Godwins Law

From The Jargon Dictionary - http://www.catb.org/~esr/jargon/html/G/Godwins-Law.html

Godwin's Law
/prov./ [Usenet] "As a Usenet discussion grows longer, the probability of a comparison involving Nazis or Hitler approaches one." There is a tradition in many groups that, once this occurs, that thread is over, and whoever mentioned the Nazis has automatically lost whatever argument was in progress. Godwin's Law thus practically guarantees the existence of an upper bound on thread length in those groups.

Ah, so if I call you a Nazi, I lose, while if you are a Nazi, you win...

You just lost.

More precisely, the subsequent value of the thread is zero. It may be continued anyway - some people will put great effort into explaining why the analogy between Nazis and whatever is annoying them is, on this occasion, fully justified and illuminating. And other people will patiently explain why it isn't and why such comparisons are demeaning to those involved in either event.

Note that the Law itself is not a value judgement of the thread affected. The stigma of having Godwin's Law invoked is strictly an emergent effect: it's a meme built on a meme.

Godwin's law is not really about Nazis, as some posters here seem to assume; that just happens to be a particularly common epithet used (or was at one time) in collapsing threads, often regardless of the context. The actual insult could be any slur or imputation that demonizes the target - depending on the forum, the triggers words could be 'communist', 'capitalist', 'pedophile', 'Suethor', or anything else meant solely to evoke rage and disgust from the other posters.

The point of the law is that the more protracted and bitter the argument, the more likely it is that someone will resort to name-calling or some other form of ad hominem attack. The corellary is that this usually causes a chain reaction as everyone begins to reply in kind, and any intelligent debate still remaining will get pushed aside by increasingly strident and vicious mudslinging. It may be a symptom of LaynesLaw that this isn't clearer.

Think of it as the Mutually Assured Destruction principle applied to debate - as long as things remain at least marginally civil, conversation is at least possible, but one low blow will lead to a retaliation and an escalating exchange of insults that once started is nearly impossible to contain and will usually consume the thread and possibly spill in others in the forum as well.

The real lesson to be taken from the law is that it is senseless to continue a stalemated argument between two irreconcilable positions unless you can bring something new to the discussion. When both sides can do nothing but repeat the same positions over and over again, the only solution is to pull away from the fight. - JayOsako
What I've always disliked about this "law", is that it's more often than not invoked in order to shut people up, and to avoid focusing any thought upon the phenomenon of Nazi Germany. As if there is nothing to be discussed there. As if it was a tiny isolated pocket of evil that "just was". As if there has been nothing before, and nothing since in human affairs, that resembles anything about the Nazis, whatsoever.

I always thought it ill-behooves self-professed "geeks" to fall into this trap, and start sounding like muddy-brained bumpkin-infants, certain-about-everything, singing "La La La La La La La", with their fingers in their ears.

But then, that's my problem I guess, and all about my own image of what a "geek" "really is" or "ought to be".

There are indeed many things in the world that resemble the Nazis in all sorts of ways. However, not all of these resemblances are worth pointing out.

Suppose M(X) is some measurement of how bad X is (how much X restricts human freedom, how many people are killed by X, how much discrimination against unpopular ethnic groups is entailed by X, whatever), and M(N) is how bad the Nazis are according to this measurement. If you think A is an extremely bad thing, you may observe that M(A) is close to M(N), and you may be tempted to compare A to the Nazis. However, when you are in this situation, you can almost always find some B such that M(B) is even closer to M(A) than M(N) is. (For example, rather than comparing [2001-?? US Attorney General] JohnAshcroft to Hitler, you can compare the post-9/11 detention of Muslim terrorism suspects to the Palmer raids.)

So if you post a message in which you compare A to the Nazis, it's usually a sign that you didn't bother to find B before sending your message, i.e., you're too lazy to compose a more substantial argument, i.e., your messages regarding A are not worth the effort of reading or replying to.

-- SethGordon

My first response was "lol" - Nazis do get brandished about somewhat - but it is frighteningly easy for any country to be led down the same path given the right circumstances (anyone got some Dixie Chicks CDs to burn..?). There was nothing special about the German people of the time. Events in early 20th century Europe tell us something fundamental about human nature which must be remembered.

-- NoelDarlow

If you believe this then you know nothing about the German people of the time. In actuality, there was something extremely special about the German people of the time. They were raised by parents who followed psychopathic childrearing methods. So they all grew up to be little psychopaths just in time for WW2.

I don't believe the USA could ever indulge in a holocaust in spite of the fact I have nothing but contempt for it and its jingoism. -- RichardKulisz (edited of course)

RichardKulisz seems unable to grasp that many Americans *gasp* criticize their own countrymen for the same jingoism. Of course it's always easier to group people into "good" and "evil" to ignore any subtleties, something both PresidentBush and RichardKulisz have in common. . .

Actually Germany in the 1930s was a lot different from any modern industrialized society. The problem with totalitarianism is that it costs a lot. It requires the technological level, where forcing large groups into a slavery is more profitable than using the automation

Operating the automation usually requires a small, more educated staff, and consequently more more trust to the workers, while they can cause a lot more harm when not cooperating than if they just used spades and buckets.

It is not that people are more moral nowadays. Machines are just cheaper than slave labor. Thus most references to Nazi Germany are just historically and sociologically stupid, and that's why the Hitler card drops the information to zero.

Corollaries to GodwinsLaw:

See also "Meme, Counter-meme" (http://www.wired.com/wired/archive/2.10/godwin.if_pr.html), Mike Godwin's essay on why he coined this law, and the effects of spreading it on the Net.

Are there any corollaries about the appearance of QuantumPhysics in philosophical, mystic, or cognitive discussions? You could always write one...

The perception of this European is that Americans seem to consider Commie a pretty extreme insult, much more insulting that being called a Fascist or Nazi (Can some Americans confirm this perception ?). Whilst in Europeans the sensibility is reversed, being called a Fascist or Nazi is extremely insulting while being called a Commie carries little weight.

As time has passed I've noticed a tendency for 'Commie' to replace 'Fascist' as an ad hominem particularly on usenet. This could be a direct result of Godwin's law or a result of the increasing numbers the American public using the net. This suggests yet another Godwin corollary.

- As the probability of Godwin's Law being invoked approaches one the probability that 'Commie' will replace 'Nazi' also tend towards one.

-- MartinSpamer

Well, "commie" is easier to say than "fascist" or "Nazi" (at least in the opinion of this American). Do not underestimate the power that has on the average American. Also, I've found that all three of those terms get tossed around and generally mean the same thing. This is really because people don't bother to learn what the person in question is actually espousing. I, personally, have nothing against communism. I simply wonder why anyone assumed that Marx's work could be anything beyond what it is - a social theory. I believe that idealism of that kind never lasts that long before it starts degenerating. I don't know that much about fascism/nazism (except to say that nazis probably weren't socialists) beyond "Hitler was evil", so I can't say how American opinion deviates from reality. Hopefully that'll inform some European minds. -- JasonEspinosa In point of fact, "Nazi" is short for "National Socialist". -- DavidKTurner Sure, but call a turd a jewel all you like, it is still a turd. -- BrianvandenBroek?

What was the difference between a Commie and a Nazi? They look pretty similar with their red flags and all the blood on their hands.

A rhetorical question I presume? They are, in fact, opposing view points and bitter enemies, Commie being the most extreme left and fascist being the most extreme right, though both are also highly authoritarian.

I have a theory that political affiliation is stored in 2s complement. Extreme left values and extreme right values apparently underflow and overflow, and thereby resemble one another. -- ArlieDavis

To be precise, communism is to the extreme of the <em>authoritarian</em> left (check out the political compass link below), and falling somewhat out of fashion within leftist circles, slowly but steadily eclipsed by various forms of anarchism ( http://www.anarchistfaq.org/ ). Though many anarchists eschew the left-right split entirely, or the idea of anarchy as an "ism," or the act of even calling oneself an anarchist. - inkheart

The ideology they preach differs; the results are the same. Both sides of the spectrum (using the single-dimensional model that pisses Libertarians off) come together at the extremes

As my favorite history teacher always said, the only difference between communists and fascists was the quality of their uniforms.

The communists (largely ex-communists, these days) I know fought for, and obtained, democratic freedom from a military regime that might be called Fascist. But I live in Chile, and the military regime was encouraged and, to some extent, funded by America, so I don't expect your teacher would have told you about that - AndrewCooke?.

Hitler wasn't extreme right; he was a centre-right extreme totalitarian. If you want an example of a far right totalitarian, look at Maggie Thatcher: she wasn't as totalitarian as Hitler, but she was a lot further to the right. Nazis have this image of being far right because people who believe in the 1D classification can't accept that Hitler was reasonably centrist.

For an interesting followup on this, including a discussion about the differences between economic and political philosophies, plus a test, see http://politicalcompass.org/ Very interesting!

Additionally, no-one in America get called a "Commie" anymore. That was sooooo 30 years ago.

Not in polite political discourse; I suppose. You won't hear George Bush calling Tom Daschle (a prominent Democratic senator) a commie. But have you ever listened to talk radio? Damn near every prominent politician in the Democratic Party here in the U.S. gets called a commie, and worse. Some (clueless) politicians even beat this particular dead horse; one Texas politician (I think a U.S. Representative, might have been a state legislator) recently suggested that public (taxpayer-funded) schools are "an idea straight from the pit of Hell, from Russia". Never mind that taxpayer supported schools in the U.S. and elsewhere predate the writings of Marx by decades. There seems to be a mindset among some folks that taxpayer-funded anything is the moral equivalent of the Gulag

Communism may be withering on the vine; but you wouldn't know it listening to some folks...

If Godwin's Law were extended to include communism (and various communist whipping boys, such as Marx, Lenin, Stalin, or Mao), a significant portion of political debate on the 'net would fall under its scope. Recall SturgeonsLaw, that 90% of everything is crap, and you don't need to modify GodwinsLaw.

A Google of UseNet suggest it is still common today, particularly amongst certain groups.

What I see more often is the more insulting "Stalinist" epithet used against liberals. The word "Commie" isn't sufficiently overloaded with blood the way "Nazi" is, so anti-liberal trolls need a badder bogeyman. --MartinZarate

An example pulled off of the PrimeDirective page:

What happens if you don't respect the PD? The Borg are Trek's most extreme example. The Borg parallel the Drexlerian concept of GreyGoo. They violate PD on two levels: they assimilate the resources of large-scale societies - of civilizations - and they assimilate the resources of small-scale societies - of organisms. They reproduce by dismembering organic societies and making use of the organs themselves.

How could this apply to us? Even though we might dig their technology - say what you like, the Borg have integrated some cool shit - most of us don't cheer on MicrosoftCorporation's Borgish business practices, . MS acquire companies, assimilate their staff and technologies, and leave nothing useful behind. You might profit a great deal by adopting MS technologies, but do the Borg really define the sort of world you want your kids to live in?

Still, the problem isn't only with MS. MS are just doing what Murdoch is doing, and what IBM did, and ATT before them, and Hearst before them and Standard Oil before them and so on back into the mists. The problem isn't with MS; they're playing by the rules quite a lot of the time and probably could have done what they did even if they played by the rules all the time. The problem is that MS, and our society, doesn't have a PD.

What form could a 21st century PrimeDirective take? -- LamontCranston

The 21st century PrimeDirective:

Do what you like, but don't disturb the others!

Actually, that sounds more like the WiccanRede than the PrimeDirective.

Oh come on. MS, IBM, ATT, Hearst are just companies full of people with spouses, kids, car troubles, dreams and fears just like thee and me. The Prime Directive is, and always has been, Do the best you know how to do.

And Stalin too put his pants on one leg at a time. "Do the best you know how to do" - you can use that line to justify any extreme. This cycle of monopoly, though far less extreme than Stalinism, is a form of tyranny. ChecksAndBalances are what America uses to stave off tyranny; in many parts of the world without such political features, tyranny prospers. Why not consider a similar control to prevent the tyranny of monopoly from prospering? Except that America has become the tyranny.

Then again you consider the page above in only its narrowest sense. The PrimeDirective is an ethical concept. It's one answer to the question, "what is evil?" There are many others, but the PD is unique in not invoking the authority of a deity or the tradition of a regime. It's generic.

Perhaps you don't feel you need an ethical system; or perhaps you don't feel that your society needs one. Many believe that free market success justifies any extreme. "Just earning a buck" is used to the same effect as "Just following orders". If that's your ethic, good luck to you. History suggests you'll need it. -- LamontCranston

If most men are evil, the notion of a PD is doomed. If most are not, it's unnecessary but might happen anyway.

Identifying Bill Gates and Stalin (or me and Stalin) seems a bit polemical, but perhaps one is just oversensitive this morning.

Even Stalin's regime included many good men. Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan likewise. The cells in a man's body may be healthy cells, and yet the man may do evil. So if men are good they stand to benefit by evolving a good society.

But read more closely, sensitive soul; no one identified BillGates or you with Stalin. The subject is more interesting than the StrawMan. You say a PD is not necessary; do you feel this about existing constitutional guarantees too, or is the PD not comparable with these? -- LamontCranston

For me, GodwinsLaw applies here - even if this is not a news group.

Well, the thread had stopped. But plainly GodwinsLaw doesn't apply when a thread is actually about Nazis - discussions of holocaust incidents and military campaigns occur on the net without such a thread-stopping effect. Since the PrimeDirective as described above is also directly concerned with Naziism, it might be fair to think that GodwinsLaw doesn't apply here. For example I think Cranston's last question above is a pretty good one. How is the PD different from the US BillOfRights?

[Of course no reply was forthcoming. Even when the participants know GodwinsLaw, GodwinsLaw still applies.]

There is a common alternative: at the end of an argument, your interlocutor will claim you're doing drugs: "What are those drugs your smoking?"

[And now, the replies!]

The Prime Directive is not necessary because "most people are evil," but rather because "most people are good." Good people, because the foundation of their thinking is not primarily "how to cheat others," tend to believe that what they hear from others is essentially "true" and "well intentioned" because (on the whole) that's the nature of their own contribution.

Evil people discover that they can propagate the most outrageous assertions and never be questioned by good people. Eventually there will be good people who figure it all out and make a rule: "do not mess with the heads of those less sophisticated than you yourself are."

Once good people know the game, they have some defense, but the vulnerability is always there, especially in consensus-based social orders, where the bad guys can sell the big lie to the majority, who are less sophisticated than they are.

-- GarryHamilton

All human activity is free choice, force or fraud. Only those whom one treats with respect for their right to choice will choose to join you in the kind cooperative effort which leverages the creativity, productivity and eventual profound influence of all involved. The use of force or fraud isolates and is therefore ultimately self defeating. Refusal to either use force (other than self defense) or fraud or to allow its use in one's name confers a distinct advantage over those who do so. Although it is not unreasonable to infer that this puts one in a distinct minority, it is a minority with a potential analogous to the close association of mutually trusting cells in a complex organism which then finds itself competing quite well with germs. And one really doesn't need to consider the opinions of germs or impose any directives on them. Let them choose. -- JDSmith

The great thing with this analogy is that some bacteria are beneficial to our immune system and make us more resistant to harmful pathogens. Symbiosis is great. -- JoelPitt?

GodwinsLaw in international diplomacy


Other examples of GodwinsLaw in offline usage


By its own definition, shouldn't this discussion of Godwin's Law be considered over now? The Nazis were mentioned at least half a page above. Damn! And I just mentioned them again.

Perhaps Godwin's Law is a specialization of a more general law, for the value "Nazi". It represents the idea that for any escalating argumentational conflict, there exists a point at which further escalation is not meaningful. Other values for which the law applies have been "communism" and, more recently, "terrorism" and "Osama bin Laden".

And September 11th. You can't have an argument online without anyone mentioning September 11th, and why it happened/why America deserved it/why citing it defends any political opinion. -- MarkJosef

9/11 was a traumatic event for the US and forever changed the political landscape and perspective of the USA, more so than Sputnik perhaps. Its impact on the American psyche won't go away quickly.

Goodwin was right, and Goodwins law stands! Anyone who fails to recognize that, is a Nazi!

See GodwinsLawRejected, FoosLaw, LaynesLaw, ArgumentumAdHitlerum


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