On Pulling a Godwin

Godwin’s Law:

As an online dis­cus­sion grows longer, the prob­a­bil­ity of a com­par­i­son involv­ing Nazis or Hitler approaches 1.

In 1990, Mike Godwin made the above obser­va­tion. To date, it has held up, as peo­ple today seem to like com­par­isons to Hitler just as much as they did in 1990. In addi­tion, there’s a corol­lary to God­win’s law which states that if you are the one to make that com­par­ison, or to pull a God­win, then you are the one who is wrong.

How dare you com­pare me to a Nazi!

How dare you com­pare me to a Nazi!

God­win ini­tially pro­posed his ‘law’ in attempt to dis­cour­age friv­olous com­par­isons to Nazi crimes. Call­ing some­one Hitler because he takes a dif­fer­ent stance on an issue than you do is, in fact, quite puerile and equat­ing mod­ern trends in pol­i­tics with the Nazi takeover or with the Shoah, is nearly always hyper­bolic and does a great dis­ser­vice to the peo­ple who actu­ally suf­fered under the Nazi regime.

How­ev­er, and this is some­thing which often annoys me when peo­ple invoke God­win’s law, there are times where com­par­isons with Hitler or the Nazis are apt. Any delib­er­ate mas­sacre or geno­cide, of course, brings the Nazis to mind imme­di­ate­ly. The Shoah was arguably the worst atroc­ity of the pre­vi­ous cen­tu­ry, but that does­n’t mean that other atroc­i­ties could­n’t be nearly as bad or com­pa­ra­ble.

But even leav­ing aside mass exter­mi­na­tions, the faults of the Third Reich, con­sist of more than just the Shoah, and even that is more com­pli­cated than its extreme hor­ri­ble­ness. As such, there is room for com­par­isons that don’t nec­es­sar­ily accuse some­one of being the moral equiv­a­lent of a Nazi.

For exam­ple, the Third Reich is a very good exam­ple of an author­i­tar­ian regime and of how unques­tion­ing obe­di­ence can be mis­used. To claim that one has placed an inor­di­nate amount of trust in author­i­ty, and to use the Third Reich as an exam­ple of how that can be a bad thing, is not the same as equat­ing any par­tic­u­lar author­ity with the Third Reich. The same can be said of any atti­tude which con­tributed to the hor­rors of the Nazi regime, even if its cur­rent man­i­fes­ta­tion isn’t quite as morally grave as that of Nazism.

So, when some­one inevitably makes a com­par­i­son to Hitler, and some­one then inevitable invokes God­win’s Law as a sort of QED, peo­ple need to stop and ascer­tain whether that com­par­i­son is actu­ally apt. It might very well be.

    Last update: 30/04/2012

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