Is Godwin's Law still relevant? You’re probably familiar with the law. It’s in the Oxford English Dictionary now: “The theory that as an online discussion progresses, it becomes inevitable that someone or something will eventually be compared to Adolf Hitler or the Nazis, regardless of the original topic.”
The extremely anodyne, and not quite accurate “usage” example given by the OED is: “correcting others’ errors, especially online, can quickly lead to invocations of Godwin’s law.”
That is, it will lead to scolding the purists as “grammar Nazis.” In that relatively mild—though all the more excessive—mold, we’ve recently seen those who compared Big Gulp soda bans to Nazi dictates shamed for violating Godwin’s Law. And in the literary world there was that novel whose title was modeled on Hitler’s Mein Kampf that aroused more wonder than outrage. What an innocent time that was just a few months ago.
Suddenly, though, things have gotten far more serious on the Godwin front, as Nazi, Hitler, and genocide analogies have invaded geopolitical discourse with the force of a blitzk ... I mean with great force. They come in the form of hashtags that compare Putin to Hitler, Israelis to Nazis, and Gaza to genocide; and slogans, often accompanied by swastikas, on demonstration banners.
Israelis get it both ways in some of these demos: compared to Hitler’s Nazis (i.e., they are very, very bad) and at the same time told that #HitlerwasRight (Hitler: very, very good).
But even Israelis themselves are divided about the legitimacy of Hitler and Holocaust comparisons. Months before this Gaza war, the Israeli legislature, the Knesset, was arguing over a proposed law that would have turned Godwin's Law into real legislation: a bill that would make it illegal to use Hitler or Nazi or Holocaust comparisons in public debate because such use inevitably trivialized the horror of Hitler's mass murder. The bill failed to become law.
Meanwhile Hamas supporters evidently feel maximalist claims like “genocide” (#GenocideinGaza is a popular hashtag) are necessary to get the world’s attention, raising the question of whether disproportionate comparisons subvert themselves.
It all goes to show what a morass we enter when Hitler, Nazis, and genocide are used by either side in a conflict. (Here in the U.S., the Tea Party pioneered the recent renaissance with Hitler mustaches painted on Obama images.) And it raises the question of whether Godwin’s Law has lost the theoretical ability to restore order.
Godwin’s Law originated in the dawn of the digital era, devised back in 1990 by lawyer and writer Mike Godwin, who drew upon his firsthand experience of verbal warfare in primitive Internet chat rooms to make the elegantly stated assertion (slightly different from the OED’s) he called “Godwin’s Law of Nazi Analogies”: “The longer an Internet discussion goes on, the probability of a comparison involving Nazis or Hitler approaches 1.”
There’s an important distinction here because the formulation makes clear the original “law” is descriptive, based on empirical observation—much like a law of nature—rather than a law of the justice system or speech code prohibitions, as it is all too often taken. It’s descriptive rather than prescriptive although, it’s true, a sardonic measure of disapproval seems built into it: the implication that the ultimate descent to Hitler and Nazi comparisons inevitably trivializes these depths of evil.
On the other hand, can it be interpreted too restrictively? Now it happened that in the afterword to the new edition of my book Explaining Hitler I had devoted a section to a critique of the blanket, prohibitory restriction of language for which Godwin’s Law is often invoked.
“No Hitler analogies then?” I had asked. “Yes they can trivialize, but on the other hand a blanket, ironclad rule, removes them from significance in current discourse entirely.” Removes Hitler and the path the Nazis took to war and genocide out of history, from referentiality. Removes a dark polestar, one might say, by which we measure the degree of evil. Makes it more difficult to put lesser evil in perspective. Prevents us from learning anything from that dark episode by refusing to make it “relatable” (a word I didn’t use).
An example: One could well object to Prince Charles’ impulsive recent assertion that Vladimir Putin was “about the same as Hitler.” (Perhaps “no genocide, no Hitler analogy” should be the rule.) On the other hand, it may not necessarily be prima facie invalid to say that Putin’s maneuvering in eastern Ukraine, stirring up the Russian-born speakers, is not dissimilar to the tactics Hitler used in the campaign to stir up the Sudeten Germans in Czech territory to agitate for reunion with Germany (something Neville Chamberlain ultimately acceded to at Munich in 1938).
It’s a mistake, I argued in my book, to put Hitler and the Holocaust in some sacrosanct space so that we can learn nothing from them about any other episode of human behavior. Or about the extreme but real potential for evil of human nature which should not be underestimated. What happened next—shortly after publication of an excerpt from my book that included this discussion—reminded me of the Marshall McLuhan movie-line moment in Woody Allen’s Annie Hall.
I was contacted by Mike Godwin himself, author of the law. He didn’t exactly say, as McLuhan did, “You know nothing of my work.” But he did question whether I was saying his law set forth an “ironclad” or “blanket” prohibition of Nazi and Hitler analogies. He wasn’t in the prohibition business—indeed he told me he was an early staffer for the Electronic Frontier Foundation, which defends free speech rights and hacker culture in the digital age.
I assured him that I too was taking issue with people who misinterpreted Godwin’s Law as an ironclad prohibition. We had a productive email exchange in which we both agreed that Godwin’s Law should be taken less as prohibitory than as cautionary. There remained the question of how to craft the caution sign? In many cases it’s going to be a subjective judgment and no agreement can be reached. So I would like to focus on one overused analogy word: "genocide," a word I first found cropping up in hashtags on Twitter such as #GenocideinGaza, and in overheated online "discussions." I think there is a case to be made that this use of "genocide" violates the essence of Godwin's Law, the heart of which is that comparisons to ultimate evil are all too often used carelessly.
All death in war is horrific. The death of civilians more horrific, and the death of children even more than that. But wars happen, civilians die, and distinctions are made between directly targeting noncombatants and attempting to avoid noncombatant casualties.
Arguments are made about how strenuous those efforts are, about "proportionality." I think I’ve shown sensitivity to this, having written as far back as four years ago in Slate that I believe U.S. joystick/remote drone attacks could often amount to war crimes. But I don’t think they amount to “genocide.”
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