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Godwin’s Law remains relevant in today’s political climate

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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]

1 Comment

  • When it comes to killing … Hitler was a lightweight compared to Stalin and Mao Zedong.

    And the claims of calling President Trump Hitler by Snowflake Millennials and Mentally Disturbed Celebrities, are totally unfounded. And the general public are starting to tire of the Socialist attack dogs that cannot possibly sustain the same level of anger as the Trump Administration rolls along.

    The worthless actor Alec Baldwin has even said he won’t be badly acting out Trump much longer; especially if the President continues to score points with jobs, immigration, and healthcare.

    Other worthless celebs are spitting out vitriol about Trump, not realizing that they are slowly ruining their careers, and Hollywood for that matter. I mean, they have to know that Trump supporters make up a sizable portion of their audience.

    I for one won’t attend a movie without checking to see if I’m supporting worthless entertainers like Ashley Judd or Meryl Streep.

    Being constantly angry isn’t good for the body. And at some point, people, even angry people, are going to realize that Trump is not Hitler … and he never was.

    I can honestly say I’m Happy. I take schadenfreude in the misery of the Socialists, and I’m doubly happy.

    And I know that American citizens are mostly put-off by the senseless displays of Snowflakes and Socialist Celebrities in reference to Trump.

    That’s why 2018 is gonna be a banner for Republicans. It’s in the cards.

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