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We will also post relevant news worthy items and information on Human rights issues, racism, extremist individuals and groups and far right political parties from around the world although predominantly Britain.

Sunday, 28 March 2010

Before you start mouthing off about Hitler, you'd better know your Nazis

A great item has appeared in the Guardian about Goodwins law and how it used falsely to counter any criticism of far right neo-Nazi beliefs.
Godwin's law states that "as an online discussion grows longer, the probability of a comparison involving Nazis or Hitler approaches 1". This is both funny and true, like John Prescott having bulimia. Although, to be pedantic for a second, it applies to literally any comparison or topic of conversation: the probability approaching 1 just means it becomes more likely, so, as an online discussion grows longer, the probability of someone suggesting that I'm having an affair with Angelina Jolie approaches 1. Perhaps not very quickly, but it approaches it. In an infinite discussion, the notion is bound to come up. (I deny the rumours.) (How do these things get started!?)

Anyway, that's what my half-remembered A-level maths suggests to me. But they've probably changed the way they do maths since I was at school. Bloody national curriculum, it's like something the Nazis would have come up with.
But apart from being a statistical truism, Godwin's law is often used to trump irresponsible playing of the Nazi card. When person A compares something or someone they dislike to Hitler or the Nazis, person B cites Godwin's law to shut them up.
I can see why this is handy. A lot of amateur rhetoricians seem to confuse the terms "Nazi" and "nasty", or to have noticed that, in between bouts of warmongering and mass murder, Hitler also ate, drank, slept, laughed and oxygenated his blood. This exposes a vast number of people to being likened to him.

Gandhi was like Hitler because he too was hated by Churchill. Lord Adonis is like Hitler because he's also commissioned road-building. Harold Shipman is like Hitler because he's also a murderer. Co-presenter of Homes Under the Hammer, Lucy Alexander, is like Hitler because she also has opposable thumbs and is therefore much more like Hitler than, say, a toaster or Droitwich. And lacrosse is like Hitler in that I think they both only have one ball.
Nazi, Hitlerian, fascist and totalitarian references abound. I stumbled across three last Tuesday: the first was a photograph of a protester waving a Hitlerised caricature of BA chief executive Willie Walsh – by which I mean she'd taken a photo of him and drawn on a Charlie Chaplin moustache and hair a bit like mine. The amount of pen she'd used only served to demonstrate how unlike Hitler Walsh looked to start with. She'd also coloured his eyes in red for some reason. Maybe to suggest the sleepless nights that Walsh will currently be enduring, much like Hitler in the bunker days? I struggle to find anything else meaningful that the two men have in common, other than the professed enmity of the protester.

The second was Queen guitarist Brian May saying a proposed cull of badgers in west Wales, aimed at controlling bovine TB, "would be genocide". He didn't even say "like genocide". I disagree with, but concede the coherence of, the argument that animals, including badgers, should be accorded similar rights to humans. May goes further and suggests that they actually are humans. He said the cull would be like killing all ginger-haired people if it were found that that would eradicate smallpox. The flaws in this comparison centre around the words "all" and "people" being substituted for "some" and "badgers".
The third was a former member of the BNP saying that senior members of that party "have Nazi, Naziesque sympathies". This is where using Godwin's law as a corrective falls down – sometimes Nazi comparisons are well used. While the crimes of the BNP are incomparably smaller than those of the Nazi party, as thankfully is its degree of electoral success, its views are comparable and history suggests that it would be naive to assume that, were the BNP given the opportunity of power, its actions wouldn't also be.
The Godwin's law attitude is a well-meaning rule of thumb, designed to discourage abusive and hyperbolic remarks, but we mustn't be seduced into thinking that nothing really is like the Nazis any more – that that kind of evil has passed. When references to fascism and totalitarianism are accurate, just as when a responsible shepherd boy cries: "Wolf!", it's important to pay attention.

All of which just makes me angrier with irresponsible criers of "Hitler!", including both ends of the American political ZX Spectrum (by which I mean the far right and the nearly-as-far right). As many Americans go into a tailspin, coming to terms with the notion that poor people shouldn't be left to die of easily treatable diseases – even though, the USA being such a lovely meritocracy and everything, they must on some level deserve it (and, after all, what incentive is there to make something of your life if it's not the fear of an agonising, peritonitis-induced uninsured demise?) – there's been a frenzy of swastika-slinging.

It started relatively gently with Sarah Palin's dark allusion to almost eugenicist "death panels" being the inevitable consequence of state-sponsored healthcare, but now hysterical bloggers on both sides are labelling each other Nazis more often than they call themselves patriots. One particularly depressing website referred to the vandalism committed by opponents of the healthcare bill to five Democratic offices across the whole country as "Kristallnacht".

The internet is full of people desperate to be heard. Comparing things to Hitler is the online equivalent of shouting, and quoting Godwin's law is like refusing to listen to people who shout. By nature, I favour the latter camp and find most online shouting unpleasant and ignorant.

But sometimes people who shout are right and some circumstances warrant shouting. We mustn't ignore them all because of a law of probability. The wearying truth about the internet is that it requires readers to scrutinise the authorship, bias and reliability of everything they read more than ever before. So, to know if a Hitler comparison is apposite, you have to know more about Hitler than that he wasn't a nice guy.

The shortcuts to reliability that the old established more or less responsible media provided are being closed off. In the online future, we'll be on our own, in a whirl of conflicting assertion and opinion. It's going to be easy to be bamboozled and lied to. We're going to wish we'd spent more on education.

Written by David Mitchell in the The Guardian