Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Bringing the hammer down - the appropriate uses of Godwin's law

Godwin's law states:
As an online discussion grows longer, the probability of a comparison involving Nazis or Hitler approaches 1.
I invoked Godwin's law yesterday during a Facebook comment-thread debate with a cousin of mine, a hard-core conservative who became offended when he saw my support for Occupy Wall Street. His response was to start posting all-caps comments on my Wall and on my comment threads, the basic message of which was "I DON'T WANT TO LIVE UNDER COMMUNISM."

This is the nuanced response of a typical conservative - if you criticize Wall Street it means you want communism.

I suggested to him that he might want to turn off caps-lock because it looked like he was screaming. He responded "I AM SCREAMING!"

Before Facebook I might have exchanged a total of 20 words with this cousin, who is a few years my senior, during my entire life, and I don't think I've actually seen him, in-person, since his wedding to his first wife, some time in the early 1980s. So I had no idea he had turned into such a right-wing extremist when I accepted his Friendship, as I routinely do with all relatives, on Facebook.

His view is basically that not only Occupy Wall Street, but the United States government, itself, is evil. I pointed out to him that the government wasn't too evil for his mother to take Social Security survivor's benefits when his father died, leaving seven children and a stay-at-home mom. Not to mention welfare and food stamp benefits for a time. I suggested to him that he put his money where his mouth was and pay back the US government since if he thinks the government is evil he should pay back the money the government shelled out. And if he didn't do so, I suggested that he STFU.

His response:
What makes you think that the fact my Mom got government assistance when I was a kid erases my right to my own opinion as an adult! Millions of Germans had parents who benifited from the Nazis. Are they, therefore Nazis or Nazi simpasizers?

Clearly my point was his shameless hypocrisy, not that he wasn't entitled to his own opinon, and I considered for a moment actually wasting my time explaining this to him, but instead I brought down the hammer. I cited Godwin's law and ended the thread.

To a certain extent I understand why comparisons to Hitler and Nazis are so popular. Everybody knows who they are and everybody (except of course modern neo-Nazis) agrees they were very bad. Or as TV Tropes points out:
...Hitler has pretty much displaced the Devil as a personification of ultimate evil...
If you compare something to the Khmer Rouge you're going to lose 95% of everybody, especially Americans with our traditionally awful grasp of history.

But Godwin's purposes are worthwhile: "Although deliberately framed as if it were a law of nature or of mathematics, (the purpose of Godwin's law) has always been rhetorical and pedagogical: I wanted folks who glibly compared someone else to Hitler or to Nazis to think a bit harder about the Holocaust"