Godwin’s Law and Ingram’s Law – How to Argue
Feel Free to Quote Me
Sometimes, in a discussion, it’s OK to mention the relevance of the Nazis.
The short and sweet definition of Godwin’s Law is this (as stolen from Wikipedia):
‘“As an online discussion grows longer, the probability of a comparison involving Nazis or Hitler approaches 1."In other words, [Mike] Godwin put forth the hyperbolic observation that, given enough time, in any online discussion—regardless of topic or scope—someone inevitably criticizes some point made in the discussion by comparing it to beliefs held by Hitler and the Nazis.’ http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Godwin's_law
Notice what is not asserted in the law:
1. That some claims in a discussion may not be exactly the same as claims made by historical Nazis or neo-Nazis.
2. That some claims made in a discussion may not be akin to claims made by historical Nazis or neo-Nazis.
3. That no principles, ideas, or suggestions ever lead to or tend to suggest effects created by historical Nazism or neo-Nazis.
Or, to put it another way, sometimes a comparison with the Nazi Party, fascist racism, or the decisions and events leading to the Holocaust or other outrages of World War II are relevant, proper, or necessary in the course of an argument.
The key term to come to grips with is “relevant.”
The Use and Abuse of Godwin’s Law
On the internet and in other forums, Godwin’s Law seems to have two major uses, a proper one and an improper one.
First, it is important to note that the law in itself implies nothing about whether it is proper or improper to talk about Nazism. It simply predicts that, should any discussion advance long enough, someone will compare someone else’s position to that of the Nazis in some way.
The proper use of the law is to reign in irrelevant appeals to Nazism to obscure a discussion or demonize an opponent.
The abuse of the law in some forums has been to prevent anyone from mentioning the relevant similarities between some claims, positions, or probable outcomes and those of Nazism. The latter is a form of unjustified censorship – anyone who mentions Nazism is disqualified, declared to have lost the argument, or finds themselves demonized.
Invoking Godwin’s Law, then, as with the invocation of any principle, calls for some discernment, just as invoking Nazism equally requires restraint and reasonableness. One does not win an argument simply by being the first to yell out “Godwin’s Law!” any more than one triumphs by being the first to pin the swastika on an opponent’s ideas.
Again, relevance is the key issue.
What is “Winning an Argument”?
Arguments, broadly, for our purposes here, come in two major forms:
1. We can argue philosophically – that is, we talk back and forth in a cooperative way to get at or get closer to the truth about a topic. Or, to say this differently, we could talk in an effort to expose errors, whittling away whatever rough sheath obscures reality, as a sculptor removes the parts of the block of stone that are not the statue. Success is measured purely in terms of how far the parties advance in clarifying their view of reality.
2. We can argue rhetorically – that is, we talk back and forth in a debate with designs to score more points and appear to an audience, real or imagined, the “victor” at the end of the discussion. Truth is not the aim of a rhetorical argument, whether the practitioners understand this or not; success is measured in terms of defeating the opponent’s positions.
Philosophical arguments, even when the participants completely disagree, are essentially a cooperative activity. Even if, at the end, all parties disagree about what the outcome signifies. Rhetorical arguments can be emotionally satisfying and often there is a clear “winner,” or, at least, outcome – yet, if any truth is uncovered, it is accidental and beside the point and probably missed. The aim is about the personalities of the participants and their rhetorical skills – their ability to manipulate emotion through words to sway an audience. Again, philosophical arguments are much less about personality and much more about truth.
The best form of argumentation is a philosophical one in which rhetorical and other skills are used to uncover and convince others of truth or error; yet the accent remains always on truth, with rhetoric in the service of clarity and effectiveness in means of expression. The worst form of argument is a rhetorical one that employs philosophical ideas like weapons (and any would do – there is no real commitment to any of them by the arguer) to destroy or miscast the positions of the opponent.
One ought to determine whether one is arguing with others who are philosophically inclined or rhetorically inclined before spending time on the pursuit. Otherwise, one will find things such as Godwin’s Law being used as a weapon instead of as a guide for discussion. While many seem to find debates an entertaining pastime, as a philosopher, I find them a waste. Poker is a better expenditure of energy, or Monopoly, if one wants a fun, purely competitive pursuit. Otherwise, one ought never be deceived that anything of importance is being settled by rhetorical debate other than who can outtalk others.
Philosophical Argument, Godwin’s Law, and Ingram’s Law
In a philosophical argument, then, if Nazism is invoked, one must be certain the invocation is relevant. In other words, the motive for the employment is not to disqualify one’s opponent (a rhetorical move) but to show that one’s opponent’s ideas are politically and morally suspect because they directly or indirectly are meaningfully similar to, analogous to, or the same as some aspect of Nazism.
If one cannot be sure of this, one ought to simply avoid mentioning Nazism. A better strategy would be to lay out an “imaginary” situation such as, “Imagine a society where people believed X and did Y to other people because of Z” and then compare the relevant aspect of the opponent’s position to this imaginary society. Allow the opponent to draw her own conclusions as to how similar this sounds to actual historical situations, Nazi Germany, for example.
The main importance is to strip away an error or come closer to truth, not label an opponent as a Nazi.
However, that said, sometimes it is necessary or completely relevant to label an idea as racist-fascist. This, because the idea is racist-fascist and owes its origins to historical Nazism or because its implementation would demonstrably tend to result in a Nazi-esque society and ethos.
That is to say, it is relevant to use the term “Nazi” in such a case.
Protestation that Godwin’s Law has been violated in such an instance is, then, irrelevant and improper; moreover, intellectually, many have some difficulty listening to reason without an accompanying appeal to an authority.
Therefore, I am volunteering to play the authority as I am a philosopher, MA, with post-graduate work under my belt, a published author and former ethics and philosophy instructor (CV available upon request). I have also been known to write satire. This grants me as much authority as Mike Godwin to define laws of argumentation.
Feel free to use the following as you argue on the internet and other places to aid you when hit with improper uses of Godwin’s Law:
“Ingram’s Law: As an online discussion grows longer, the probability of an improper invocation of Godwin’s Law approaches 1.”
In other words, eventually, it is likely in any online discussion that Nazism and Hitler will eventually be mentioned; and it is possible that some of those references will be appropriate; and when an appropriate mention is made, it is probable that, eventually, Godwin’s Law will be improperly used as a shield to end the discussion.
From the foregoing, it should be evident Ingram’s Law does not excuse irrelevant, improper mentions of Nazism in any discussion. It is not a purely rhetorical device. But it ought to be used to counter any attempt to side-step proper mention or comparison with Nazism and Hitler or avoid admitting the similarities between Nazism or Nazi practices and outcomes can sometimes be reasonably demonstrated.
Richard Van Ingram
8 May 2011
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