The ante has been upped on Godwin’s Law, to a current – and disturbing – level.
For those of you who don’t know, Godwin’s Law was first proposed by Mike Godwin in 1990, and states, “As an online discussion grows longer, the probability of a comparison involving Nazis or Hitler approaches 1.” The longer a discussion goes on, the more likely it is that someone will compare something to Hitler or the Nazis, in order to cast whatever the person doesn’t like in an evil light. Godwin’s law is a corollary to and modification of the term Reductio ad Hitlerum, coined by Leo Strauss in 1951. Latin for “reduction to” and quasi-Latin for “Hitler,” Reductio ad Hitlerum is a logical fallacy referring to the attempt to refute an opponent’s view by comparing that view to one held by Adolf Hitler. The idea being, simply by exposing a view as one held by Hitler or as being similar to his ideas, the view is automatically rendered invalid and indefensible.
This is obviously not true – though he didn’t have many, Hitler was known for a couple views that would probably be considered widely accepted in the U.S. today, such as anti-communism, but that’s not the point – and employing this fallacy avoids arguing on the merits of a particular argument, instead employing an ad hominem strategy.
This strategy has become very common in various forms of journalism in the current political climate, on both sides of the aisle. I could write a series of posts about how this type of fallacy is being used to attack and discredit President Obama, but that’s not what I’m talking about right now. The more imminently disturbing way this rhetorical tactic is being used involves the recent shooting. Here is one example, from Daily Kos – a site I am usually a fan of – in response to an unnamed official, speaking on behalf of the NRA, alleging that the reason the gun industry is against a reduction in the magazine capacity of firearms is that, “everyone would have to retool and new hardware would have to be made. That’s going to be very expensive to manufacturers,” (emphasis is mine):
Oh, it’ll be expensive for manufacturers to retool? Heavens! Okay, feel free to shoot up more children then. Please, more Sandy Hooks. Because protecting gun manufacturer profits would be better than to have living, breathing, laughing first graders stay alive.
I heard the same thing on cable news earlier today, a right-winger claiming the left loves shootings because they get to bring up the issue of gun control.
Let me be clear, and I can’t believe I have to say this: no one is happy about this horrific, traumatic event. No one. Not the left, not the right. No one is gleeful, or thrilled. The incident has taken on the form of a bludgeon in the political scene, used to beat your opponents into submission on gun control issues, and it is just as easily wielded by the left or right. This is not in any way helpful, and in addition to being in terrifically bad taste, it cheapens the tragedy of the event and the lives lost and ruined to be treated as political props.
This is indicative of the current cultural and political attitude that pervades both the punditry and many louder members of the citizenry. No one argues on the merits of an opponent’s position. They jump to ad hominem attacks that are often cheap, underhanded, and worse, irrelevant. (And I don’t feel the need to link to any examples – just turn on the TV, or pull up any news commentary site.) As it stands, the state of gun control policy in this country leaves plenty of room for improvement, and plenty to criticize and complain about, without resorting to irrelevant attacks just to slam your opponent.
If there is a silver lining to the Newtown shooting, and it turns out to be a reexamining of gun control policy, and it manages to compel or guilt the relevant players to the table, so be it. We should be able to have a productive national debate, with disagreement and criticism and productive argument, without the specter of Hitler darkening anyone’s doorstep.