Godwin's law (also Godwin's rule of Nazi analogies) is an adage in Internet culture that was originated by Mike Godwin in 1990. The law states that:
- As an online discussion grows longer, the probability of a comparison involving Nazis or Hitler approaches 1 (i.e. certainty).
There is a tradition in many Usenet newsgroups that once such a comparison is made, the discussion (thread) is over and whoever mentioned the Nazis has automatically lost whatever argument was in progress. In addition, it is considered poor form to invoke the law explicitly. Godwin's law thus practically guarantees the existence of an upper bound on thread length in those groups. Many people understand Godwin's law to mean this, although (as is clear from the statement of the law above) this is not the original formulation.
Nevertheless, there is also a widely-recognised codicil that any intentional invocation of Godwin's law for its thread-ending effects will be unsuccessful. See "Quirk's exception" below.
Godwin's law is named after Mike Godwin, who was legal counsel for the Electronic Frontier Foundation in the early 1990s, when the law was first popularised. (Godwin is now the legal director at Wikipedia.)
Finding the "meme" of Nazi comparisons on Usenet both illogical and offensive, Godwin established the law as a "counter-meme," a term Godwin expressly uses in his 1994 article about Godwin's Law (see external link below). The law's memetic function is not to end discussions (or even to classify them as "old"), but to make participants in a discussion more aware of whether a comparison to Nazis or Hitler is appropriate, or is simply a rhetorical overreach.
Many people have extended Godwin's law to imply that the invoking of the Nazis as a debating tactic (in any argument not directly related to World War II or the Holocaust) automatically loses the argument, simply because the nature of these events is such that any comparison to any event less serious than genocide, ethnic cleansing or extinction is invalid and in poor taste.
Richard Sexton maintains that the law is a formalisation of his October 16, 1989 post 
- You can tell when a USENET discussion is getting old when one of the participents (sic) drags out Hitler and the Nazis.
Strictly speaking, however, this is not so, since the actual text of Godwin's law does not state that such a reference or comparison makes a discussion "old," or, for that matter, that such a reference or comparison means that a discussion is over.
Objections and counter-arguments
One common objection to the invocation of Godwin's law is that sometimes using Hitler or the Nazis is a perfectly apt way of making a point. For instance, if one is debating the relative merits of a particular leader, and someone says something like, "He's a good leader, look at the way he's improved the economy", one could reply, "Just because he improved the economy doesn't make him a good leader. Even Hitler improved the economy." Some would view this as a perfectly acceptable comparison. One uses Hitler as a well-known example of an extreme case that requires no explanation to prove that a generalisation is not universally true.
Some would argue, however, that Godwin's law applies especially to the situation mentioned above, as it portrays an inevitable appeal to emotions as well as holding an implied ad hominem attack on the subject being compared to, which are classic logical fallacies. Hitler, on a semiotic level, has far too many negative connotations associated with him to be used as a good comparison to anything besides other despotic dictators. Thus, Godwin's law holds even in making comparisons to normal leaders that, on the surface, would seem to be a reasonable comparison.
Godwin's standard answer to this objection is to note that Godwin's law does not dispute whether, in a particular instance, a reference or comparison to Hitler or the Nazis might be apt. It is precisely because such a reference or comparison may sometimes be appropriate, Godwin has argued, that hyperbolic overuse of the Hitler/Nazi comparison should be avoided. Avoiding such hyperbole, he argues, is a way of ensuring that when valid comparisons to Hitler or Nazis are made, such comparisons have the appropriate semantic impact.
When discussing with actual neo-Nazis, Godwin's law should not typically apply, as Hitler is bound to come up on one or the other side of the argument sooner rather than later. It is also interesting that, among Nazis, a "reverse Godwin's law" exists where, as an argument devolves into a flame war (people verbally attacking one another rather than discussing a topic, never mind how heatedly), there is an increasingly greater probability that one or the other side will invoke a comparison to Jews as an insult, much the same as a comparison to Hitler or Nazis is regularly an insulting one.
Fundamentally, Godwin's Law serves to exclude normative considerations from a positivist discussion. Frequently, a reference to Hitler is used as an evocation of evil. Thus a discussion which is proceeding on a positivist examination of facts is considered terminated when this objective consideration is transformed into a normative discussion of subjective right and wrong. It is exacerbated by the frequent fallacy, "Hitler did A, therefore A is evil." (Reductio ad Hitlerum) However, as noted, the exceptions to Godwin's Law are when Hitler is invoked in a positivist manner (i.e. objective facts) that does not have a normative dimension and is therefore permitted.
- Godwin's Law FAQ
- Usenet posting: Mike Godwin restates the Usenet variant of Godwin's Law (Aug 1991)
- Godwin's Law entry in the Jargon File
- Meme, Counter-meme, Mike Godwin, Wired 2.10, October 1994 - Godwin discusses his Law
- EFF page on Godwin's Law and reformulations
- ADL calls added definition of nazi offensive
- Mike Godwin runs a blog called "Godwin's Law."
- Usenet posting: Richard Sexton's original post (Oct 1989)
- Jurisimprudence: a listing of various fandom and Internet debate laws similar to Godwin's Law
- Reason magazine, 14 July 2005. "Hands Off Hitler!: It's time to repeal Godwin's Law".
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