Godwin’s Law is anything but

I’ve got many gripes with the internet, I’ll admit. One of those is the overuse of Godwin’s Law. Actually, it’s a double offence because not only people overuse it, but this Law is anything but.

But let’s start with the misuse. I posted a while ago to Facebook that I had finished reading The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich and I mentioned how scary it was that a place right in the heart of “civilized” Europe could have fallen to that madness so quickly. A small discussion formed with some people until one of my geek friends commented something to the effect of—

Let’s stop this because Roberto already Godwinned in the original post!

You see, us geeks are good at that: repeating some meme without thinking much about them.

But that’s how I see “Godwin” being used all over the place. A discussion killer. And the discussion did get killed, unfortunately. It’s like Godwin’s Law says “if someone mentions Nazis, the discussion is over” but that’s not what the “law” says—

As an online discussion continues, the probability of a reference or comparison to Hitler or to Nazis approaches 1.

Which is actually true. Just like—

As an online discussion continues, the probability of a reference or comparison to Snow White and the Seven Dwarves approaches 1.

Obviously, as a discussion grows, the probability of referencing anything will approach 1! Here’s Godwin himself back in 2008 about his “law”—

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.

I find it ironic that his little experiment for making people think harder about the Holocaust is now used as a tool to avoid mentions to it.

You see, I get where Godwin was trying to go. You see glib comparisons with the Nazi all the time and yes, they suck. But going from that to making one of the most defining moments of the last Century completely off-limits is preposterous! Nazi comparisons are often valid and should not be avoided, especially by misusing an old usenet meme.

Again, His Godwinness—

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. […] 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.

Avoiding comparing things to something as defining as Nazi Germany is an arbitrary limitation that makes no sense.

That’s not to say that all Nazi comparisons are valid. There really are plenty of dishonest Nazi comparisons out there, such as this one, by an American governor—

We the people have been told there is no choice. You must buy health insurance or pay the new Gestapo — the IRS.

This because the Supreme Court of the United States had upheld a law that represented the first steps of that country in following the rest of the civilized world in providing its citizens with basic healthcare. Healthcare! Oh the evils of that Gestapo!

But it’s unreasonable to expect people to completely ignore a huge part of our history in hope that dishonest governors won’t make silly comparisons, which they’ll do anyway.

Roberto Selbach
Roberto Selbach
Software Engineer

Ever-learning gopher at HashiCorp.