Wednesday, 31 August 2011

Godwin's Law Must Die - the problem when 1930s Germany really is the only good parallel

On the internet we have a rule. It is called Godwin's law. Godwin's law states that "As an online discussion grows longer, the probability of a comparison involving Nazis or Hitler approaches 1 (100%)."

In the 21 years since Godwin first made this observation, it has been quoted whenever anyone has mentioned Nazis, as a way of saying "You have mentioned Nazis, therefore your argument is ridiculous, therefore you have lost the debate."

The use of Godwin's law to end and win an argument by default has been helpful in keeping arguments from straying into ridiculous comparisons but it also brings a risk; the danger that when a comparable situation does arise, it will be ignored because the comparison cannot be made in argument. Godwin's law has power because of the idea that nothing as bad as the Nazis and the holocaust will ever happen again because we have learnt from what happened in the past. I think that this assumption is foolish and dangerous. Of course such atrocities will happen again. Throughout history we have had bloodthirsty power-hungry leaders of pure evil, over and over again. Pol Pot, Pinochet, Mao, Stalin, Saddam Hussein, and many other leaders have killed thousands, even millions each. Genocides are an relatively frequent occurrence. Groups have been singled out and slaughtered for many different reasons over the centuries, and others will be in the future.

My point here is important so I will state it again. Atrocities of this sort are not rare, have happened and will happen again, and to ridicule anyone making a comparison with the Nazis is to dismiss warnings in a very dangerous way.

Godwin's law and disability rights

I and many other disability rights activists abandoned Godwin's law some time ago. I believe that sick and disabled people in the UK are under attack and are the subject of a government and media smear campaign with the aim of turning public opinion against them. Although the Nazis ran a eugenics programme to eradicate all incurably sick and mentally ill people, (Called Action T4) the comparison that I am drawing is mostly with the propaganda element of that programme and the attitude behind it.

English translation: "60000 RM - this is what this person suffering from hereditary defects costs the Community of Germans during his lifetime. Fellow Citizen, that is your money, too."

The poster seen here speaks of the cost of caring for the disabled person depicted. The same message that is echoed in the cries of "this is taxpayer's money" that we hear from indignant right-wing tabloid papers today. Papers like the Daily Mail and the Express routinely publish every "benefit cheat" story that they can find, with big front page splashes about people with houses and multiple cars.
We even have "Saints and scroungers" from the BBC spreading the hate. Otherwise nice people are being convinced that there are legions of benefit cheats faking their inability to walk or the horrendous pain that makes every activity torture. (Apart from me. For some reason they never mean me.) All of these politicians and journalists seem to be adept at twisting the facts and lying through omission just for the public outrage that they feed on. They also ignore the realities of illness, of having good days and bad days, of choosing to push through pain to have a good day out, or just to pretend to your family that you are having a good day out so as to keep them happy. As Sue Marsh said, by their standards, we are all benefit cheats now.

Black Triangle Campaign recently received an email referring to comments on their forum making comparisons with the past as "dangerous and extreme". The email said: "I am not interested in extreme, left wing politics. I am trying to bring attention to government funded medical tyranny, copied from America, and such extreme comments are a distraction from what's happening at government level. (...) you are playing a very, very, VERY dangerous game with desperate peoples' lives by posting such extreme comments relating to past war time atrocities that belongs in the past. I DO understand why people feel like this but there are many, many very frail people out there and this will cause harm."

I disagree with the author of that email. I've talked before about how government ministers are spreading these stories and lying about the facts and how party special advisors are feeding the media frenzy in a previous blog post. No one here is suggesting that anyone be killed, but our government is focussed on ruthlessly cutting benefit costs along with healthcare and services, all while smiling and announcing that "the most vulnerable will be protected." Well the most vulnerable are having their benefits cut, being told to shit themselves rather than receiving help to get to the toilet, being told to find jobs when they can barely leave the house, losing their homes, and committing suicide. Many of those that aren't in that situation expect to be soon and many have talked of suicide. The policies of this government and the relentless abuse coming from newspapers have people living in fear - if what they fear hasn't already come to pass. In Nazi Germany the killing of sick and disabled people was at first kept well hidden away from any chance of public opposition. What plans are our politicians hiding from us? Is it their intention to force all sick and disabled people out on the streets where they will helpfully freeze to death? Quite honestly, I think that they don't even care as long as it's not their problem. I think it is completely fair to compare this demonisation of the sick and disabled to the start of the Nazi attack on the same.

This has been cross posted from the authors blog at


Daily Mail: Callous judges have sentenced Elaine to life without dignity (Daily Mail link. Yes, I was surprised too.)

DPAC: Elaine McDonald case: Court puts prisoners before the disabled

Purple noise: The beginning of the end (Warning, discusses suicide.)

Guardian: Jobcentre staff 'sent guidelines on how to deal with claimants' suicide threats'


  1. Great post on a topic that really needs confronting.

    It's always worth pointing out to people that the entire *point* of Godwin's law, its very reason for existing in the first place, is to get rid of false comparisons *so that valid comparisons do not lose their impact*. THAT'S THE WHOLE POINT. So when people shriek Godwin at anyone noting this particular parallel, they are actually themselves part of the problem it aims to highlight.

    This lack of research on their part exposes their actions for what they are: an attempt to silence.

  2. Well, they won't bully silence out of me. I just reposted the link to this article. A week ago, I got into a pissing match with some oik online who was doing what you described above - invoking Godwin's Law to try and shut me up. I beat him down then, and if he pops his head up again I'll beat him down again.

  3. I was involved in a thread at Left Foot Forward a couple of months ago, where someone made this comparison. Immediately the cry went up that we were being hysterical. So I challenged the person doing all the shouting to come up with another parallel where a central government set out to deliberately demonise a minority for its own convenience. To give him credit he gave it a good try, but the only nearly workable example he could come up with was the Inquisition, which doesn't work that well as a parallel as a lot of the Inquisition's activities were pretty decentralized. And in any case the Inquisition? That's really so much more positive an example than Nazism, isn't it?

    Similarly on Lib Dem Voice someone took umbrage at someone else describing what was happening to us as a pogrom, with the usual bleating that we were demeaning those who were real victims of pogroms. He went strangely silent when I pointed out that most of the disabled people I know have been talking in similar terms for the past couple of years, and that the Equality Act says that you can only judge the effect of discriminatory harassment by asking those directly affected how they feel about it.

  4. I am in Black Triangle and have commented previously that the use of "pogrom" to describe current welfare reform is NOT accurate and frankly sounds hysterical to the point where I couldn't support a recent BT 'statement of principles' (many of which were simply socialist claptrap). So far the central government is not trying to kill us, when they do, THEN it becomes a pogrom.

    Comparison of the scapegoating of disabled people (both now and in Nazi Germany) is however entirely appropriate and an issue worth pursuing. What on earth is the point of "bringing down the government" when the next one will do nothing differently and was in fact responsible for creating the mess we have now?!

  5. We haven't seen mass mob violence, the traditional definition of a pogrom (I'd argue killing is incidental to a pogrom, rather than a necessity), but we have seen a rise in disability hate crime and a distinct worsening of our acceptance in the general community as a result of rabble-rousing by both tabloids and government, and I'd argue that fits the common understanding of a pogrom if not the technically correct one (consider the difference between the technical definition of decimated and the commonly understood meaning for a parallel example of terms having accepted uses at odds with their technical definition).

  6. i have done my research in a lot of areas that godwin is trying to say. so therefore all i have to say is i understand the power of negative or positive rational statements and the passing on to others these powerful statements. I wish it was easy to have everyone understand and it is possible but very hard. only way to share is to have the knowledge to spread the importance of all these wise mens therories or to some "laws" without leaving holes for arguments.