Think before you break Godwins Law

By Vic Alhadeff

The Australian
March 30 2019

In 1990, US lawyer Mike Godwin embarked on an ambitious project. He had become frustrated at gratuitous Nazi comparisons being tossed around in public debate, trivialising Hitler and the Holocaust and offending survivors of the genocide.

The comparisons had got out of hand, he felt, whether the topic was border control, gun control or some other government measure. “It made you wonder,” he wrote, “how debates had ever occurred without that handy rhetorical hammer.” So he decided to track the analogies by creating a meme that would motivate those indulging in the unwarranted references to understand how inappropriate they were and desist.

The result: Godwin’s law, which states that the longer an online discussion continues, the greater the likelihood someone will draw a comparison with the Nazis or Hitler. And when that happens, the person making the analogy has effectively forfeited the argument.

Two recent instances relate to offshore detention. In a staggering twist of logic, Paul Bauert of the Australian Medical Association suggested asylum-seekers on Nauru and Manus Island were worse off than Jews in Auschwitz because those about to be murdered “found some sense of relief in knowing what was happening”, whereas asylum-seekers were unaware of what their future held. “The main reason for the impairment of mental health — as Viktor Frankl, the psychiatrist from Auschwitz, described very well in his book Man’s Search for Meaning — the main problem that these people have is … lack of certainty,” Bauert told Sky News. “Even those who finally knew they were about to be condemned to the gas chamber at least found some sense of relief in knowing what was happening.”

Withdrawing the statement, he acknowledged he had failed to grasp the complexities of Frankl’s writings. Indeed, apart from the appalling lack of empathy for people about to be murdered, his remarks were profoundly ignorant, given the Nazis went to inordinate lengths to conceal their intentions, telling the Jews they needed showers after spending days being transported in cattle cars and assuring them they would be reunited with their families.

Then came Anglican rector Rod Bower, who placed a sign outside his Gosford church on the NSW central coast saying “Manus is how the Holocaust started”. He added online: “What we have done on Manus does not necessarily lead to the Holocaust but it is a necessary step on the path to that particular hell.”

Human rights barrister Julian Burnside (Greens candidate against Josh Frydenberg) has twice linked offshore detention to the Nazis. Last year Burnside retweeted an image of Home Affairs Minister Peter Dutton’s face superimposed on an SS officer, and this year he tweeted an extract of a comment by Nazi criminal Hermann Goering and predicted that Scott Morrison would quietly instruct the navy to “let a couple of asylum-seeker boats through before the election” and “terrify the nation that we are under attack”.

His supporting evidence? A 1946 comment by Goering: “… easy. All you have to do is tell them they are being attacked and denounce the pacifists for lack of patriotism, exposing the country to danger. It works the same way in any country.”

Queensland senator Fraser Anning used the phrase “final solution” in regard to the immigration issue, insisting he was unaware it was Nazi shorthand for their plan to annihilate the Jewish people; Greens MP Tamara Smith drew a parallel between US treatment of asylum-seekers and the Nazis; Hornsby Labor candidate Katie Gompertz compared US President Donald Trump to Hitler; and former prime minister Tony Abbott labelled Opposition Leader Bill Shorten the “Dr Goebbels of economic policy” after accusing Labor of causing “a holocaust of job losses”. (Joseph Goebbels was Hitler’s propaganda minister.) After opposition legal affairs spokesman Mark Dreyfus and other MPs were ejected by the Speaker during the ensuing uproar, Leader of the House Christopher Pyne said Dreyfus used “exactly the same description” to criticise Abbott in a 2011 article in which he said there was a “Goebbellian cynicism” in Abbott describing his carbon tax campaign as a truth campaign.

The list goes on, cheapening public debate, undermining the gravity of what the Nazis were about, doing a disservice to us all.

Although deliberately framed as if it were a law of nature or mathematics, the purpose of Godwin’s law “has always been rhetorical and pedagogical: I wanted folks who glibly compared someone else to Hitler to think a bit harder about the Holocaust”, Godwin wrote.

His noble aim is sadly faltering.

Vic Alhadeff is chief executive of the NSW Jewish Board of Deputies.