Godwin’s Law remains relevant in today’s political climate
Godwin’s Law, first articulated by Mike Godwin in 1990, states that as an online discussion grows longer, the likelihood of a Nazi/Hitler comparison also grows.
A blend of scientific formulation and comical hyperbole, the law is more of a rule-of-thumb than a statute of nature. Its humor draws from the fact that even if Godwin had exaggerated, we can all recognize the kernel of truth embedded in the law. Like any cleverly designed adage, its meaning is readily appreciated.
In the Internet’s nascent days of the 90s, people discussed and debated ideas in forums (as it happens, Godwin conceived of his law following observations of discussions on Usenet, an international system used for topical discussions). In 1995, the Internet had 16 million users.
Today, the digital space is occupied by over 3.5 billion of us. But that’s not the whole story; those who wished to have a presence online back in the day were confined to desktops. Now, anyone with a smartphone has access to the rest of the world in their back pocket. And they don’t just have forums to play with. The Internet has evolved from a pond to a vast and dynamic ocean.
Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, Reddit, and other social media platforms meet the demands of the babbling, arguing, thinking ape.
While online discussion itself has witnessed a meteoric rise in the last twenty years, it’s an empirical question as to whether or not Godwin’s Law is upheld more or less accurately than when he first formulated it. Here, the adage’s usefulness is preserved by its recourse to humor.
It was never meant to be taken literally; Godwin himself later explained that the law was an attempt to imply that those who invoke Nazis in a debate are not “being thoughtful and independent”. To be sure, such a comparison can be enlightening, or even legitimate. On the other hand, anyone with enough creative juices can concoct a “legitimate” comparison between any two entities.
It’s time to bring forth the elephant in the room. The correlations between Hitler and Trump are many. Both, for example, appealed to the downtrodden with confident promises — that much is true. But inferring equal outcomes from such correlations is a game for the narratively driven.
It is all too easy to project one’s biased narrative onto the world. A thought experiment is illuminating — it’s true that both Obama and Hitler were democratically elected. To imply, based on the fact that both were voted into office, that Obama was the next Hitler would have been a position worthy of ridicule. Why? Because this correlation would apply to any democratically elected official, rendering the Hitler comparison worse than useless.
But this applies to any correlation you might consider. Take another commonly cited parallel between Hitler and Trump — the notion that both leveraged nationalism to galvanize their electorates. Yes, but so have many politicians. As I noted above, any two people (or objects, or ideas) can be compared, given enough creativity.
To be clear, I am not defending Trump, his policies or his campaign: I’m defending reasoned and honest discourse.
If we exclude violence as legitimate means to bring forth change, then conversation is all we have. Personal attacks, name-calling and heedless comparisons simply will not do. We are better than that, and our society deserves as much.
The next time you’re tempted to obey Godwin’s law, hold your tongue, take a breath and engage the argument.
Guest columnist Logan Chipkin is an ecology and evolution graduate student and can be reached at [email protected]