Thursday, February 09, 2006

Godwin's Law

Godwin's Law is one of the more well known instances of net culture. Much like Murphy's Law or the Second Law of Thermodynamics, it can be expressed in many ways. One simple restatement of Godwin's Law is that in any discussion, eventually someone will mention Nazi Germany. On the net, repeated experiments have shown this to be true time and time again.

But, despite the curiousness of this social phenomenon, relatively little interest has been shown in why Godwin's Law holds true. To the extent that anyone has ever thought about why Godwin's Law holds true, I think that the unusual impression is that it holds true simply because people are rude or emotional or irrational, and people on the Internet more so. There is a certain amount of truth in that. Because there are no real consequences to anti-social behavior on the Internet, it tends to encourage rudeness, insult hurling, and extreme rhetorical positions that we would avoid were we actually speaking to someone face to face. And its long been noted how easy it is on the Internet for one socially inept person to draw large amounts of attention to themselves simply by being rude.

But lately I've been noticing Godwin's Law holding true in discussions between even mature, rational, and temperate posters. Not only that, but Godwin's Law seems to hold true in any sufficiently long conversation in real life. Why is it that it seems we must continually reference Nazi's no matter what we are talking about? Consider the highly academic and literate essay by Eva Gerrard I just linked to. Right in the middle of the essay, Godwin's Law proves itself once again. Why would such an otherwise intelligent seeming commentator appeal to such an obvious and potentially offensive analogy, especially since in many circles bringing the Nazis into the discussion is considered a sure sign that the discussion has 'jumped the shark'.

And, I'm no better about it. My blog has barely gotten started - and despite my strong distaste for bringing Nazis into any discussion - here I am writing a whole post about them. What gives?

My opinion is that the reason Godwin's Law hold true is that our society's language for discussing good and evil has become deeply impoverished. In a society in which the memetic commanding heights are increasingly dominated by a media promoting moral relativism, moral equivalence, and amorality, there is increasingly little common language between cultural subgroups for talking about good and evil. Our common education and common cultural experience leaves us without a shared language for discussing right and wrong. Even using the word 'evil' is viewed by many as a sign of inferior and unsophisticated judgment. The Wikipedia entry on Godwin's law touches on this when it mentions, "Frequently, a reference to Hitler is used as an evocation of evil. Thus a discussion proceeding on a positivist examination of facts is transformed into a normative discussion of subjective right and wrong." While the Wikipedia editor may well be right that Nazi's make a nice emotional flog, the implication of such writing is that there is no such thing as non-subjective right and wrong. I would argue that while the emotional value of Nazi's might be part of the reason that they get introduced, its the non-subjective value of the Nazi's as a signifier for evil that is the real attraction. Nazis remain as an idea the one aspect of common culture which resists being moved into the moral relativism bucket. They are the one absolutist idea which a writer can reach for with reasonable assurance of broad consensus. 'Nazi' equals 'evil' to virtually everyone - even those otherwise uncomfortable with words like 'evil', 'right', and 'wrong'. In a given discussion, no matter how much we want to dodge around moral absolutes, eventually every writer on every side of the culture war has to reach for a marker that signifies evil. Even the moral relativists cannot escape claiming that there are some things which other people ought to do or not do. With all the other ethical and moral markers robbed of their value, only a comparison to Nazis remains in the tool box.

The upshot of this is that every crime, lapse of judgment, moral weakness, and indeed anything else we don't agree with ends up getting compared to the evils of Nazi Germany. This of course itself has contributed to the impoverishment of our language for discussing evil. Virtually anything that one would wish to compare to Nazi Germany, only trivializes the great crime perpetuated by the Nazis while at the same time greatly exaggerates the danger represented by the thing you are actually talking about. Unless you are talking about one of history's greatest democides or genocides, a comparison to Nazi Germany is generally unwarranted and even unhelpful. But, here we are - unable to avoid such a comparison if we wish to remind any significant fraction of the people we are communicating with that in fact there really are some things which are evil.


At 5:36 AM, Blogger Anna Venger said...

Excellent insights. You are right of course about the frequency in which Nazi and Hitler are invoked when attacking one's opponents. And there is no right or wrong anymore. To say that something is wrong is to bring condemnation upon one's head so the last recourse is comparison with something that most people still have visceral reactions toward, Nazi Germany. (Of course, with Holocaust deniers such comparisons mean nothing.)

Aside: I do appreciate your comments on rwn, especially yesterday. By the way, I noticed that you have no contact information posted.


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