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Godwin’s Law

There is a well known “law” which is often mentioned in Internet discussion forums called “Godwin’s Law”. It is the humorous observation made by Mike Godwin in 1989 which states: “as an online discussion grows longer, the probability of a comparison involving Nazis or Hitler approaches 1.” (The number 1 here is a more technically correct term for 100%)

The law is also known as Godwin’s Rule of Nazi Analogies or Godwin’s Law of Nazi Analogies and is sometimes extended with the rule that anyone daring to mention the Nazis automatically loses the argument he is involved in.

For me there are times when the temptation to include a Nazi analogy is just too strong and if you search this blog for terms like “Nazi” you will find many posts. More recently I have at least made an effort to note that those statements possibly contravene Godwin’s Law!

I am not an absolutist when it comes to following laws, and that includes both real laws and humorous observations which have been called laws such as Godwin’s. I think it is useful to be aware that by making analogies with Nazism you might be reaching a point where you could be accused of hyperbole or making an appeal to an inappropriately emotional statement instead of facts, but I also think Nazi analogies are sometimes useful.

So it’s important to think about Godwin’s law when you are writing or otherwise communicating on a subject. I wonder if New Zealand Labour politician, Megan Woods, knows about it. She recently tweeted the following message: “Hitler had a pretty clear manifesto that he campaigned and won on … does this make what he did OK?”. This was in relation to the National government’s habit of using the fact that it won the last election as an excuse to carry out any policy it wants, no matter how unpopular that policy might be (specifically related to partial asset sales in this case).

In fact, despite the possible contravention of Godwin’s Law I think this message has a lot of merit. She actually makes a good point and I think her subsequent apology was totally unnecessary. Of course from a political perspective it is often useful to not say what you really think even when that opinion can be successfully defended. And sometimes it’s just better not to mention subjects such as Naziism!

But getting back to the underlying question: does a victory in a democratic election give a government the right to carry out unpopular policies, especially if those policies were well indicated in the campaign? I think there would be a case to say the answer is yes: the Nats have a perfect right to carry out the sales because that is effectively what people voted for.

But on the other hand people vote in elections for many different reasons and, probably of more relevance in this case, they fail to vote for different reasons as well. National’s victory at the last election was more the result of apathy from the left than enthusiasm from the right. So there is also a good case to say that there is no good mandate for the sales.

Whatever your opinion on the subject the comparison that Woods made between asset sales and invading Poland clearly involves a huge escalation in the severity of the action being considered. But sometimes an extreme example makes the underlying principle more clear and I think there was nothing at all wrong with the tweet. Woods also tweeted: “Point is that simply stating something before an election does not make it right! Example is extreme but exposes logic”. Exactly.

In fact if you look at the wording there is no suggestion that the Nats are acting like Nazis so the complaints that many people have against it are ridiculous. But as I said above, references to the Nazis do seem to unleash criticism based more on emotion than rationality so for that reason alone it might have been best to avoid it.

In some ways I think the asset sales might be quite a good thing. Despite the fact that National itself has good voter support all of its support parties are dead or dying (and rightly so because they are universally awful). National will almost certainly lose the next election because of its arrogance on subjects such as asset sales and it is unlikely to get back into power quickly because of its lack of partners.

If we can survive to the next election with out the Nats messing the country up too much we should be able to expect 9 years of decent center-left governments. I agree that long term predictions like this are fraught with difficulties and who knows what international or local political disasters might interfere with that simplistic prediction but I still think it is a point worth reflecting on.

And now just to finish off this discussion I want to violate Godwin’s Law by making another observation: there are similarities between prime minister John Key and Hitler. Both were good at manipulating the population into believing their ideas even though they had little real merit. Both used the dire condition of their respective country’s economies as an excuse to introduce ultimately counter-productive policies. And both used harsh actions against unpopular minorities as a tool to gain endorsement from their more totalitarian base of supporters. Yes, I think Megan Woods had more of a point than even she realised!

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