The Cause of Godwin’s Law

Godwin’s Law states that if any Internet conversation goes on long enough, the probability that someone will draw a comparison to Hitler approaches 1. In non-pseudo-probabilistic language, that means that people use comparisons to Hitler a lot. I was recently poked for exhibiting Godwin’s Law. At first, I took umbrage–it’s a rather juvenile response to ignore the content of someone’s argument in order to poke them for being … I don’t know, unoriginal? Predictable? Banal?

But it got me to thinking–Godwin’s Law is a purely empirical pattern, like the observation that the stars and planets follow certain predictable paths in the night sky. But most everyone believes that patterns have underlying causes (actually, I claim that everyone believes this unless they are “educated” out of that belief). For example, the patterns in the night sky are due to the law of gravity acting on large extraterrestrial bodies. Can we come up with a similar cause behind Godwin’s Law?

Here is my answer: modern Western society has become so morally fragmented that there are almost no examples left of large-scale bad behavior that almost everyone knows about and agrees on. If you bring up the Reign of Terror, the Armenian Genocide, the Bataan Death March, or the Japanese rape of China, most people won’t know what you are talking about. If you bring up the mass murders of Stalin, Mao, or Pol Pot, then a left-winger is likely to offer justifications, and you will not get your point across. If you bring up the Crusades, the American treatment of the Indians, or American involvement in Vietnam, a right-winger is likely to offer justifications.

So, when you find yourself debating a stranger who you know nothing about, and you want to make a point by drawing a comparison to an event everyone knows about and agrees was horrific, then there are only two things that you can reasonably expect the other person to agree on: the Holocaust and the American history of slavery. There are a few Holocaust deniers and slavery justifiers around, but they are so rare as to be inconsequential, so those are your two choices.

This causal explanation for Godwin’s Law suggests a more general law with Godwin’s Law as a corollary:

Gudeman’s Law: In any internet forum, f, involving moral/social/political discussions among relative strangers, there will be a characteristic set, E(f), of Great Evils that are used for comparison and illustration within that group. This set will match the common political leanings of the members of the group.

Godwin’s Corollary: In any internet forum, f, involving moral/social/political discussions among relative strangers, if f is populated mostly by native English speakers, then E(f) will include Hitler. If there are no other political commonalities within the group, then E(f) will include only Hitler.

American Corollary: In any internet forum, f, involving moral/social/political discussions among relative strangers, if f is populated mostly by Americans, then E(f) will include American slavery. If there are no other political commonalities within the group, then the only other member of E(f) will be Hitler.