As an online discussion grows longer, the probability of a comparison involving Nazis or Hitler approaches 1. – Mike Godwin
Most well-informed internet users are familiar with Godwin’s Law, a humorous observation which acknowledges the fact that since the Nazi regime in general and Hitler in particular are widely viewed as the very worst recent examples of human behavior imaginable, they are often invoked when a critic or debater wishes to vilify his opponent in the most extreme manner possible. Mike Godwin has written (both in articles and in his book Cyber Rights) that it is precisely because such comparisons are sometimes appropriate (as in discussions about propaganda, eugenics or oppressive regimes) that he formulated the “law” or observation, so as to call attention to the fact that frivolous use of such analogies tends to “rob the valid comparisons of their impact.”
He is particularly critical of Holocaust comparisons; “Although deliberately framed as if it were a law of nature or of mathematics, its purpose 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 The Holocaust.” A perfect example of this is in the recent tendency of trafficking fanatics to brand those who question their wild exaggerations as the equivalent of Holocaust deniers: To compare the ancient evil of slavery with the modern one of genocide is merely asinine, but to compare those who demand basic proof for extraordinary claims with fanatics who deny overwhelming physical and documentary evidence and thousands of eyewitness accounts is both highly hypocritical and astonishingly irrational.
But Godwin’s clear statements about the intended application of his “law” don’t prevent some people from attempting to censor others’ arguments by invoking it even when the comparisons it is leveled against are in fact valid. What makes such misuse more worthy of note than other sleazy argumentation tactics is what it says about people’s perception of the Nazi phenomenon: By pretending the Nazis were so evil that NO comparison to them, however apt, is reasonable, we essentially say that Nazism was some sort of fluke that could never happen again…and that, sadly, is completely untrue. People tend to overlook the fact that the Nazis were a legitimate political party duly elected to leadership of an advanced, modern country by the exact same democratic process as leaders are elected in every Western nation today. Hitler was not a military dictator who seized power in some bloody coup d’état but a politician who gained his position by popular vote, and all of his actions as chief executive were 100% legal under the laws enacted by the German legislature. The Nazis came to power by the same means as politicians always come to power everywhere (namely by telling the people what they wanted to hear), and the German people accepted the militaristic oppression of the Nazis for the exact reason that the British and American people have accepted the abridgement of their civil rights and ever-expanding police powers: they valued the illusion of “safety” over the reality of liberty.
What this means is that whatever we may think of the Nazi’s morality, it’s impossible to fault their legality. Morals are principles which transcend human behavior, while laws are merely arbitrary rules invented by eminently-fallible humans in order to control others and/or impose their own personal views of right action. Some laws are moral and many immoral, but the majority are simply amoral; however, even moral or amoral laws can be (and often are) used for the highly immoral purpose of exerting external control over inoffensive individuals who neither desire nor require that control. And because this is so, the act of agreeing to serve as a policeman in any regime is at best an amoral one, because in doing so the individual agrees to enforce (by violence if necessary) all of the laws passed by his government, whether he agrees with them or not; he abdicates his personal morality to those in authority and allows his actions to be dictated by others, even if he knows those actions to be wrong.
At Nuremberg, Western society established the legal precedent that “I was only following orders” is not a valid defense against wrongdoing even if the offender was only a low-level functionary in an authoritarian system, yet how often do we hear police abuses defended with phrases like “they’re just doing their job” or “cops don’t make the laws, they just enforce them”? If a cop is tasked with enforcing a law he knows to be immoral, it is his duty as a moral man to refuse that order even if it means his job. If he agrees with an immoral law then he is also immoral, and if he enforces a law he knows to be wrong even more so. The law of the land in Nazi-era Germany was for Jews and other “undesirables” to be sent to concentration camps, and the maltreatment of the prisoners was encouraged and even ordered by those in charge; any German soldier or policeman enforcing those laws was the exact moral equivalent of any soldier or policeman under any other democratically-elected government enforcing the laws enacted by that regime. Either “I was only following orders” is a valid defense, or it isn’t; either we agree that hired enforcers are absolved from responsibility because “they’re just doing their jobs”, or we don’t. You can’t have it both ways, and sometimes Nazi analogies are entirely appropriate.
(Originally posted on The Honest Courtesan on March 5th, 2011)