The Hitler Card: Problems with Invoking Godwin’s Law

Godwin’s Law is the assertion “As an online discussion grows longer, the probability of a comparison involving Nazis or Hitler approaches 1”.  That is to say it is the idea that as the conversation progresses Hitler of Nazi comparisons will inevitably be made. In many discussion groups, Godwin’s Law is associated with or even assumed to be that whenever the Hitler comparison is made, the discussion is over and the person making this comparison is automatically the loses whatever debate was in progress.

On some level this makes sense if we want to cut down on hyperbolic Nazi comparisons that have no merit and are merely exaggerations. Hitler’s regime was one of the most tyrannical in history and its countless mass murders and other crimes should not be used to make shallow glib comparisons to anything someone simply does not like. That said, I have to wonder how effective assertions of Godwin’s law are at preventing these type of inappropriate comparisons. It seems to me that invoking Godwin’s law is not likely to stop ideologues, political hacks, angry people, and others with various forms of ax to grind from making inappropriate or irrelevant Hitler comparisons. Perhaps I am wrong, but it seems to me if the individual in question is not thoughtful and has a serious ax to grind the misplaced Hitler comparison is likely to come anyway.

On the other hand, it seems more likely that assertions of Godwin’s law will encourage more thoughtful types to hold their tongues when they are talking about things that really are fascistic, totalitarian or murderous and the comparisons are fully appropriate. I find that when things are fascistic, totalitarians, racist or murderous, in ways that resemble Nazism, it should be pointed out and addressed. That is my main problem here: invoking Godwin’s law strikes me as being as likely if not more likely to stifle appropriate comparisons, than it is to prevent people from making hyperbolic inappropriate ones that trivialize that dark chapter of human history.

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