Law

("Regarding Mussolini" from xkcd.)

Most internet posters are probably familiar with Godwin's Law. The original formulation was "As a Usenet discussion grows longer, the probability of a comparison involving Nazis or Hitler approaches 1." As the Wikipedia entry further explains:

There are many corollaries to Godwin's law, some considered more canonical (by being adopted by Godwin himself) than others invented later. For example, there is a tradition in many newsgroups and other Internet discussion forums that once such a comparison is made, the thread is finished and whoever mentioned the Nazis has automatically "lost" whatever debate was in progress. This principle itself is frequently referred to as Godwin's Law. It is considered poor form to raise such a comparison arbitrarily with the motive of ending the thread. There is a widely recognized codicil that any such ulterior-motive invocation of Godwin's law will be unsuccessful (this is sometimes referred to as "Quirk's Exception").

Godwin's Law applies especially to inappropriate, inordinate, or hyperbolic comparisons of other situations (or one's opponent) with Hitler or Nazis or their actions. Although the law in its original formulation is obviously true in discussions directly addressing genocide, propaganda, or other mainstays of the Nazi regime, its corollaries may not apply. Whether it applies to humorous use or references to oneself is open to interpretation, because although mentioning and trivializing Nazism in an online discussion, this would not be a fallacious attack against a debate opponent.

However, Godwin's Law itself can be abused, as a distraction or diversion, that fallaciously miscasts an opponent's argument as hyperbole, especially if the comparisons made by the argument are actually appropriate. A 2005 Reason magazine article argued that Godwin's Law is often misused to ridicule even valid comparisons.

This last paragraph zeroes in on the trouble. The original Godwin's Law works wonderfully as a funny observation, but when the corollaries are invoked slavishly, they can become problematic. A great deal probably depends on what sites one visits. I've certainly seen some horribly inappropriate and hyperbolic mention of Nazis (such as this one), and at least one accusation (by one of the most impotent trolls I've ever seen) that everyone else in the thread was "as bad as the Nazis." However, I've also seen appropriate mention of Nazis met by commentators citing Godwin's Law dogmatically, or with all the glee of an elementary school kid ratting out a classmate for swearing. And hey, fuck that.

Let's turn things over to The Poor Man Institute (from May 2008):

There’s a tradition on the internets, derived from “Godwin’s Law“, that anyone who brings up Hitler/Nazis/WWII in a debate automatically loses. This tradition is, like everything else on the internets, pretty stupid - you can’t improve the quality of discourse by pretending the seminal event of the last 100 years didn’t really happen. But it does acknowledge a problem: that, as the seminal event of the last 100 years, it tends to crowd out other events, which are likely more useful for analyzing current events. WWII is important because it is exceptional - Hitler was exceptionally evil, Germany was exceptionally warlike, the Holocaust was exceptionally barbaric; most things in this life, by definition, are not the exceptions. Many things are qualitatively similar to exceptional things - Saddam is like Hitler, North Korea is warlike, being catty on the internets is like the Holocaust - but, quantitatively, do not measure up. For a Godwin’s Law-violating example of this, see above - viewing events of 1938 too much through what was then the seminal event of the century, most European leaders failed to understand the un-Great War nature of their situation. If they had, WWII might not have been the seminal event it became, and we’d all be making lousy analogies to something else entirely. History is largely accident.

Maybe that’s a bad lesson to draw from WWII - it ties up the paragraph nice, at least, so give me a break. And it’s not as bad as the usual lesson, generally offered up by wind-up right-wing idiots, that “appeasement never works.” Appeasement often works quite well, even when dealing with our present-day Hitlers manqués - look at North Korea. Endless index card-reading wingnut rants notwithstanding, even rather awful people can often be satisfied if they are given what (note: not “whatever”) they want, will often be willing to make concessions in order to get it, and doing business is often much cheaper than acting tough, which is why grown-ups prefer it. WWII, as the exception, proves the rule.

Or let's turn to Mike Godwin himself, in "I Seem To Be A Verb: 18 Years of Godwin's Law" from April 2008:

Still, I sometimes have some ambivalence about the Law, which is far beyond my control these days. Like most parents, I'm frequently startled by the unexpected turn my 18-year-old offspring takes. (I'm happy to say that my 15-year-old offspring—my daughter, Ariel Godwin—surprises me at least as often, although invariably in happier ways.) When I saw the photographs from Abu Ghraib, for example, I understood instantly the connection between the humiliations inflicted there and the ones the Nazis imposed upon death camp inmates—but I am the one person in the world least able to draw attention to that valid comparison.

Overall, though, I'm content that the Law has as much popcult traction as it does. My feeling is that "Never Again" loses its meaning if we don't regularly remind ourselves of the terrible inflection point marked in human culture by the Holocaust. Sure, there has been genocide before that point and genocide after it, but to see an advanced, highly civilized nation warp itself into something capable of creating such a horror—well, I think Nazi Germany does count as a first in that regard.

And to a great extent, our challenge as human beings who live in the period after that inflection point is that we no longer can be passive about history—we have a moral obligation to do what we can to prevent such events from ever happening again. Key to that obligation is remembering, which is what Godwin's Law is all about.

In a way, the biggest violation of Godwin's Law – due to being a counter-factual, horribly irresponsible piece of crap hyperbolically invoking Nazis – is Jonah Goldberg's tome, Liberal Fascism, comprehensively rebutted by David Neiwert.

With all this in mind, I'd suggest that Godwin's Law works very well as a funny observation, and as a useful warning to try to avoid hyperbole and not rush straight for the Nazi or Hitler comparison. But a good community can deal with the appropriateness of Nazi references pretty well on its own. The point of Godwin's Law, I'd say, is to help cut down the bullshit, not add to it.

Personally, after studying the Nazis and the Holocaust to some small degree, I find some contemporary dynamics remind me of them. In most cases, current events are nowhere near as bad. But among other things, the Holocaust for me has always stressed the importance of fighting for civil rights and any attempt to take them away, whether for a specific group or everyone. (Protect them, and it's hard to ever get as far as genocide.) Attacks on the Constitution should be a call to arms. I'm reminded of the cognitive dissonance that occurs when people are scared to confront their leaders and want to tell themselves everything's okay, or that that group of people must have done something really awful to be treated so poorly. We're all too familiar with citizens and pundits who will claim, in the face of overwhelming evidence, that surely Vice President Cheney would never lie to start a war, or that we never tortured anyone. Acknowledging the full truth might force them to act, and challenge the established order. I'm reminded of abuses of language, disingenuous arguments, fear-mongering, hate speech and the notion that some groups of people are simply lesser beings or inhuman. I think of abuses of power and the psychology of bullying, from the cruelty of capos over other prisoners in the camps to waterboarding someone 183 times. I reflect on how government officials, their allies and apologists chose to be on the wrong side of the Nuremberg trials in the present day. I find myself thinking how crucial it is to speak truth to power, the importance of moral imagination and compassion, and on the banality and audacity of evil.

Everyone has his or her own frame of reference for understanding the events of the day, and it may not resonate with everybody else. That's fine, among people of good faith. And even relevant analogies don’t make every situation Nazi Germany all over again. But it would be a mistake to forget, or pretend not to know, that certain dynamics of power, fear, intimidation, abuse and enforced conformity lead to still worse things. We know this story.

(January 27th is International Holocaust Remembrance Day every year, and I wrote a post for it, but today happens to be Yom Hashoah.)

(Cross-posted at Blue Herald)

1 comment:

Rehctaw said...


Our degree of separation from that which any/every true American would decry and condemn is ONE person willing to shortcut in the mistaken pursuit of expedience.

To demonize and dehumanize an enemy reduces the understanding of how to alter rather than reinforce the enmity.

The ONLY way to prevent the inevitable backsliding that occurs in war is to exhaust every conceivable avenue to avoid war in the first place.

Truth isn't the first casualty of war, humanity is.