04 March 2006

A Law of Another Flavor: Godwin's

Godwin's Law has been around for quite some time and used in various online forums where people discuss whatever topics tickle their fancy. The law is basically:
The longer a discussion continues the higher the probability that someone will use an analogy comparing someone or something to Hitler or the Nazis.
That's an interesting idea and it's been borne out over and over again from the old usenet groups all the way through current blogs. So what? Why is it anything more than an interesting (and annoying and sad) observation?

Because rules almost immediately sprang up in reaction to Godwin's Law. Think of Godwin's Law as a physics theory and the subsequent rules as the engineering making the theory into something actually useful. These are the two rules which apply whenever Godwin's Law is proven:
1) The person who invokes the Nazi analogy has lost the argument.

2) The argument ends as soon as the Nazi analogy is invoked.
There are some necessary exceptions:
1) If the topic discussed naturally calls for talking about Nazi's - i.e. WWII or maybe a comparison of what Stalin did compared to what Hitler did.

2) The purposeful invocation of a Nazi analogy in order to shut down a discussion is to be ignored.
There may be some other rules or variants which have appeared elsewhere, but I believe this covers most of the rules developed around Godwin's Law (they are certainly the ones I follow). You will often hear all of this referred to, in a shorthand manner, as Godwin's Law. This almost always leads to someone protesting that the entirety of the law and rules is not Godwin's Law - only the law is. Of course, they are technically correct - and usually they are dodging the point: they have proven Godwin's Law and don't want to be subject to the rules which then come into effect.

Why did these laws come into existence? Well, the problem which they address is that those making internet arguments tend to become emotional. In particular, those losing internet arguments tend to become very emotional (it's easy to remain emotionally detached when you are winning an argument). The loser will often descend into a rant and starting tossing the most hateful terms he can. Hitler and Nazi comparisons carry quite a bit of emotional punch and that punch usually ends up being thrown.

Admittedly, I don't see this as often as I used to. I think this is at least partially because of the identification of Godwin's Law and the development of the rules around it. However, I think that the decline in the emotional, failing-argument use has highlighted a second reason that the Nazi analogies were used: meanness. As the number of emotional proofs of Godwin's Law have declined, because people don't want to be frozen out by it, the use of Nazi analogies as a means of getting in an ugly dig has become more visible. This is not a new phenomenon, it was always around - it just wasn't as noticeable because there were so many people proving Godwin's Law thru emotional outbursts. And it has a key difference. The person proving Godwin's Law in this manner often isn't interested in trying to prove a point - he just wants to get in a dig and Nazi analogies are an easy way to do this because of the emotional baggage they carry.

One can argue - and some do - that this is not what the rules around Godwin's Law are meant to prevent. It doesn't represent an implicit admission that the person arguing has run out of rational arguments and is reaching for an emotional argument to tip the balance back or to strike back at the person who beat her. It's a first strike and can be done coolly and rationally, without the person invoking Nazis being emotional; all this can happen before the merits of the argument have begun to be explored. However, this argument is wrong. The point of the rules surrounding Godwin's Law is to keep the discussion in as rational a mode as possible. There are very few discussions in which the injection of a Nazi analogy does not cause an emotional reaction. It precludes (or at the very least makes difficult) a rational discussion from the point wherein the analogy is made. Thus, it colors the argument and is to be avoided if the discussion is to remain rational.


KipEsquire said...

I would posit a third exception:

3) Invoking a comparison to modern day, literal, skinhead-affiliated Nazis is not equivalent to invoking a comparison to Hitler's Nazis.

I have been (falsely) accused of falling victim to Godwin's Law on a few occasions by those a bit to eager to cite the Law but who do not acknowledge this exception.

Mark Jakubik said...

I'm really not sure that there's a meaningful distinction there, Mr.Kip Esquire. Yelling "Skinhead" isn't much different from yelling "Hitler."

TWM said...

From a practical standpoint since I have a full head of hair, calling me a "Skinhead" would elicit laughter more than anything else.

However, having been called a Nazi and Gestapo on a few occasions over my career I can attest to the fact that it pretty much shuts down my willingness to listen from that point forward.

I learned from an AUSA on how to react. During a proffer with defense counsel and his client, the counsel said something about "Gestapo tactics" and the AUSA stood up, told him he was not going to listen to such talk and told him and his client to get out of his office, he would see them in court. The counsel was shaken, only slightly less so than his client, and tried to backtrack. The AUSA would have none of it and booted em out. The next day they called and were much more reasonable.

Anonymous said...

An exception: Using Hitler as an honest historical reference.

For instance, is the current war on terror equivalant to stopping Hitler at Poland's border in '39? (Note: I do not propose to debate that question here.)

The point is, being unable to do this blocks the prime role of history: keeping us from repeating our mistakes.

Anonymous said...

Oh, I meant to add that this differs from Exception 1 in that it specifically compares current events with historical events.

Also, I absolutely think it's legitimate to ask if, say, using Iraq as a base for launching an attack on Iran is equivalent to invading Poland, even though I think the answer is "no". The difference is stating the answer as an obvious fact, meant to discredit Bush and the war, and listing points of similarity. The first embodies Godwin's Law, the second provides a starting point for honest debate.

And I fixed the link to my blog. I'm an idiot today in operational matters.

Anonymous said...

Another modification that might be necessary to Godwin's Law is the simple fact that "racist" can also be inserted in place of Nazi. Nowadays when someone attempts to introduce any type of thought or perspective which challenges the standard approach to 'race politics', one risks the chance of being called a racist. Racist is a term I feel that is directly related to 'Nazi', if not a brother at least a first cousin. Racist carries almost as much baggage when we consider that Racist brings up images of lynchings, KKK, firebombings etc etc... I know that when blog anything negative about the policies of Obama I have been referred to as a racist. What is that about?