Notes from a Linguistic Mystic

I suspect that many (if not all) of the people reading this are likely to be pretty familiar with Internet discussions and the (complete lack of) rules governing them. Often, this relative lack of rules just leads to petty arguments and name-calling, but sometimes, oh sometimes, something truly magnificent can be born. That magnificence is known as ‘Godwin’s Law’.

Named after (and first formulated by) Mike Godwin, a well known attorney in the world of the internet, Godwin’s law states the following:

As an online discussion grows longer, the probability of a comparison involving Nazis or Hitler approaches one.

When applied to real internet life (heh), it basically states that as a given argument/discussion/flame-war goes on online, it is nearly inevitable that somebody will compare some aspect of the situation or participants to Nazis, Hitler, or Nazi Germany. However, perhaps more well known is the corollary to Godwin’s law, which is far less formal, but far more well known, and could be roughly stated as:

If, in an argument or discussion, somebody makes a comparison to Nazis or Hitler, the discussion is automatically over, and the person making the comparison is considered to have lost.

Thus, it’s not uncommon on some message boards to hear somebody invoking Godwin’s law to end a thread, or to hear reference to somebody “Godwinning” a conversation or discussion. Generally, although discussion may continue after the Godwinning, it seems to take on a distinctly different tone, and the person making the comparison is expected to defend him or herself.

Of course, there have been other attempts to alter or amend this law. Some have claimed that if a person admits the violation of the law and justifies it, then the corollary doesn’t apply. Others feel that the law is unfair, and that if the comparison works, there should be no repercussions.

I personally believe that although there are times when such a comparison is inevitable and necessary, there are twice as many times where it’s not. Therefore, I feel that not only should Godwin’s law (and its corollary) be enforced online, but in person too.

Don’t be afraid to invoke Godwin’s corollary next time somebody references the Third Reich when discussing Hockey (yes, I’ve seen this happen). Next time PETA starts an ad campaign featuring pictures from the Holocaust (yes, they’ve done it before), feel free to inform them that the discussion is over and that they’ve lost.

In fact, don’t even be ashamed to point out that the very title of this post is a thinly veiled reference to a quote about Nazi Germany. I think it’s justified, given the subject matter of the post, but that’s irrelevant. The fact of the matter is that this post must now end, and somehow, I’ve lost. Ahh, the magic of Godwin’s law…

Update: I’ve discovered an article titled “How to Post about Nazis and get away with it - The Godwin’s Law FAQ”. It’s amusing, informative, and worth a read, if you’re bored.


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