Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Godwin and the Witch

"As an online discussion grows longer, the probability of a comparison involving Nazis or Hitler approaches 100%." That was the humorous way Mike Godwin described what happens in many discussions. It may be humorous but there is a lot of truth in his statement. People of all political persuasions have a tendency to accuse their opponents of Nazism or being like Hitler. What a wonderful way it is of casting aspersions without having to provide any actual facts or reasoning!

My only disagreement with Godwin is that he failed to make his law inclusive enough. Yes, lots of computer discussions end up with someone being called a Nazi, but today the phenomenon is much more widespread. It is not limited to on-line discussions. Both the president and the Tea Party group have been called Nazis, along with lots of people in between. Not only that but “Nazi” is not the only word used in such name-calling. People call their opponents “racist,” “simplistic,” “sexist,” “homophobic,” etc. The effect is similar, it tends to end rational discussion and leave the impression that the person is actually what the label says.

The problem with this type of name calling-is that almost never does the name caller provide, or his audience request, evidence that the name fits. Too often the mere accusation is regarded as proof of guilt. This places the accused in the same position as women accused of being witches back before the 18th century. The accused witch had no right to presumption of innocence. Instead she was considered guilty until proven innocent. She could prove her innocence by sinking and drowning when bound, right thumb to left toe, and thrown into a convenient body of water.

Today we have many accusatory words with effects similar to “witch” in the early second millennium. I call them “witch-words.” Call somebody “racist,” “simplistic,” “sexist,” “homophobic,” or “Nazi” and the burden of proof seems to be on the accused to prove innocence. That is wrong and it interferes with reasonable public discussion of the issues.

How can we stop this? The first step is awareness. When we hear someone accused of being a Nazi, racist etc. we should stop and think. Is there evidence to support the charge? Then we should ask the accuser to support his accusation with something beyond name-calling. If the accuser cannot do so, ignore the accusation.

I would go one step farther if the accuser cannot support his accusation. That is evidence that he has no evidence so let's do a bit of name calling of our own. Our name calling will be backed up by that evidence. If someone thoughtlessly uses witch-words, call him a witchworder.


OregonGuy said...

Name-calling is something I usually avoid. Part of that is due to the Sermon on the Mount. It just isn't right to call someone "stupid."

Part of it is due to a belief that argument that resorts to name-calling really can't be called argument. (A Monty Python sketch comes to mind.) I will admit to feeling that exhausted moment when I realize that any attempt at argument is being short-circuited by the person taking the counter-point. Name calling can leak out at that point. Although idiot is more likely than Nazi.

But what do you do when you confront a posting like this?

It has all the elements required by Mike Godwin. And yet, your question is, "Is there evidence to support the charge?" And, the writer I think posits evidence beyond name-calling.

There are troubling times ahead. Having an awareness of how others have dealt with their confrontation of tyranny might be useful. Hopefully, I'm not being a witch-worder.

Hal Lillywhite said...

I don't see that article you reference as fitting Godwin's law. For one thing, she was dealing with real Nazis (and later Communists). For another as you say, she provides evidence, her own eye-witness evidence in fact. Her article should be taken as a warning but many will chose to ignore it.

Bobkatt said...

Great idea, however I don't think that "witch-word" will catch on. It just isn't catchy enough and most people would not understand the reference. You would have to explain it to them and they are not likely to listen to your reasoning because the very use of these epithets is to limit dialogue and rationale.
The very use of these labels is to demonize and de-legitimize one side of the argument. Unfortunately it is very effective. The only way to fight against it is to demand that our schools teach critical thinking. I also think that we must demand that our politicians be held to a higher standard than the general public. Personally I am done with settling for the lesser of two evils. If a candidate has a moral or legal problem in their past they are not going to get my vote even if they espouse many of the same values I have.
I also have stopped consuming news media that insists on using the words that you described. With the internet and the hundreds of cable TV channels it is possible to ignore these purveyors of "witch-words".

Bob said...

There is a good video, on Daniel's Blog that shows the example of these witchwords in action.