the advantage of Godwin’s Law

You don’t know what that is? Or you wouldn’t know the disadvantage of it? Neither did I, until yesterday. I saw it used in a comment on a blog. Of course, I can’t find the comment now, but it led me to explore the idea a little.

Godwin’s Law 385 up16 down
A term that originated on Usenet, Godwin’s Law states that as an online argument grows longer and more heated, it becomes increasingly likely that somebody will bring up Adolf Hitler or the Nazis. When such an event occurs, the person guilty of invoking Godwin’s Law has effectively forfieted the argument.
“Dude, shut up. Nobody cares what you think.””Oh, so now you’re trying to censor me? Go to hell, you damn Nazi!”

Hmmm, friendly. And obviously, very much in the manner of Emily Post etiquette, as well.

Of course, what’s more interesting, perhaps, is that I had really no idea of what usenet is, or apparently was, either. I didn’t need to know, but now something left from that experiment (of 30 years!) is being used all the time to shut people up. If you want to get caught up to speed about what that is/was, you can look at the article. I, however, want to keep moving forward.

How do we appropriately stop conversation? How do we not allow the Holocaust to be used casually, to be misrepresented and trivialized? How do we maintain and pursue an authentic conversation? How do we make sure that Israel is not marginalized anymore than it already has been, by people who bleed for anyone else besides the closest to them?

I thought I’d quote from Godwin himself here, in an article he wrote in Wired to explain the phenomenon.

Meme, Counter-meme 

By Mike Godwin  It was back in 1990 that I set out on a project in memetic engineering. The Nazi-comparison meme, I’d decided, had gotten out of hand – in countless Usenet newsgroups, in many conferences on the Well, and on every BBS that I frequented, the labeling of posters or their ideas as “similar to the Nazis” or “Hitler-like” was a recurrent and often predictable event. It was the kind of thing that made you wonder how debates had ever occurred without having that handy rhetorical hammer. Not everyone saw the comparison to Nazis as a “meme” – most people on the Net, as elsewhere, had never heard of “memes” or “memetics.” But now that we’re living in an increasingly information-aware culture, it’s time for that to change. And it’s time for net.dwellers to make a conscious effort to control the kinds of memes they create or circulate. A “meme,” of course, is an idea that functions in a mind the same way a gene or virus functions in the body. And an infectious idea (call it a “viral meme”) may leap from mind to mind, much as viruses leap from body to body.When a meme catches on, it may crystallize whole schools of thought. 

It continues with some more interesting stuff, but I also found another article he wrote in Jewcy, this time connecting to the Jewish angle more specifically.

I Seem To Be A Verb: 18 Years of Godwin’s Law

By Mike Godwin / April 30, 2008

The anniversary of Hitler’s death—just ten days after the anniversary of his birthday (which reminds me that he celebrated his final birthday in a bunker in Berlin)—is as good an occasion as any other for me to reflect once more about Godwin’s Law. This one-off creation of mine, like the Energizer Bunny, keeps on going and going. If Godwin’s Law had been a child, this year it would be old enough to vote. I can’t say I anticipated that Godwin’s Law, which states that, “As an online discussion continues, the probability of a reference or comparison to Hitler or to Nazis approaches 1,” would last this long or that it would propagate into popular culture to the extent that it has. But I’m mostly gratified that it has done so. Although deliberately framed as if it were a law of nature or of mathematics, its purpose has always been rhetorical and pedagogical: I wanted folks who glibly compared someone else to Hitler or to Nazis to think a bit harder about the Holocaust. The genesis of the idea came from my reading Primo Levi’s books in the 1980s. I had grown up with a pop-culture knowledge of World War II, and I had even seen many of the photos of the death camps, with their emaciated bodies stacked like cordwood and the haunted, piercing eyes of the skeletal inmates who survived. But Levi’s writings brought the experience home to me—they helped me understand better what the experience must have been like for prisoners. In their accounts of the behavior of those who operated the camps and conducted the mass murders, I had a glimmer of insight into the psyches of the Nazis and their henchmen as well. Their consistent pattern of humiliating and dehumanizing Jews and other perceived enemies of the Nazi state—both before sending them to the camps and after they arrived—told me that, on some level, they recognized that what they were doing was a crime against humanity. Hence their psychological need to make their victims seem less human before exterminating them. It was difficult, after attempting a greater psychological understanding of why the Holocaust happened and how it was conducted, to tolerate the glib comparisons I encountered on the Internet (Usenet in those days). My sense of moral outrage at this phenomenon found an outlet after I read an article in in the Whole Earth Review about memes—viral ideas—that inspired me to create a kind of counter-measure. And so I created Godwin’s Law and began to repeat it in online forums whenever I encountered a silly comparison of someone or something to Hitler or to the Nazis. As the handyWikipedia entry on Godwin’s Law (crafted by someone else long before I ever came to work for the Wikimedia Foundation) points out, this was a deliberate experiment in memetics. In other words, I was trying to jumpstart Godwin’s Law into becoming a self-propagating idea. By all accounts, I succeeded. The Law turned out to be more successful at propagating itself than I could ever have predicted. Far more people have heard about “Godwin’s Law” than have heard about me, although Wikipedia handily links us together nowadays (another link that predates my arrival at Wikipedia as a hobbyist editor and later as an employee). That’s fine by me. 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.

Well-said, Mr. Godwin.

And G-d bless.

So I had seen this before, but wasn’t in the know.

Now I get it.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s