Monday, May 5, 2014

Godwin's Law

Godwin's Law:
As an online discussion grows longer, the probability of a comparison involving Nazis or Hitler approaches 1 —​ that is, if an online discussion (regardless of topic or scope) goes on long enough, sooner or later someone will compare someone or something to Hitler or Nazism.
This is actually quite commonly referenced on the internet. Any time you make a reference to Hitler someone will bring this up. Yet they bring it up not in the sense that this is inevitable but in the sense that this is somehow out of bounds. That comparisons to Hitler need not be taken seriously because of this law. It is beyond silly. The Nazis were one of the biggest failures of modern moral reasoning. If you can't talk about your biggest failures then you can't learn from them. Why wouldn't you want to do that?

In fact, one of the slogans that was used in response to WWII was "never again." That meant we would never allow anything like the holocaust to happen again. Godwin's law is the opposite of that. It says that when something that reminds you of Nazi Germany that association should simply be ignored. We will ignore history knowing we might be condemning ourselves to repeat it but at least we will have more pleasant discussions. 

The reality is that Godwin's law allows atheists to duck a bunch of hard questions. It is a relatively modern, western society that discarded Christianity, embraced atheism and tried to develop a moral code based on reason. Of course it was reasoning that we would never agree with and even be offended by but it was an attempt to be rational. Nobody said we are going to be irrational or we are going to be evil. They tried their honest best to make things better. They just failed.

That is a key fact. That the Nazi's were not some mutant breed that is nothing like us. They were a lot like us. They were smart. They were unafraid to try new ideas. They wanted progress. They were suspicious of the power of religion to limit progress. 

To be sure, they had some problems that we don't have. They hated Jews. They hated homosexuals. It is hard to see such prejudices coming back into common thinking. Yet what was behind that? One theory is that of scapegoating. Blaming some people group for the country's problems. If you think of it that way then maybe we have not advanced so far as we suppose. We can blame the 1% for the problems of society. We no longer define that 1% by race. That is a good thing. Still we are not above unfairly demonizing a minority. 

It is important to remember that the fact that the Nazi's were bad does not prove that atheism is false. It only proves that atheism is dangerous. It does not even prove that it is more dangerous than Christianity. It shows that when society casts aside its moral traditions and tries to engineer a better human experience that things can go very wrong. Not that they will always go wrong but that the danger is real and should be acknowledged. 

How real is the danger? That is the hard question. How do we see it coming? I can see huge hatred developing in some people yet they don't see it at all. They think they are responding reasonably to objectionable behavior by Christians or others. Will that kind of over-reaction every become mainstream? What would prevent it? 

It does not seem like people can address that question seriously. They can point out and hugely exaggerate hatred on the other side of the debate. They can't really grapple with the issue of their demonizing of that other side might work too well. Hatred is not an easy thing to control once you unleash it. How many Nazis thought through the final solution from the beginning and how many were just consumed by the hatred and there was just no escape after a while? 

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