Godwin’s law is a political, positive and useful idea: the idea that we should not tolerate hyperbolic comparisons to the Nazi regime. They do not help, and they show a lack of thought about the atrocities of the Nazi regime and the Holocaust (Porajmos/Samudaripen).
But although it did have an effect on people being more careful about using comparisons to Nazis in appropriate contexts, it also had some unexpected fallout:
- It has been extended to cases where a hyperbolic comparison is not being drawn. In the intent to ban any mention of the Third Reich ever.
- It has been extended to cases where no-one has mentioned anything about Nazi Germany at all.
- It has been used to delegitimise the whole antifascist movement in one fell swoop.
The first case, the case of people invoking Godwin’s law in the absence of a hyperbolic comparison, is well documented. In the worst case, it can be people hiding their negationist discourse behind it. Yes, it is worrying, but it happens: “you cannot say the Holocaust happened because: Godwin’s law”. I don’t write for negationists, however, but I thought it was necessary to mention. In better cases, it attacks people making “valid” comparisons. I am not a fan of “fair” comparisons to Nazi Germany, and I am not sure that such a thing exists, but such disputable cases should probably be granted more than a simple line on Godwin’s law. Last (and least), you have the case I was involved in last week: A discussion originally about “anarchism and language” got heated when I mentioned that “cisgender” was just a word (and not an intellectual bourgeois construct created to divise and confuse the working class), at the end of this discussion, I went back to the main thread, and mentioned that if people are interested about how language shapes society, they might be interested in Klemperer’s LTI (Klemperer was a philologist of Jewish origins who lived through the Third Reich and wrote about the changes in the language used in both the political discourses and everyday conversations). It was a side remark, to give one reference that is not Orwell on the matter of language and ideology, as no other had been suggested until then. Despite the fact the debate on the word cisgender was closed (I did mention in my post that it had nothing whatsoever to do with the issue of cisgender being a word or not), it was apparently a sign that I had lost that previous argument, because: Godwin’s law. When reading about Nazi Germany is against Godwin’s law, an essential part of its reason to exist has been lost.
Today, I have seen this casual abuse of Godwin’s law taken a step further: a genuine case of self-fulfilling Godwin’s law, where people invoke it without anyone having mentioned the Third Reich in any way: a Scottish independentist blogger has tweeted transphobic things and refused to apologise. Some other Scottish independentist bloggers have talked about it. Some people have taken the defence of the first blogger, saying that yes he is wrong, but he is also useful to the cause, influential, etc. so should be cut some slack. I argued that it was better, and in the end more benefitial, to deal with these issues rather than let them fester “for the greater good” and defend people who you fully know are wrong. At the same time, another friend was sharing this article, and I saw some parallels. I did not want to imply the blogger who said some transphobic shit was an FBI informant, I just wanted to say that he was the one being divisive, and that people losing their time trying to cover him because he writes for independence were losing their energy and hurting their movement, in the same way that people who defended that guy until he admitted himself to have been an FBI informant had been losing their time and hurting their movement. This argument was taking place in a non-anarchist setting, where police informants are not the big bad monsters under the bed that they are among anarchists for understandable reasons. So I was not prepared to be accused of: Godwin’s law. Okay, the comparison did not hold in every aspect of the two stories, by far, maybe it was far-fetched, the simultaneity of me reading one article while getting notifications about that argument might have made me drawn more similarity than it should. But this was reverse Godwin’s law: by invoking it, this guy was basically saying that FBI informants are as bad as the Nazis. They are not, even if that is one of the very few good things that can be said about them.
Last, but not least this time, I have witnessed on French TV an attempt to use Godwin’s law to dismiss the entire antifascist movement. Antifascists were strawmanned by someone saying that they should not call themselves antifascists, as the extreme right groups and the state’s racist policies that they oppose are not Nazi Germany. Well that is true, but as the antifascists clearly explained: they oppose fascism ideologically, and that is why they fight things in our society which can unlock society’s resistance to fascism (extreme right groups, and, more importantly, the state’s racist policies and discourses).(Most) Antifascists (I’m sure you can find one) are not saying that modern society is the same/just as bad as Nazi Germany, they are saying they want to make sure nothing can ever be as bad as Nazi Germany ever again.
Well these were my thoughts about Godwin’s law, why it’s important, why it shouldn’t be abused. Please get upset at the title of this article, I’m afraid it is intended to be that bad.