He may not have realised it, but when Michael McDowell compared a Fine Gael TD to a Nazi, he was breaking one of the basic rules of debate.
Put simply, Godwin’s Law (also known as Godwin’s Rule of Nazi Analogies) says that as time goes on, every argument will reach a point when one of the debaters compares his opponent to Adolf Hitler or his cronies.
For many people, the rule means whoever uses the Nazis as a debating tactic automatically loses the argument, simply because these events were so horrible that any comparison is invalid and in poor taste.
Mike Godwin, an American lawyer working for the Electronic Frontier Foundation, came up with the rule in 1990. Finding the meme of Nazi comparisons on Usenet illogical and offensive, Godwin established the law as a counter-meme.
A meme, in case you’re wondering, is an idea that spreads through a population, in much the same way that a gene or a virus does, an infectious idea spreading through a culture. Godwin was appaled at the Nazi meme, the causal use of Hitlers comparison in trivial discourse.
‘Invariably, the comparisons trivialized the horror of the Holocaust and the social pathology of the Nazis. It was a trivialization I found both illogical (Michael Dukakis as a Nazi? Please!) and offensive,’ Godwin wrote in an article for Wired magazine.
‘I set out to conduct an experiment – to build a counter-meme designed to make discussion participants see how they are acting as vectors to a particularly silly and offensive meme…and perhaps to curtail the glib Nazi comparisons.’
‘I developed Godwin’s Law of Nazi Analogies: As an online discussion grows longer, the probability of a comparison involving Nazis or Hitler approaches one.’
Godwin ‘seeded’ the Internet with the rule, adding it to any online discussion which included a gratutious Nazi reference. Soon, online debaters began citing the rule. The counter-meme began to spread – and mutate. One popular version in circulation states the law as ‘Eventually every debate leads to a Nazi comparison – and whoever makes the comparison loses the debate.’
For the moment though, Godwin’s Law in all its forms remains more a part of online culture than old-world debates. Certainly, Minister McDowell, a former luminary of the L&H debating society in his UCD days, seems unaware of it. Even before he compared Richard Bruton to Joseph Goebbels, he attracted controversy by comparing the publishers of Daily Ireland to a Nazi propaganda sheet. The publishers promptly sued.
And in an interview with the Star on Sunday, he told voters ‘not to do what the people of Germany did in the 1930s, when they voted for people who pursued violence as well as politics.’
President Mary McAleese also started a Godwinesque row in early 2005 when she compared sectarianism in Northern Ireland, to the irrational hatred for Jews in Nazi Germany.
And later the same year Unionist politicians denounced Fr Alec Reid, the Redemptorist priest who witnessed IRA decommissioning, after he compared unionists to Nazis. During a public debate in south Belfast, Fr Reid said unionists had politically persecuted Catholics in Northern Ireland for more than 60 years, and added that he believed they were in the same category as the Nazis.
Clearly, the meme still has a way to go.