Photo: Lane Hartwell/Wikimedia
Last week, the president of the NRA compared Governor Andrew Cuomo to Adolf Hitler — a man responsible for the worst atrocities in human history — because of New York’s new gun-control laws. Such remarks, while absurd, are hardly rare, novel, or new. All the way back in 1990, a lawyer who has been on the Internet longer than you have, Mike Godwin, introduced the now widely familiar Godwin’s Law, which predicted the inevitability of a Hitler or Nazi comparison arising during any online debate. Godwin, who lives in D.C. and works as a senior policy adviser at Internews, spoke to Daily Intelligencer about how Godwin’s Law has changed through the years, whether it will still exist in the year 3000, and whether it will be mentioned in the first or second sentence of his obituary.
When you first proposed Godwin’s Law, it stated, simply, “As an online discussion grows longer, the probability of a comparison involving Nazis or Hitler approaches 1.” In other words, such a comparison is, eventually, inevitable. Would you give it the same definition today?
The only thing I would say is that it turns out not to be limited to online discussions. Other than that, it still seems to have some observational value. It’s the worst thing anybody can think of, so if you have some kind of rhetorical escalation with someone you disagree with, it’s sort of easy to go there if you’re not very reflective about what you’re saying.
At what point do you think Hitler and the Nazis will no longer be the go-to comparison comparison, for horrible people, horrible governments, or whatever. I imagine that, in the year 3000, for example, people might not still be doing that.
Well, one thing I think of in comparison to this is that, when I was growing up, people often said, “He’s to the right of Attila the Hun.” It doesn’t even really make sense to talk about Attila the Hun in terms of left/right politics, but when they talk about Attila the Hun — and they still do, from time to time — [they do so] without any clear sense of any historical context at all.
The thing it seemed to me worth doing was to prevent the Holocaust from turning into a cliché, or into a handy arrow in someone’s rhetorical quiver. I was entering into the online world pretty deeply in the eighties, and I was offended by how glibly these comparisons came up — almost invariably inappropriately. My feeling was that the more people got into this habit, the less likely that people remembered the historical context of all this. And as you know, one of the injunctions of Holocaust historians is that we must never forget, we have to remember. And I just thought, Well, I’m going to do a little experiment and see if I could make people remember.
I don’t know if this would be a corollary to Godwin’s Law, or if the law has transformed completely, but it’s now come to mean that whoever makes a Nazi comparison first has automatically lost the debate.
I think of it instead as a mutation. The way it mutated is that some people inferred that by the time you go to the Hitler comparisons, it was really hard to have a fruitful discussion or exchange of ideas, which I think is mostly true. And that got reduced to the idea that you had hit what the French call le point Godwin.
Do you think that the frequency of Nazi comparisons has gotten worse since you first introduced the law?
Well, I think what happened is that we take more note of it now. I don’t think it’s worse. I think it’s a little bit like what happens in culture if you take away stigma for rape victims, and then the incidence of reported rape goes up. Does that mean that rape has actually increased, or just the reports? And I think what we’ve done is by sort of tagging this kind of rhetorical excess as something that is notable for being excessive, it gets remarked on quite a bit.
Do you happen to know a lot about Hitler? Are you a Hitler expert?
Oh, no. I think there are probably countless watchers of the Hitler — pardon me — the History Channel who know much more about Hitler than I do. I’ve read some of the classic texts, but I’m not a Hitler expert. Which is just as well, because my name is already uncomfortably linked to Hitler anyway, and if I were, like, publishing papers or doing Hitler scholarship, it would just be worse.
Do you get inundated with clips from friends and family when there are Nazi comparisons in the news?
Relatives don’t really show me any examples, but there was a point where my daughter, who is about to turn 20, when she was in her early teens, she thought it was a hoot when she was mad at me to compare me to Hitler. She’d look at me with a very mischievous look and say, “You know, you’re acting just like Hilter.” Actually what happens now is that, every now and then somebody discovers that I’m on Twitter, and I’ll say something like there’s been an increase in prosecutions for a certain crime, and they’ll say, “You know who else increased prosecutions?”
Right, that’s the new Twitter joke.
It is the new Twitter joke. And I swear people send this to me — I think they imagine that they’re the first person who’s ever said it. Which is in its way sort of sad. But I feel sad for them; I’m okay with it.
What does it generally feel like having a law named after you?
Well, I named it.
Sure, but it’s something often reserved for, you know, Isaac Newton or Albert Einstein or some other titan of science.
The way to properly understand it is a branding exercise, or a hermetic experiment, rather than compare it to a law in the sense of being an observation like the laws of physics. The purpose of it, although I think there is a certain observational dimension to it — the purpose of it was not to state something that was necessarily objectively true about the way people talk. The purpose of it was the label and to implicitly ridicule, in a reductive way, people who fell into these lazy, glib comparisons. So its purpose is fundamentally rhetorical, rather than scientific or observational. So rather than being like Newton’s Laws of Motion, it’s more like the maxim, “Keep it simple, stupid.” It’s a way of tagging and thinking about stuff and recognizing a phenomenon that signifies, in most cases, some lazy thinking.
Do you ever come across Nazi comparisons in discussions of American politics that you find legitimate?
You know … sure. American history has its own flirtations with fascism and racism and militarism, and people have believed in any and all of these things, so with certain individuals it has to come up from time to time. So it’s not the case that the comparison is never valid. It’s just that, when you make the comparison, think through what you’re saying, because there’s a lot of baggage there, and if you’re going to invoke a historical period with that much baggage you better be ready to carry it.
Have you personally ever compared anyone to a Nazi, or Hitler?
That’s good. Do you ever throw your weight around during Internet arguments? Like, “I knew you were going to compare me to Hitler because I AM MIKE GODWIN.”
I never do that.
First of all, I don’t claim to have any authority over what Godwin’s Law means or how it’s used. On a weekly basis, people ask me, “Is this an incidence of Godwin’s Law?” And I just say, “Well, it doesn’t feel like it to me,” but Godwin’s Law is like having a child: It’s now more than 21 years old; it’s out of my control.
Does it bother you or does it please you that Godwin’s Law will probably be the first sentence in your obituary?
I think that there’s at least a reasonable chance that it’ll be in the second sentence.
What’s in the first sentence?
I have done other work. [Laughs.] You know, I was the first lawyer for the Electronic Frontier Foundation, and I’ve done a lot of work on civil liberties and freedom of expression for years and years.
You sure that’s going to be in the first sentence, though?
No, I’m not sure! I think I have a shot.
When did you start to notice Godwin’s Law catching on?
Well, I promoted it somewhat indirectly in an essay I wrote that was published in Wired in 1994 called “Meme, Counter-meme.” And that was, like, in the second year of Wired’s publication, and at that time, everybody who was into Internet issues was reading Wired. So I knew that by getting an article that at least referenced Godwin’s Law in what was at that time sort of the journal of record for the Internet, that it would propogate, that it would explode. I thought that it would happen, and it did happen.
Have you been able to monetize Godwin’s Law directly in any way?
No, not directly. And I certainly wish that anyone who found it useful would send me a dollar. I think it would get a lot of dollars.
Maybe anyone who violates it should send you a dollar, like a swear jar.
Yeah, but the people who violate it are not the kind of people who want to send me a dollar. [Laughs.]
In the time since you created Godwin’s Law, you’ve gotten a lot more Internet experience. Do you have any other new Internet laws that you’d like to introduce, Nazi-related or otherwise?
Every now and then I’ll have a thought that I think might be codifiable into some kind of observation, but almost invariably I find that someone had preceded me. You know, we got a lot of people on the Internet now; it’s hard for me to notice something that no one else has noticed.
This interview has been condensed and edited for your reading pleasure.