Sorting Through Sophistries:
Godwin's Law
(and Other Corks)

By Gabriel Blanchard

Cork, noun. An object put into the mouth of something to prevent fluids from escaping it.

The wretched condition of social media is proverbial today—so much so that it’s the sort of thing we tend to agree to and repeat without really thinking about it. Yet any environment that was really as nasty as we say social media is would simply have no users. Probably this sullen way of talking is just a reflex. Human beings are melodramatic, inattentive, and above all, gossipy creatures. Our negative impression of social media specifically is an exaggeration: it is borne of the real stupidity, nastiness, and even harm that social media can feature and do, yes; but it is worthwhile to recollect ourselves now and then to see the simple joys and pleasures and good conversations that social media was created to convey.

It’s important to start with a reminder of this kind, because seeing the good isn’t what this piece is here to do! No, we’re here to do more complaining about people reasoning badly and being obnoxious. Let’s go.

“Godwin’s law” is one of those conversational pseudo-laws, like “Murphy’s law,” generally formulated as Anything that can go wrong, will, and usually at the worst possible time.* They are, as a rule, made of perhaps twenty percent observation (at the absolute highest), around fifty percent cynicism, and another sixty-odd percent humor.** It was with mild shock that the present author discovered that, despite sounding made up, not only Godwin but Murphy were real people. The latter was Edward A. Murphy, Jr., an American veteran of the Pacific Theater and later Air Force engineer (though one may take some small comfort that we the people at least garbled what he actually said, and in a way he found seriously annoying, so apparently the laws of reality have not entirely forsaken us). But we are here for Godwin, himself annoyed by … Well, Reddit would not be founded for another eleven years when Godwin published his famous law, so he technically could not have been annoyed by redditors per se. But spiritually, it was they. What was happening was this:

As an online discussion grows longer, the probability of a comparison involving Nazis or Hitler approaches one.

But why should this come up—and not just come up, but have its own distinct entry—in a series about fallacies? Is it not covered by ad hominem for some reason? In a sense, no, and that is for a slightly peculiar reason which we will get to momentarily. However, it is worth saying first that yes, of course this is an ad hominem tactic. The qualities “badness” and “resemblance to Adolf Hitler’s views” are of course related, but the relation between them is not (in the logical sense of the term) simple,† for the simple reason that there are other things which are also bad. If the two were interchangeable, life would be a great deal simpler than it is.

However, “That sounds like something Hitler would say!” is—although clearly inflammatory—rather childishly phrased and often hard to prove. It therefore does not work particularly well as an ad hominem, because people are not usually inclined to get their ideas from sources quite that lazy and immature. The real function of Godwin’s law is not to discredit an opponent, but to make the conversation useless.‡ Nor is Godwin’s law itself the only means of doing so: red herrings (irrelevant statements, either disguised to seem relevant or simply thrown in at random) can do the same thing, as can a few other fallacies.

This, if done on purpose, is a strange move—at least, it seems strange if we think about it in “debate club” terms. Wouldn’t that hurt your own argument? But the truth is, though human beings are rational, we are also irrational; no description of our motives or behavior that does not include both aspects of human nature is complete or correct. And most conversations don’t take place in debate clubs or follow their rules of decorum. “Putting a cork in it” can be a tactic for avoiding embarrassment or annoyance, or an attempt at petty revenge for some perceived slight, or a passing joke carried too far—all sorts of things.

The long-term effects of this particular form of dishonesty are in some ways more concerning. It is, of course, difficult to take seriously the idea that comparing things to Hitler “trivializes the Holocaust” (the conventional defense when one finds oneself Godwin’s-lawed but, for some reason, wishes to continue arguing); what adult could possibly start to sincerely think maybe the Holocaust wasn’t such a big deal based on rhetoric from an anonymous person on the internet, uttered to an opponent while attempting to win an argument? But, while that question assumes correctly that people think, act, and form opinions rationally, it leaves out the fact that they also do all these things irrationally. Jocular, false, or stupid claims, especially when frequently repeated, can build up a kind of residue in the human mind: a residue in which things that were harmless in the larval stage may mature, into things deadly and malicious and many-legged. But if there has been a recurring theme in this series, it is this: your own mind is the only mind you can fix. Start there.

*Murphy’s law has many corollaries, including It is impossible to make anything foolproof because fools are so ingenious, Matter will be damaged in direct proportion to its value, and If anything simply cannot go wrong, it will.
**Maths do not enter the calculations for this sort of law, so 20 + 50 + 65ish = 100 in this case, QED.
†When used as a logical term, the word simple means “without qualification, absolutely, regardless of the circumstances.” This draws on its origins in Latin: simplex (from semel “once” + plicare “to fold”) meant “one-fold, single; unmixed, pure, un-alloyed.”
‡As elsewhere, it is important to add a small reminder here: it doesn’t follow that anybody who uses Godwin’s law has this purpose (either consciously or not). What’s we’re describing is effect, not necessarily intent.

Gabriel Blanchard is CLT’s editor at large. He lives in Baltimore, MD.

To learn more about the importance of good rhetoric and its ethical use, take a look at our brief essays on the concepts of beauty, duty, education, good and evil, knowledge, and the soul. If you’re looking for something a bit lighter, try our biographies of authors like G. K. Chesterton, Ovid, Mark Twain, and Mary Wollstonecraft. You might also like reading about Godwin’s law from the horse’s mouth (no, not Hitler’s)—Mike Godwin formulated it as an experiment, which he wrote about in the article “Meme, Countermeme” in WIRED Magazine in 1994 (before anybody knew what a meme was either)!

Published on 23rd May, 2024.

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