The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The creator of Godwin’s Law explains why some Nazi comparisons don’t break his famous Internet rule

Unite the Right rally attendees gather in Charlottesville’s Emancipation Park on Saturday. (Evelyn Hockstein for The Washington Post)

Godwin’s Law, as every good Internet citizen knows, reads as follows: “As an online discussion continues, the probability of a reference or comparison to Hitler or Nazis approaches 1.” When Mike Godwin created it in 1990, he was trying to address the widespread phenomenon of glibly comparing someone else to Hitler or Nazis to win an online argument.

It’s one of the most invoked rules on the Internet to this day. But how does Godwin’s Law apply when you’re literally talking about Nazis?

Porn, Nazis and sarcasm: How these 3 old rules basically explain the entire Internet

Hundreds of white supremacists, neo-Nazis and Ku Klux Klan members descended on Charlottesville this past weekend. One man, described as a Nazi sympathizer, is accused of plowing into a crowd of counterdemonstrators with his car, killing one woman and wounding several other people. And so a stranger asked Godwin to weigh in: When it comes to the white supremacists in Charlottesville, is it okay to compare what they believe and do to what the Nazis believed and did?

His reply was concise and unambiguous:

On Monday, we spoke with Godwin, now a First Amendment lawyer and senior fellow at the R Street Institute in Washington, about what Godwin’s Law means now. Our conversation has been condensed and lightly edited for clarity.

WP: What prompted you to weigh in yesterday?

MG: I tend not to speak out on every public event. I don’t think that I’m necessarily anyone who adds value to public reactions just by chiming in. But someone had reached out to me on Facebook, a person who was not in my Facebook network but who had basically looked me up and reached out to me, and asked whether it was appropriate to compare the white nationalists in Charlottesville to Nazis.

One of the reasons that people have ever paid attention to Godwin’s Law at all is that I have been very careful to avoid policing how people invoke it, or use it, or apply it, or misapply it, except in fairly rare circumstances. But this was a no-brainer.

The existence of Godwin’s Law seems to have turned you into someone that others seek out as an arbiter of when it’s okay to call someone a Nazi. How do you feel about that? 

I don’t like it, for several reasons.

I am someone who believes in the ability of people to make up their own minds. And I don’t believe it’s appropriate for me to be an authority in that way. Especially about history. My interest is deep, but my expertise is — I’m an amateur. There’s no special reason to defer to me about whether a particular reference to Hitler or Nazis is appropriate, but I can understand why people have that impulse to do it. I try mostly gently to steer people back into what they think the answer is.

This was a case where I feel there was a right answer. It was really easy to break my resolution this time.

Why did you make an exception for Charlottesville? 

These horrible events, both the death of Ms. [Heather] Heyer and also the violence, but also the poisoning of public culture, these things are all horrifying to me. I think that any moral person has to see these things and bear witness and think about how to talk about them.

My own instincts as a former reporter, as well as a lawyer, is to make sure you understand everything as much as you can before you go public. I wrote about using Nazi comparisons in The Washington Post well before it was believed the election would turn out as it did, and that certain factions in American culture would feel empowered by it. What I wrote was, if you’re reading history before a comparison to Hitler, I’m for that.

Mike Godwin: Sure, call Trump a Nazi. Just make sure you know what you’re talking about.

I believe in freedom of speech, including the freedom of noxious white separatists. But it’s not like they published some screed on the Internet. They showed up. Obviously the guy who killed Ms. Heyer and injured so many other people was there to do harm.

It seems like there’s been a parallel phenomenon emerging to the increased visibility of these beliefs, and that is the attempt to rename white-supremacist, Nazi or extreme beliefs in more vague euphemisms, like “alt-right.” What do you make of it? 

I don’t know how to understand what the alt-right is, except that it seems to be a lot of voices dining from the buffet of many hateful notions. And you never know which particular notions that person may subscribe to. I don’t want to say that there’s some doctrinal coherency there. I’m not sure that there is.

What’s changed about how people invoke glib Hitler comparisons on the Internet since you first created Godwin’s Law? These comparisons feel more frequent, but it also seems that not as much may have changed about it as we think. 

Hitler comparisons, are they more frequent now? Yes. But in some sense, that reflects increasing penetration of the Internet and other empowering mass media to every level of culture in the developed world.

A lot of us who were early adopters to the Internet have already learned a lot about what kind of arguments are valid or not or whether we’ve being glib about history or not. But we still have more people coming online in more recent decades and years. Everybody has to learn how to crawl before they walk. And everybody has to learn how to be more evenhanded and rational and intellectually engaged in the same way that they learn how to speak and write.

The other piece of it, I think, involves individual learning and growth. I have, over the course of about 35 years, learned to move from shedding more heat to shedding more light.

Individually, like all of us, I have said a lot of stupid things when I was young that I wish I had not said. I just try to be better now. That’s all we can do.

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