Arts & Culture

I Seem To Be A Verb: 18 Years of Godwin’s Law

The anniversary of Hitler's death—just ten days after the anniversary of his birthday (which reminds me that he celebrated his final birthday in a bunker in Berlin)—is as good an occasion as any other for me to reflect once more … Read More

By / April 30, 2008

The anniversary of Hitler's death—just ten days after the anniversary of his birthday (which reminds me that he celebrated his final birthday in a bunker in Berlin)—is as good an occasion as any other for me to reflect once more about Godwin's Law. This one-off creation of mine, like the Energizer Bunny, keeps on going and going. If Godwin's Law had been a child, this year it would be old enough to vote. I can't say I anticipated that Godwin's Law, which states that, "As an online discussion continues, the probability of a reference or comparison to Hitler or to Nazis approaches 1," would last this long or that it would propagate into popular culture to the extent that it has. But I'm mostly gratified that it has done so. 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 Holocaust. The genesis of the idea came from my reading Primo Levi's books in the 1980s. I had grown up with a pop-culture knowledge of World War II, and I had even seen many of the photos of the death camps, with their emaciated bodies stacked like cordwood and the haunted, piercing eyes of the skeletal inmates who survived. But Levi's writings brought the experience home to me—they helped me understand better what the experience must have been like for prisoners. In their accounts of the behavior of those who operated the camps and conducted the mass murders, I had a glimmer of insight into the psyches of the Nazis and their henchmen as well. Their consistent pattern of humiliating and dehumanizing Jews and other perceived enemies of the Nazi state—both before sending them to the camps and after they arrived—told me that, on some level, they recognized that what they were doing was a crime against humanity. Hence their psychological need to make their victims seem less human before exterminating them. It was difficult, after attempting a greater psychological understanding of why the Holocaust happened and how it was conducted, to tolerate the glib comparisons I encountered on the Internet (Usenet in those days). My sense of moral outrage at this phenomenon found an outlet after I read an article in in the Whole Earth Review about memes—viral ideas—that inspired me to create a kind of counter-measure. And so I created Godwin's Law and began to repeat it in online forums whenever I encountered a silly comparison of someone or something to Hitler or to the Nazis. As the handy Wikipedia entry on Godwin's Law (crafted by someone else long before I ever came to work for the Wikimedia Foundation) points out, this was a deliberate experiment in memetics. In other words, I was trying to jumpstart Godwin's Law into becoming a self-propagating idea. By all accounts, I succeeded. The Law turned out to be more successful at propagating itself than I could ever have predicted. Far more people have heard about "Godwin's Law" than have heard about me, although Wikipedia handily links us together nowadays (another link that predates my arrival at Wikipedia as a hobbyist editor and later as an employee). That's fine by me. Still, I sometimes have some ambivalence about the Law, which is far beyond my control these days. Like most parents, I'm frequently startled by the unexpected turn my 18-year-old offspring takes. (I'm happy to say that my 15-year-old offspring—my daughter, Ariel Godwin—surprises me at least as often, although invariably in happier ways.) When I saw the photographs from Abu Ghraib, for example, I understood instantly the connection between the humiliations inflicted there and the ones the Nazis imposed upon death camp inmates—but I am the one person in the world least able to draw attention to that valid comparison. Overall, though, I'm content that the Law has as much popcult traction as it does. My feeling is that "Never Again" loses its meaning if we don't regularly remind ourselves of the terrible inflection point marked in human culture by the Holocaust. Sure, there has been genocide before that point and genocide after it, but to see an advanced, highly civilized nation warp itself into something capable of creating such a horror—well, I think Nazi Germany does count as a first in that regard. And to a great extent, our challenge as human beings who live in the period after that inflection point is that we no longer can be passive about history—we have a moral obligation to do what we can to prevent such events from ever happening again. Key to that obligation is remembering, which is what Godwin's Law is all about.

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