Godwin’s Law and Ingram’s Law – How to Argue

Feel Free to Quote Me

The calaveras give you permission.
The calaveras give you permission.

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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Comments 13 comments

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Richard VanIngram 3 years ago from San Antonio, Texas Author

Theresa: Thank you. My favorite modern philosopher, Jose Ortega y Gasset once said, "Clarity is the courtesy one owes his readers." If one can't take complex ideas and render them understandable to intelligent non-philosophers, one may be a fine scholar, but a) one cannot write and b) one cannot teach. The whole point is to make it as easy as possible for someone who is not you, with a differing background to approach one's vantage point and see what one is trying to describe and interpret. I try to do this and always recommended it (without much effect) to other academics.

suzettenaples: Thank you very much for reading and I am happy you found something in it useful!

KrisL: Thanks (one more time) and your share is appreciated. I agree comments can be dreadful -- to say the least. I often read things and don't make a reply because the war going on in the threads beneath it are utterly pointless or haughty displays of some sort of internet prowess. What a waste. Instead, if moved, I'll write an essay or blog post of my own in the subject and let it go at that. Maybe I'm just getting old....

AudreyHowitt: Thank you, too for reading. Your compliments are valued. I do put some effort into these things, usually, and it certainly feels good to hear it was appreciated.

AudreyHowitt profile image

AudreyHowitt 3 years ago from California

I thoroughly enjoyed this article. Well thought out and well written!

KrisL profile image

KrisL 3 years ago from S. Florida

This was great . . . comments on blogs and especially news items can be so dreadful, this gets to the core of the problem, while also giving us a useful corollary for Godwin's law.

Shared with followers.

suzettenaples profile image

suzettenaples 3 years ago from Taos, NM

I prefer to discuss rather than to argue, but that said, this is an interesting, relevant and much needed hub here on HP. I have probably succumbed to Godwin's Law at one time or another, but now that I have Ingram's Law I will certainly know what to expect in the future. You certainly can be deemed and expert in this area with your background, education and experience in this area. Thank your an enlightening and interesting hub - er, argument.

phdast7 profile image

phdast7 3 years ago from Atlanta, Georgia

Richard - I found this thoroughly wonderful. I even laughed out loud a couple of times, certainly not in derision or conventional amusement, but because sometimes I laugh with delight when something is perfectly said or argued. This was an extraordinarily satisfying hub. I have from time to time tried to delve into philosophical essays, but I usually get lost in either the complexity of the arguments or the impenetrable jargon (which is poor writing in my opinion, even if the author is brilliant - one must be aware of the reading audiences capacity).

I also happen to be a history professor and I regularly teach Modern Germany and the Holocaust. And I have had many occasions to notice the completely inappropriate references to Hitler or the Nazis. :) Although, as you point out, sometimes the comparison is appropriate and merited. Thank you for a delightful intellectual stretch. :) Theresa

Richard VanIngram profile image

Richard VanIngram 3 years ago from San Antonio, Texas Author

That's a good point, Greg.

Also -- my threads don't die so much as die down for several months and then pick up again after a while before falling off again. I do monitor them.

Greg 3 years ago

This is a dead thread, but "Ingram's Law" is more of a corollary to Godwin's Law.

chefsref profile image

chefsref 5 years ago from Citra Florida

Hey Richard

Interesting hub, perhaps Godwin's law should be expanded to include Socialist. That is thrown around by the right more often than Nazi.

I find many online conversations devolving into people shouting bumper sticker slogans at each other and avoiding real conversation entirely.

I even had one exchange where I was told that Nazis were socialists (because socialist is part of the Nationalsozialistische name) I think that idea came from a Glenn Beck program. I referred them to history and left the conversation

Richard VanIngram profile image

Richard VanIngram 5 years ago from San Antonio, Texas Author

Sounds good, but can you dance to it, Stigma? Make an argument, not an accusation.

Stigma31 profile image

Stigma31 5 years ago from Kingston, ON

a gross falsification or misrepresentation of the facts, with constant repetition and embellishment to lend credibility

- sorry just had to

Richard VanIngram profile image

Richard VanIngram 5 years ago from San Antonio, Texas Author

Paradise -- Thanks. I think that's the core problem.

someonewhoknows -- He probably wouldn't say the same thing because I think his Law was, in part, formulated with tongue in cheek, initially,in despair because he saw many internet discussions devolve into accusations of Nazism when people ran out of anything better to say. His Law was an attempt to draw attention to the overuse and misuse of the accusation -- not to defend Nazism or disallow analogies and comparisons where proper. But others have misused Godwin's Law to do these things -- my proposed Law is just an equally semi-humorous attempt to provide a means to side-step the misapplication of Godwin's Law.

someonewhoknows profile image

someonewhoknows 5 years ago from south and west of canada,north of ohio

Goodwin -an interesting name by the way for the subject matter here.

I wonder if he would say the same about Zionism,Jewism,Fasism,Socialism,or Communism.

Paradise7 profile image

Paradise7 5 years ago from Upstate New York

I understand and agree with you. Too many people feel they have to win, at the expense of reasoned discussion.

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