Godwin’s Law

By Maeve Maddox

Mike Godwin is an American attorney and author who formulated “Godwin’s Law” in 1990 when he made the following assertion:

As an online discussion grows longer, the probability of a comparison involving Nazis or Hitler approaches 1.

Note: In probability theory, an event is said to never happen when its probability is 0, and to always happen when its probability is 1.

Godwin’s Law, also known as “Godwin’s Law of Nazi Analogies,” is applicable to threaded online discussions in forums, chat rooms, and on blogs. The term has earned a place in the OED:

Godwin’s Law: noun. A facetious aphorism maintaining that as an online debate increases in length, it becomes inevitable that someone will eventually compare someone or something to Adolf Hitler or the Nazis.

Although coined to describe an Internet phenomenon, the term is being applied to the use of “the Nazi card” in other contexts, as in this account of Ted Cruz’s filibuster to delay a vote on the Affordable Care Act:

In the course of the afternoon we…got some Nazi analogies, just proving that Godwin’s Law holds for filibusters as for online discussion.

and in this blog:

And it’s not only online discussions that prove Godwin’s Law, I remember sitting at lunch with a construction crew when one of the carpenters brought up my work in the pro-life movement: “Yep, tea-baggers are always telling people how to live, just like the Nazis.” —Clashdaily

A complaint by many forum users is that the so-called law is stifling discussion. One commenter invokes a Nazi analogy and another crows, “You said Hitler, so I win!” At that point, the discussion ends.

The term has spawned a verb, “to Godwin,” as in, “You Godwined this discussion!”

The invocation of Godwin’s Law has come to be seen as a way to end an online discussion. Here are some complaints voiced by forum users:

It seems like Godwin’s law is becoming a real problem for any sort of discussion on the internet. Whenever Hitler, Nazis, or the Holocaust are brought up in a discussion, the discussion is then over and the poster who mentioned the subject is derided. This wouldn’t be a problem if it was just people injecting these things into seemingly unrelated topics, but people invoke Godwin’s law even when the Hitler/Nazi/Holocaust mention is relevant to the topic at hand. –forum user

Before I get started I’m aware that originally “Godwin’s Law” didn’t carry the now common meaning of “You said Hitler, So I Win!” that so many people seem to think it means. –forum user

Nazism is a cultural meme that encapsulates not just the notion of political authoritarianism, but of the worst possible human behavior towards other human beings.

Note: In a theory of mental content called memetics, a meme is analogous to a gene in the theory of evolution. A meme represents a unit of culture (idea, belief, pattern of behavior) that travels from mind to mind.

Perhaps Nazi analogies are best reserved for discussions of the dehumanization and inhumane treatment of large numbers of human beings. If the intention is to compare one form of authoritarianism to another, without the connotation of racism or genocide, perhaps one of the following word choices would meet the need:

fascism: any form of right-wing authoritarianism.
totalitarianism: Totalitarian theory and practice; the advocacy of totalitarian government. Also loosely, authoritarianism
dictatorship: A system of government by the absolute rule of a single individual;
despotism: The rule of a despot; despotic government; the exercise of absolute authority.
autocracy: (A system of) government by one person with absolute power; a state, society, etc. governed in this way.

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23 Responses to “Godwin’s Law”

  • Rich Wheeler

    Fascism include Nazism. NAZI is a German acronym that meant, translated, National Socialist Workers Party. That makes it leftist. The religious elements of Nazism correlated to New Age trends, which, like communism’s appeal to atheism, puts it on the religious left. Racism is rampant in communist nations and was practice in the US by the South and Democrats (i.e., the Left), so again, that puts Nazism and fascism on the left.

    The best and only significant examples of “right-wing” governments in the world today are Muslim governments. The Muslim governments exemplify the political spectrum going so far to the right that it wraps around the globe and joins with the Left because the Muslim governments allied with the Fascist governments.

    So if fascism has so many left-wing characteristics and associations, does any good reason exist for associating it with the Right?

  • Rich Wheeler

    Sorry, I failed to make the connection. The definition above says, “fascism: any form of right-wing authoritarianism.” That tends to be a secondary definition offered by dictionaries, but I challenge it.

    First, using the word “any” disqualifies it. For example I would not call Saudi Arabia or Singapore fascist, even though both are authoritarian in at least some dimensions and are right-wing.

    Second, as I pointed out above, the primary examples of fascism occupy the left-wing.

    Third, “fascist” describes a authoritarian government having a strong coalition (fascia: a tightly bound bundle of sticks) of government, industry, military, education, media, and social “services.” Such a government could lean either left or right — but usually, left.

    I think, therefore, that associating it exclusively with the right is a grievous error.

  • Michael W. Perry

    Ah, but citing Godwin’s Law to stifle someone who is drawing analogies to Nazism is censorship… just like Nazism.

    Godwin’s Law needs a corollary: “As an online discussion grows longer, the probability of Godwin’s Law being cited approaches 1.”

    –Michael W. Perry, author of Chesterton on War and Peace: Battling the Ideas and Movements that Led to Nazism and World War II (where the probability of analogies being drawn to Nazism is definitely 1)

  • Suzie

    The first part of this article made me chuckle a little: “As an online discussion grows longer, the probability of a comparison involving Nazis or Hitler approaches 1.”. Oh who has not experience that!

    To Rich’s point, I agree with you 100%. People associate fascism with the right because the only thing most people learn about fascism in school or on the news is that fascist are militaristic and support high military spending. That is one element of fascism, and don’t forget that when the left is in power they also have a tendency to start wars.

    In truth fascism is actually very closely related to Socialism. The difference is in Fascist societies people are allowed to have businesses, but they are extremely regulated and state approved. As in Socialist and Communist societies, dissent with the state is not allowed and the individuals will is subservient to the will of the state. And as Rich said Theocracies are examples of extreme right wing governments.

  • Julie Link

    Kudos, Rich. I logged on to voice the same objection, but find that you presented the argument more cogently than I could have. I trust it was an inadvertent slip rather than a political stab.

  • Katherine Macedon

    Godwin’s Law is based on a misunderstanding of probability. The longer a discussion goes on, the chances that *any* particular meme will be mentioned approaches 1. So other memes, like “jumping the shark,” or “wardrobe malfunction,” or “no one expects the Spanish Inquisition,” etc. etc., will eventually come up the longer a discussion goes on. Imagine you are dealing hands in a poker game: the longer you do it, the more likely that any particular hand will be dealt. That’s not news. So why focus on that particular (Nazi) hand?

  • Lynn Copeland

    Like Julie and Rich, I object to the definition given for fascism. It’s properly described as “the tenets of a centralized totalitarian and nationalistic government that strictly controls finance, industry, and commerce, practices rigid censorship and racism, and eliminates opposition through secret police.”
    We see tendencies for each of these in the U.S. today under our current president, who is anything but right-wing. These attributes are in fact the antithesis of “right-wing.”

  • Scott M

    More often than not, even in heated debates, “Godwin” is brought up in at least some semblance of humor, which I think Godwin would appreciate.

    Far more in spoken discussions, but it’s also true for online debate, is the fact that leveling the “racist” accusation at someone is just as effective at stifling debate.

    I’m not sure what the probability spread would be or who’s name an applicable law should take, but it’s real nonetheless.

  • venqax

    The one thing that does place Naziism (when did we lose that second i?) on the political right is it’s extreme nationalism. Otherwise the points brought up are quite relevant– in many ways relegating fascist totalitarianism to the political right is something that suits the left better than it does the truth of the matter.

    I certainly second the objection to fascism being defined as “any form of right-wing authoritarianism.” Such an equation, in fact, is similar to a Godwinism– the hyperbolic comparison of Nazis to anything heavy-handed. Fascism is also not any” form of authoritarianism– it is totalitarian NOT authoritarian– another false equation. It is, rather, a fairly specific form of totalitarianism that is usually, but not always correctly, associated with the political right. Stalinism, Maoism, Castroism, and the NKorean regime were/are all arguably fascist, for example.

  • Roberta B.

    Thanks for the enlightenment on Godwin’s law and the concise definition of meme. I see the humor/sarcasm in declaring such a law and putting a label on the ridiculous! It’s obvious those people overwhelmed with emotion find “Nazi” an acceptable insult, not only because of the evil and damage they wreaked on the world in relatively recent historical memory, but also because they don’t exist any more with any legitimate or seriously subversive presence. So, no one else inadvertently could take offense. I agree that if any discussion is to remain rational (rather than ad hominem), there are more effective terms to use than the Nazi. However, in the definitions, totalitarian is used to define Totalitarianism, and despotic is used to define Despotism. I suppose I’ll just have to look them up!

  • Dale A. Wood

    To Rich Wheeler et al:
    You have missed the whole concept that the statement:
    “NAZI is a German acronym that meant, translated, National Socialist Workers Party” was one of Hitler’s and Goering’s BIG LIES. I repeat:
    BIG LIE – BIG LIE.
    I am apologetic for being so blunt, but it is foolish to claim or to believe that Nazism was a left-wing organization. Marxism-Leninism was left-wing communism, and that outlook was the very anathema of Hitler’s Nazism. Hitler had a venomous hatred of communism, and his Nazism was actually as far to the right of the right wing as you can get. Some of you need to learn to recognize a BIG LIE when you see one.

    By the way, the spelling “Nazism” is the officially-accepted spelling of the word in English, and it has been for a long time. It is found in numerous good dictionaries and in books of history of the period of 1930 – 45. I think that it is rather silly to argue about “ii” belonging there. It is very difficult to find ANY English words that contain “ii”.
    Generally, this is shortened to a single “i”.

    Furthermore, those who claim that the American Republican Party of today has anything to do with the Republican Party of Abraham Lincoln and U.S. Grant are telling a BIG LIE, too. The only thing that these two organizations have in common are their similar names.
    D.A.W.

  • Nelida K.

    @Dale A. Wood: Bravo! Good for you! Well said, well done. Who in their right minds could conceive Nazism as a leftist movement? Do they ignore, or have conveniently forgotten, about all the communists that were persecuted and thrown into the concentration camps? For the record, I am not of a leftist political persuasion, but let us call a spade a spade.

    Going back to Goodwin’s Law, and its necessary corollary (bravo for @Michael W. Perry!), let me mention that the term “Nazi” has been frequently used in our particular area of activity, i.e., language, especially grammar, and so we have the appellative of “Grammar Nazi” applied to prescriptivists, and I remember a forum discussion where somebody had never heard it used in that way and took offence. I don’t think that it could be effectively substituted by “grammar totalitarian” or “grammar fascist”. Maybe “grammar police” (if law enforcement members aren’t piqued by this tongue-in-cheek use), since it has been increasingly applied to other realms such as fashion, etc.

  • venqax

    DAW and Nelida K.: You don’t know what political left and right mean. Just because Nazis and Communists didn’t like each other doesn’t mean they were ideological opposites in many meaningful ways and they had much more in common with each other than either has with Classical Liberal democracy– which they both detested and wanted to destroy.

    Communists filled their concentration camps with accused fascists and Nazis, too. That is a similarity, not a difference: They both put their enemies in concentration camps or in front of firing squads. They are both totalitarian systems in which the state seeks to control every aspect of life. That is something they share which is much more important than their rather superficial differences. And, as said earlier, the statism and anti-individualism common to both is mainly associated with the Left, politically, especially nowdays. The Nazis were socialists. That wasn’t a lie.

  • venqax

    “…the spelling “Nazism” is the officially-accepted spelling of the word”
    Where, exactly, is that “official”? We don’t have any official spellings or much else in English, which is what fuels a lot of the conversation on this site. Are we just “sking” when we ski now, too? Nazi (like ski) isn’t an English word, so the conventions of English spelling are less relevant than they normally would be. Since -ism is the suffix and Nazi is the root word being tagged onto (just like -ing and ski), the spelling Naziism makes perfect sense and apparently DOES obey the rules of English spelling. Especially if it is pronounced not-see-izm, which it usually is, and not not-sizm which it usually isn’t. That I-solated i can’t be doing double duty (see the “negotiate” problem from a previous post). The elusive rule would have to say that when adding a suffix that begins with i to to word ending in i, one or other of the i’s gets dropped. The very fact that are few to no English words that end in i probably creates the lack of such a rule.

  • Katherine Macedon

    Godwin’s Law is based on a misunderstanding of probability. The longer a discussion goes on, the chances that *any* particular meme will be mentioned approaches 1. So other memes, like “jumping the shark,” or “wardrobe malfunction,” or “no one expects the Spanish Inquisition,” etc. etc., will eventually come up the longer a discussion goes on. Imagine you are dealing hands in a poker game: the longer you do it, the more likely that any particular hand will be dealt. That’s not news. So why focus on that particular (Nazi) hand?

  • Dale A. Wood

    Dadgum it venqax, you are just being argumentative again!
    You knew what I meant, and all you were doing was being a little putz, to use a convenient Yiddish word.

    When I say that Nazism is the officially-accepted spelling, I mean to just go read 15 books about the Nazi era of Germany, incluging THE RISE AND FALL OF THE THIRD REICH, and at least 10 good American and Canadian dictionaries, and CRUSADE IN EUROPE by Dwight Eisenhower.

    “Ski” is an English word, and it has been for centuries. This word was adopted from German long ago, where the word is spelled “Schi”, and from the Scandinavian languages.
    Also, note that I wrote “It is very difficult to find ANY English words…” and I did not say “impossible”. I really find it to be despicable for anyone to go around twisting what I said, and you owe EVERYONE here a deep apology.
    In German, the word “Schi” refers to the device, and the activity is called “Schilaufen”, which translates literally as “running on skis”.
    We are lucky that the German noun for golf is “Golf” and the noun for tennis is “Tennis”. However, the verb for “to golf” is “Golf spielen”.
    The German word for “gulf” is also “Golf”, but the gender of this word is different.
    D.A.W.

  • Roberta B.

    @Katherine Macedon So, is a meme the same as a cliché?

  • Dale A. Wood

    Venqax: notice that I very carefully stated “Marxism-Leninism” communism.
    Now you want to twist what I meant into “Stalinism”, which was VERY different from Marxism-Leninism. Stalin seized his opportunity to pervert Leninism into Stalinism and to seize dictatorial powers on the right wing. Stalin was evil to the core, and he pushed the U.S.S.R. a light-year away from Marxism-Leninism.

    It is also a historical fact that Lenin perceived the evil in Stalin, and Lenin wanted to get rid of him (shooting, sent to Siberia, whatever).
    Unfortunately, before Lenin could carry out that plan, he was struck by a series of strokes within a year or two, and the next thing that the Soviets knew, Lenin was dead. That opened up the door for Stalin to seize power in his own evil, murderous way.
    It stayed that way until Stalin suffered from a heart attack in 1953 and he died. Also, the death of Stalin was one of the major factors that pushed the North Koreans and the Red Chinese into signing an armistice (cease-fire) with the United Nations forces. This happened in June or July 1953. Otherwise, the Korean War would have lasted even longer, with the communists having no chance of winning because the U.N. forces were dominant in the air – mostly the U.S. Air Force – and also dominant on the sea – mostly the U.S. Navy, but with some help from the Australians, Canadians, New Zealanders, and British.
    D.A.W.

  • venqax

    Roberta B: No, a meme is a French mime. No one knows they pronounce it like that because they don’t say anything.

    Katherine Macedon: It’s the context that makes the Nazi comparison relevant, not the literal principle of probability (which you are right about). The idea conveyed is that in heated discussions involving emotional and strongly-held opinions and POVs, especially regarding politics and public policy, inevitably someone accuses the other of emulating Hitler or the Nazis as an extreme example of power gone awry, or undemocratic and inhumane behavior, evil intentions, or an indisputably “wrong” position that is impossible to defend, etc. It’s relevant because it is often intended to instantly delegitimize the other’s position with and appeal to emotion rather than a reasoned argument. Kind of like saying, “Well you are just a bad person, so obviously your opinions are not worthwhile.” Obviously, any random phrase or cliche doesn’t have this effect.

  • venqax

    Is it dadgum, dad-gum, or dad gum? I will say this DAW, you are a fun guy. Sometimes. It’s the little rather than the putz part I would protest, but then I’m not sure there is such a thing as a convenient Yiddish word anyway. You post so much erroneous information that someone has to say something, lest it get passed on as received wisdom. E.g., ski is not German. It is a word that got adopted directly from Norwegian into English a little over a hundred years ago. It does not follow English spelling conventions, obviously. My question– if you’d read it—was, “when did we lose the second I?”, not, “did we”. You proceeded to “answer” a question never asked. Then, I observed that it really should be spelled with 2 i’s, all else being equal, and said why I think so. I am sorry this upsets you so much.

    As for your meanderings about rightist and leftist politics, it’s really off the subject for this site. But the inaccuracy of your “material” is often outdone only by your conviction and earnestness in presenting it. The idea that Nazis are “far, extreme right wing” is simply a popular belief that you don’t address at all. The arguments that Rich Wheeler made re the fact that they could be considered left-wing is a valid one. One that is brought up by political scientists pretty regularly, actually. What do you think makes something right or left politically? You don’t say, which aids my point. The fact that Nazis and communists hated each other is irrelevant. As I said, they had a lot more in common with each other than either did with civilized notions of western democracy. Please calm down, you might overheat.

  • Julie R Butler

    venax,

    It is not off the objective to discuss the meanings of words and how they are used. I welcome this discussion of the use of the words “Nazism” and “fascism” because they are so misused and misunderstood. I feel ill every time I see someone mis-characterizing the Nazis as being leftists. They were antisemitic nationalists, above all else, where a great deal of the desire to nationalize and otherwise control business and industry came from the perception that the Jews controlled the banking and financial world and, just like the communists, were out to destroy the German identity. You make a grave mistake in conflating left-wing statism with all-out totalitarianism and anti-individualism while not recognizing that right-wing politics, with its nationalism, tinges of racism, state-sponsored Christian moralism, corporate collision, etc, has fascist tendencies of its own.

    It’s complicated – which is why Godwin’s Law is so troubling. People are mindlessly flinging these terms around and/or picking out interpretations based on hyperbole, thus destroying meaningful discussion.

  • Ben

    The statement that Godwin’s law was made in reference to on-line discussion does not sound right for 1990; more likely it was about general debate and argument. 1990 was still the era of an angry typewriter clacking out a letter to the editor.

  • venqax

    @Julie R Butler: Yes it is complex. Far too complex to just mindlessly say the Nazis were right-wing. Nothing is a discussion if one party is simply wrong with their facts. The writers in question, and possibly you, simply don’t understand what right vs left means in a political context. They erroneously criticized Rich Wheeler who had his facts basically correct. Just being anti-semitic doesn’t make someone fascist or Nazi. Who are the modern defenders of Israel?– not the left. And favoring the nationalization and control of industry and business is VERY much a signal trait of the political left. Who is it that wants to the state to take over the medical system, disarm the public, keep children in state-run schools, and increase the welfare state? Not the right. Those were all at the top of the Third Reich’s to-do list. True, the Nazis were ultra-nationalistic, traditionalist and militaristic which are more hallmark right-wing traits. But the overall goal of the State controlling all aspects of public life— “statism” above private property and a capitalist economy, and hostility toward democracy– is the left’s stock-in-trade which is shared by the most extreme elements of the right, like the Nazis. Most of the worst traits of the Nazis were the same—not the opposite—of the communist regimes. The closest thing we have now to an opposite of statism is libertarianism, and libertarians are usually considered right, not left wing. Hence the reason is was pointed out that about the only thing “right-wing” about the Nazis was their extreme nationalism and emphasis on charismatic leaders. Otherwise there isn’t anything you accuse the Nazis of that isn’t at least as true of the Soviets or the PRC regime. Popular belief, hence Godwin’s reference, is simply conditioned to the notion that the Nazis were uniquely bad and a lot like conservatives.

    Incidentally, a lot or Christian pastors, priests nad nuns in the Camps and mass graves would’ve been perplexed that the Nazis were about Christian moralism.

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