Thursday, November 25, 2010

Godwin's Law

A sober debate about Ireland and the euro crisis degenerated into Nazi slurs in the EU parliament today after a UKIP member was ejected for screaming at a German MEP: 'Ein Volk, ein Reich, ein Fuehrer!' The phrase - meaning one people, one empire, one leader - was a popular slogan for supporters of the Nazi party in wartime. Lawmakers were left speechless after the rant by Godfrey Bloom, the UKIP member for Yorkshire and North Lincolnshire, at German MEP Martin Schulz.

News report, The Daily Mail, 25 November 2010

Reading the above item reminded me of Godwin’s Law, an internet adage that was formulated by Mike Godwin in 1989. It holds that "As an online discussion grows longer, the probability of a comparison involving Nazis or Hitler approaches 1." His meaning was that, given enough time, all discussions—regardless of topic or scope—inevitably end up being about Hitler and the Nazis. His intention was to make participants in a discussion more aware of whether a comparison to Nazis or Hitler is appropriate, or whether it is simply a rhetorical overreach.

Godwin’s Law has been elevated into a wider and more general formulation that holds that invoking Hitler or the Nazis as a debating tactic in any argument not directly related to World War 2 or the Holocaust automatically loses the argument. This is because invoking such significant and horrible events in a debate is inappropriate and in poor taste. Put more simply, as a general rule, the first to play the Hitler Card in a discussion other than on Hitler or the Holocaust has lost the argument.

In 1953, prior to Godwin’s formulation of Godwin’s Law, ethical philosopher Leo Strauss had already formulated an observation relating to the playing of the Hitler Card. He called his observation “Reductio ad Hitlerum” (Latin for “reduction to Hitler”) and it holds that “A view is not refuted by the fact that it happens to have been shared by Hitler.”

Next time someone calls you a Nazi in a discussion or makes the observation that Hitler thought the same, counter with Godwin's Law or Strauss' Observation.  As Barbara from Bank SWorld says, no need to thank me.


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