These words have been used in the past 70 years since World War II ended. During that time, millions of Jews, Gays, “Gypsies”¹, and their supporters were put to death. Most were killed for their beliefs, some by association, many simply because of who they were.
For those unfamiliar with the concept of Godwin’s Law (of the internet):
“As an online discussion grows longer, the probability of a comparison involving Nazis or Hitler approaches 1”
The invocation of Godwin is used to prevent one side or another to equate evilness or incorrectness with the “Ultimate representation” of ‘Evil’ and/or ‘Wrong’ which for the lifetime of the Internet has been Hitler and the Nazi regime.
The problem with Godwin is two-fold. First on a direct level, secondly on a meta-level.
Directly, the use of “Hitler” and “Nazi” by equating them to “Evil” divorces us from the reason. In general this empowers the words “Evil and Wrong” and trivializes Nazism and the acts of Hitler as merely the natural or unnatural ‘limits’ of the definition of evil. We could just as easily say that anything good would inevitably equate out to Firefly. Eventually the context is lost beyond, Firefly was ultimately good.
I am a 47-year-old Jew. WWI did not affect my immediate family (at least without being removed by 2-3 degrees of cousin-hood). They only had the Russian Pogroms to deal with, and even then this is distanced by 2 generations from me. However, despite a lack of direct contact with these atrocities, I still have personal context as to the horrors done to my race, just as readily as even the most affluent person of color has to the horror of Watts, segregation, or slavery.
But there is a frightening and even more dangerous side to misusing the idea of Godwin’s Law. There is a tangible danger in the invocation of Godwin as a means to diffuse or worse avoid a needed conversation. This is especially the case when that conversation is in true comparison to what Hitler and Nazism represented.
There are many well-defined terms for the actions of the Nazi regime as created and directed by Hitler. All of which are put as off limits by misusing Godwin’s law if the comparisons strike to closely.
Genocide, Eugenics, Racial Superiority, Totalitarianism, Authoritarianism, Fascism, Radicalized Nationalism.
As a result of misusing Godwin’s law… there is a growing fear to confront these topics. Godwin gives a safe blanket to prevent us to from ever believing that we’re heading down the same road as has occurred in the past. Hitler… It could never be as bad as Hitler.
We forget that in 1938 Hitler was viewed in Time magazine as “Man of the Year” Consider at that time, that discussions concerning the most “Evil man in history” might have referred to Pizarro, Caligula, Ivan the Terrible, Nero, Rasputin, Torquemada, or Vlad the Impaler. Does the legacy of making Hitler the “ultimate evil” reduce the crimes of Pot Pol, Idi Amin, or Osama bin Laden?
By wrapping society in the safe blanket that we have seen the ultimate evil and it could never be worse condemns us in an instant to be granted the wish of being wrong. Even in the movies we know better than to posit “At least it couldn’t be any worse”
In 1938 people were singing the praises of Hitler. At least the media was. Hitler was a sense of nationalism to a very battered country. And nobody disagreed with him or his burgeoning government. Granted, by 1938 Hitler had given more power to the Schutzstaffel (SS) and the people that opposed him and his government were evaporating quickly. By 1938, Hitler had already been in power as Chancellor for 5 years. His popularity started building as early as 1927 from his policies and beliefs on a unification of all German speaking lands, the distrust of all Jews and any governing that gave the people any power. Any policy he didn’t approve of, was inevitably dismissed as part of a Jewish Agenda/Conspiracy. After 10 years of this… The US still said he was “Man of the Year.” After 3 years of bloody war, the US hadn’t entered. Not because of isolationism… but because we hadn’t decided which side we were on. Hitler was courting the US as an ally, and the bombing of Pearl Harbor made the decision easy.
Evil… is a relative and flexible term. In ‘entertainment’ we have moved from black and white into shades of grey. In life we talk about all of one ethnic group as evil, while a person who kills 10-15 people as potentially misunderstood.
Terrorism isn’t the act of destroying our bodies. It’s the act of destroying our souls and our wills.
It’s time to stop using Godwin as a crutch. It hides facing a potentially terrifying future which as a path that we’ve travelled down in the past. Stop using Godwin’s Law to excuse debate. Godwin didn’t want it.²
Words aren’t meant to be thrown around. Words are meant to represent something and to be as used as tools, shields, and weapons of truth for what they mean.
1: A racial slur unto itself
2: “I Seem To Be A Verb: 18 Years of Godwin’s Law” – Mike Godwin; http://jewcy.com/jewish-arts-and-culture/i_seem_be_verb_18_years_godwins_law