Quite honestly, my mind has been doing cartwheels over this paradoxical subject for a long time now and I felt the time had come to gather some opinions about this “law”.
What is Godwin’s law?
Mike Godwin first promulgated his law in 1990, and this is how he puts his rule;
“As an online discussion grows longer, the probability of a comparison involving Hitler or the Nazis approaches 1”
Godwin himself is Jewish and had the best of intentions with this statement; he wanted to remove flippant references to Hitler or Naziism from educated debate, because it takes away the impact of genuine comparisons. What he says is true in many ways; flippant terms like “feminazi” and “grammarnazi” are a disregard of the horror afflicted during the holocaust and should probably be avoided in serious debate.
The other way, which is slightly different, that Godwin’s law is used, is to end a discussion prematurely (often immaturely) with a phrase like:
“Hitler was an animal lover, you are an animal lover. Therefore, you are like Hitler”
It’s a childish argument, and Godwin wanted to rid us of it. With the best of intentions, creating Godwin’s law was supposed to do this. Unfortunately, the solution may actually be far worse than the problem and lands us in a much more complex and paradoxical position.
First, I must point out that somebody who makes an argument like that is hardly a debate-worthy opponent. If you don’t want to have a serious debate, you don’t have to, but you “lower the bar” if you mention Hitler…or Godwin.
This is actually known as “Godwin’s law’s law” and is merely the idea that Godwin’s law lands us in a paradox, because, as soon as anyone mentions Godwin’s law, the debate ends with no more justification than the person who referred to Hitler had for ending the debate. It is not morally superior to point out that your opponent is not morally superior.
We already have a logical term for the suggestion’s made by those who invoke Godwin’s law. The fallacy is known to logical philosophy as “A minore ad maius” or from small to large. The idea that all animal lovers are like Hitler is, of course nonsense, because you cannot take one example and say that it applies to the majority.
That aside, the very idea that if you say a certain phrase you lose the debate is, in itself, childish and irresponsible. I myself am 17 and capable of seeing how immature this element of Godwin’s law (not outlined by Godwin himself) is. If you want to have a serious debate no topic can be censored based on the previous use of that argument.
The nature of Godwin’s law does not actually reveal anything about the debaters either. I would not justify flippant references to Hitler, but the term “agree to disagree” can be applied to these terms too; it is a term meant to end a debate, whilst making yourself appear morally superior. However, there is no law which demonizes the use of “agree to disagree”.
Why is this? Because the holocaust should not be taken lightly. But does it not follow from that, that a flippant reference to Godwin’s law could, in a much more serious way, lead to people “taking the holocaust lightly”?
I don’t need to explain how horrific the holocaust was, nor do I need to remind you that there are many people who saw it as “justified” who are still alive today. There are Nazi-supporting morons in almost every country on earth.
“Hitler done it right” is the sort of appalling comment you will find on a Britain First or BNP page. And I would argue that these people are the ones who present a true threat to decent society. By comparison, fools flippantly making references to Hitler is a minor problem. And, despite the fact they may be a fool, they spotted that Hitler was wrong, which makes them considerably better than the “Hitler done it right” views.
Far from being helpful for anti-fascists, Godwin’s law has left the fascist modern nazi sympathizers in stitches, as the best display of fascism in modern history becomes a taboo subject.
Micheal Rosen put’s the truth about fascism brilliantly;
I sometimes fear that people might think that fascism arrives in fancy dress worn by grotesques and monsters as played out in endless re-runs of the Nazis. Fascism arrives as your friend. It will restore your honour, make you feel proud, protect your house, give you a job, clean up the neighbourhood, remind you of how great you once were, clear out the venal and the corrupt, remove anything you feel is unlike you…It doesn’t walk in saying, “Our programme means militias, mass imprisonments, transportations, war and persecution.”
The threat does not come from those who flippantly regard Hitler, but those who forget the type of person he was and how naziism came about.
It is for this reason that I have come to the conclusion that Godwin’s law could potentially have done more harm than good; the one thing that the Jewish people wanted after the war, was that the holocaust be remembered in all it’s horror, so that it could never happen again. This is why the museum at Auschwitz was set up. If you have ever spoken to anyone who has been to Auschwitz, you will know that the place is deathly quiet, with large walls that make you feel trapped. The air around you feels cold.
Is Godwin’s law a direct contradiction to this idea? Let me know what you think; I still haven’t decided myself.