Time to retire Godwin’s Law
I think it’s time to finally retire Godwin’s Law, the “law” that as online discussions proceed the chance that someone brings up Hitler and the Nazis increases.
It’s a pretty witty observation, and can be amusing the first five times you hear about it, but just like any other joke; when you keep telling it it loses its ability to make you laugh.
But it’s a little worse than simply regurgitating a witty comment over and over. It can stifle debates and cause people to prematurely dismiss arguments.
Unfortunately the video isn’t online, but I recall a BBC Sunday Morning Live episode in which they were debating whether or not we should intervene in a particular foreign conflict. A man said that he believed that it is never our place to intervene in foreign affairs. A woman astutely asked him whether or not he would have supported intervention in 1939. His response was along the lines of “well when you bring up Hitler, your argument’s in trouble”, and that was that. A decent point was dismissed on the grounds that it dared to mention Hitler. Of course, if he did support intervention against Hitler then his argument was undermined, so he either had to concede the point or announce that declaring war on 1939 Germany was the wrong thing to do. It was much easier for him to instead dismiss the woman’s argument based on the fact that it mentioned the Nazis.
After seeing that, I now sigh whenever someone shouts “Godwin!” as if it’s either a witty thing to say, or that it somehow discredits the argument. Neither of those things are the case. Yes, saying that your ideological opponent is a Nazi is silly (unless they really are…), but Godwin’s Law gets mentioned practically whenever the Nazis are mentioned at all.
It was clever the first few times I heard it, but now, as an online discussion grows longer, the probability that I’ll find a mention of Godwin’s Law useful or amusing approaches zero.