Re:member: Godwin’s law, the Internet meme promoting Holocaust remembrance

For the past few days, the news here in the Netherlands has been dominated by the publication of the Dutch edition of the Nashville statement. This document, which was originally drawn up by radical Christian organisations in the US in 2017, protests against gay marriage, polyamory, and LGBTQ+ persons in general. On 4 January, prominent radical Christians in the Netherlands released their version, which was publicly endorsed by a number of politicians from Christian parties and met with outrage from the public. Plenty of protests have been and are being organized, and I was personally very happy to see Utrecht’s city hall flying the rainbow flag yesterday, in defiance of the conservative statement.

What does any of this have to do with the Second World War? It just so happens that one of the statement’s endorsers, former pastor Piet de Vries, spoke to the newspaper AD yesterday, making the rather controversial and ignorant statement that the LGBTQ+-community today poses a similar threat to the institution of marriage as the Nazi party did in the 1930s. Quote: “There’s no proper education these days about what the Bible says about marriage and sexuality. We’ve got to speak up. The church was silent when the Nazi ideology encroached upon our beliefs. Now it’s the gender ideology encroaching upon our beliefs, and again, too many churches are keeping silent.” [my translation]

The reason I wanted to devote a blog to this is because De Vries’ specious comparison of the LGBTQ+-community to Nazism touches on a phenomenon that I know to be common on the Internet, but have now witnessed for the first time in real life. That phenomenon is Godwin’s law.

Nazism and the LGBTQ+-community
I’d like to make it clear first, however, that I find the whole thing absolutely appalling, especially considering the fact that the LGBTQ+-community was actively targeted by the Nazis before and during World War II. Starting in 1933, gay organisations were banned and academic publications about homosexuality were destroyed in the ubiquitous book burnings. The Institut für Sexualwissenschaft was burnt down, destroying decades of research that essentially made LGBTQ+ researchers have to start from scratch after the war. An estimated 100,000 homosexual men were arrested and sent to prisons and concentration camps (lesbians too, although to a lesser extent), where they were made to wear a pink triangle, which would later become a symbol of pride for the gay community. After the war, this persecution of homosexuals went largely unacknowledged in most European countries, with some gay men in Germany even being re-arrested and imprisoned based on evidence found during the Nazi years. Not until the 1980s did European governments begin to acknowledge this episode; the German government only officially apologised to the gay community in 2002.

For this reason, it is especially galling that De Vries compares the LGBTQ+-community to actual Nazis, when in reality one of the pillars of Nazi ideology was “clean” heterosexual marriage, especially as far as the role of women was concerned, who were expected to dedicate themselves to Kinder, Küche and Kirche (children, kitchen and church). So, as De Vries’ comparison appears to have no logical basis at all, why did he make it? This is where we come to the interesting phenomenon that is Godwin’s law.

Godwin’s law
If you’ve ever been in or followed an Internet argument – whether on a forum or any type of social media platform, on any kind of topic – there’s a large chance that as the argument went on, one user compared another to Adolf Hitler or called him or her a Nazi. It’s also likely that another user then pointed out that the point “violated Godwin’s law”. As it turns out, these responses are just about as old as the Internet itself. In 1990, in the early days of the Internet, American attorney Mike Godwin noticed that on the Usenet newsgroups (early online discussions forums) he frequented, users often called other users or their posts Nazis, or “Hitler-like”. The Nazi/Hitler comparison, Godwin writes, became a handy metaphor or “rhetorical hammer” for just about any kind of topic; in other words, a meme – which is not just, as I thought, a funny picture that spreads from Tumblr to Facebook to Instagram, but “an idea that functions in a mind the same way a gene or virus functions in the body. . .When a meme catches on, it may crystallize whole schools of thought.”

The Nazi/Hitler meme, Godwin noticed, reared its head in discussions about gun laws (Hitler famously banned personal firearms), abortion (pro-lifers claiming that the “mass murder” committed by abortionists was worse than what the Nazis did during the Holocaust), and censorship (citing that old chestnut, the Nazi book burnings in 1933). But Godwin noticed that it also popped up in other places, mostly when the discussion came to laws or regulations. Not only was the comparison often illogical, Godwin thought it was incredibly offensive to throw the term around, thereby devaluing the memory of the millions of victims from the actual Nazi terror. What he came up with was a “countermeme” that would call attention to this glib use of the word Nazi or the name Hitler. His thesis was that “as an online discussion continues, the probability of a reference or comparison to Hitler or to Nazis approaches 1.”

Godwin began adding his countermeme to Internet discussions, with great success: users began pointing out to other users that they were using the term “Nazi” wrongly or disrespectfully. As the “law” spread, it quickly gained corollaries, some of which have become more famous than the original law. For example, some believe that Godwin’s law means that once a discussion reaches the point of a Nazi/Hitler comparison (the “Godwin point”, as the French call it), it loses its usefulness. The person who makes the comparison loses the argument by using a hyperbolic comparison, usually out of anger. “People are driven to make extreme comparisons because of the intensity of their feeling,” said Godwin to the BBC after a radio presenter called one of his guests a Nazi. Another misconception is that Godwin’s law is an actual law stating that you aren’t allowed to mention Nazis during any discussion, ever. But Godwin designed his countermeme to be invoked only when the Nazi/Hitler comparison is used in a disrespectful way, clearly illustrating that the person using the comparison has no idea what he’s actually comparing it to. Godwin has said it’s absolutely fine, for example, to use the comparison in connection to Donald Trump, Steve Bannon, and other right-wing politicians. “The best way to prevent future holocausts, I believe, is not to forbear from Holocaust comparisons; instead, it’s to make sure that those comparisons are meaningful and substantive,” he stated in 2015.

Is it ever okay to call someone a Nazi?
It’s interesting to consider how this affects the meaning of the term Nazi in our modern society – as well as terms like “grammar nazi”, “feminazi” and other rather horrible epithets. Out of the context of the actual war, “a Nazi” has come to mean a person who imposes his authority in a way that irks or outrages other people, and is considered arrogant and detestable for doing so. As a result, calling someone a Nazi on the Internet often has nothing at all to do with the National-Socialist ideology. “Feminazi” is a slur used for a feminist (usually a woman) who is seen by others as being “too aggressive” about their ideology. But, as I pointed out above, National-Socialist doctrine preferred women in their traditional roles as mothers and wives, far from the political arena. “Feminazi” is thus an interesting conjunction of opposites, but inevitably retains the negative meaning. Godwin concludes that “the Nazi-comparison meme has a peculiar resilience, in part because of its sheer inflammatory power (‘You’re calling me a Nazi? You’re the Nazi in this discussion!’).” Nobody wants to be called a Nazi, because, as everyone knows, Nazis are Bad.

Their status as stock-character bad guys in popular culture has had the effect of making Nazis one-dimensional figures of speech, which emphasises and trivialises their crimes at the same time. They are the ultimate Bad Guys because, as Godwin has said, “there has been genocide before that point and genocide after it, but to see an advanced, highly civilized nation warp itself into something capable of creating such a horror—well, I think Nazi Germany does count as a first in that regard.” But this has the effect of the term Nazi being used to hyperbolic effect – by calling something “Hitler-like”, you are suggesting it is as bad as the Holocaust or life under Nazi rule, which, let’s be honest, hardly ever applies. The comparison is so far removed from reality that the argument becomes moot. Is it then ever okay to call someone a Nazi outside the context of real, actual or historical right-wing politics?

Remembrance
So, what is the status of Godwin’s law today? If anything, it is alive and thriving. The further we move away from the Second World War, the more our perception of the Holocaust shifts, and the more difficult it becomes to make sure it is remembered in a respectful way. The problem seems to be two-fold: not only do people still use the term “Nazi” in an irreverent way online, the worldwide uptick in antisemitism has caused the Internet to be flooded with white nationalists, neo-Nazis and conspiracy theorists, spreading their hate speech freely and anonymously. Efforts to limit this appear to have little effect. An unnerving example of this is Microsoft’s AI chatbot, which they designed in 2016 as “an experiment in conversational understanding.” Twitter users could send it messages and the more the bot received, the smarter it got, formulating responses that Microsoft hoped would make it engage in “casual and playful conversation.” The bot ended up parroting the misogynist, antisemitic, racist and homophobic phrases users sent it, including tweets like “Hitler was right I hate the Jews.” It was cause enough for many people to question the future of AI, given how easily it could be modified to mirror humanity’s worst traits.

But Godwin’s law is still around, as the interview with De Vries shows – underneath the Facebook post I saw, several people had “cried Godwin”. In 2008, Godwin commented on his law turning 18, stating that he was pleased it is still being used by people to point out to others the “terrible inflection point marked in human culture by the Holocaust.” In this sense, he said, Godwin’s law is about remembrance, much like the words “Never again” (which I wrote about in an earlier post). Every time Godwin’s law is invoked, the accused user is reminded of the real meaning of the word Nazi, which is what Godwin wanted: “[After the Holocaust, human beings] no longer can be passive about history—we have a moral obligation to do what we can to prevent such events from ever happening again.”

Perhaps a new corollary of Godwin’s law will be to start pointing out neo-Nazi hate speech, which is often cleverly disguised with terms like “alt right”, thus helping (or forcing) Internet authorities to crack down on the dangerous content that is continuously being spread.

 

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