Recently, I had a discussion with someone in which I took a position that is not representative of my actual thought on a matter, against a rather … energetic opposing point. In it, Godwin’s Law was in full evidence, along with some corollaries; partly inspired by the corollaries, I’d like to propose an addendum to Godwin’s Law, with an impact on derivatives.
It was not a happy discussion; let’s just say that I would be relegated to a ghetto if my esteemed opponent would have stuck to his guns – and, I suppose, if I claimed actual allegiance to the argument I was posing. I was playing Devil’s Advocate, because while I don’t fully agree with the argument I was making, I can empathize with those who would.
So: Godwin’s Law. Basically, the Law says that as an argument goes on, there’s a greater and greater (and greater) likelihood that one side of the argument will invoke Hitler or the Nazis somehow. One can imagine a discussion, with tracked probabilities:
|Source||Statement||Probability of Hitler’s name being invoked|
|Jim||I like peanut butter.||0.000001|
|John||I do too. I like strawberry jelly.||0.0000012|
|Jim||Strawberry jelly’s not bad, but I prefer raspberry.||0.00000121|
|John||Raspberries have the larger seeds, though, and they get stuck in my teeth. And I like the large strawberry chunks.||0.00000122|
|Jim||You only get the strawberry chunks if it’s real strawberry, though.||0.00000125|
|John||Well, maybe they could put strawberry chunks in with artificial flavoring.||0.0000015|
|Jim||yeah, but then you might as well use real strawberries in the first place.||0.000005|
|John||Maybe they’re running short of real strawberries. They could use genetic modification to help them grow faster or in more places.||0.0004|
|Jim||I worry that engineering plants to be more hardy makes them interact poorly with the rest of the ecosystem.||0.08|
|John||Ecosystems have greater concerns than genetic modification, though, especially if you don’t factor in direct DNA manipulation.||0.6|
|Jim||HITLER THOUGHT EUGENICS WERE GOOD! HOW DARE YOU DECLARE GLOBAL WARMING DATA INVALID!||1|
There’s a corollary that suggests that the person who falls to Godwin’s Law automatically loses the argument. It’s not always true, of course; sometimes Hitler is in scope of the discussion (for example, if Jim and John were actually talking about fascism, or World War II), but Godwin’s Law – according to Godwin – was inspired partially by a desire to get participants to actually think about what they were saying, instead of blithely throwing Hitler in, to win by a horrible association.
For example, from our example discussion above, genetic modification may or may not be a bad thing, but Jim tried to associate genetic modification with Hitler, which would poison the well of any argument using genetic modification.
Now, all of this is ordinary and normal for Godwin’s Law. So where’s my suggestion?
I thought you’d never ask. (I also wondered if you’d get this far.)
The argument in which I participated, for example, eventually did invoke Hitler, but it led off with another attempt to poison the well: the Taliban.
Now, the Taliban is a difficult association to offer, because it’s still a viable political group; some people still support the Taliban’s political point of view. Therefore, an association might be an actively offensive reference. (“How dare you associate the Taliban with people who like Rice Krispies!,” as opposed to people who like Rice Krispies being offended by their association with the Taliban.)
However, I think that with limited and agreed scope, that Godwin’s Law can include the Taliban, perhaps the North Korean government, perhaps the Lord’s Resistance Army; I really don’t think that my concept of where the expansion should take place is really the important point.
I think that the important concept is the expansion itself, to require that invocation of such groups inspire some thought on the part of the one making the association.