Philosophy, Film, Politics, Etc.

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

Learning From History: Interpreting Godwin's Law

Godwin's Law seems as old as the Internet itself.  It's the principle that, given enough time, any online discussion will inevitably lead to some mention of Hitler or the Nazis.  Today, however, some people take Godwin's statement as a prescription:  Don't mention Hitler or Nazis in an online discussion (unless you're discussing something specifically to do with Hitler and the Nazis).

I recall once, a year or two ago, I made a comparison between Ayn Rand and the Nazis on a friend's Facebook wall.  I think the analogy was that Ayn Rand is to capitalism what the Nazis were to nationalism.  My point, which I made explicitly clear, was that you cannot criticize capitalism by criticizing Ayn Rand, just as you cannot criticize nationalism by criticizing the Nazis.  (Edit: Actually, I think I phrased it this way:  Defending capitalism by defending Ayn Rand is like defending nationalism by defending the Nazis.  But the point is the same.)  I think it's a fair point.  One could draw the analogy a little deeper:  Ayn Rand's version of capitalism is extreme, irrational and even sociopathic.  The Nazi's version of nationalism was also extreme, irrational and sociopathic.  That's probably about as far as the analogy goes, but I think it's a legitimate one.  However, somebody responded,  "Godwin violation," and my post was immediately deleted. The implication was that I had broken some rule of conduct, as if any mention of the Nazis was unacceptable.  Of course, the reality is that I did not violate Godwin's Law.  I helped confirm it!

What makes Godwin's Law worth our attention is the fact that people do sometimes use Nazi analogies to demonize people.  Nazi analogies are often not only intellectually bankrupt, but meant to provoke emotions instead of furthering understanding through civil debate.  And so we have a "law" that states what we've come to expect:  That the more irrational and heated a discussion gets, the more likely people will use Nazi analogies.  However, this does not mean that any and every use of Nazi analogies is irrational or intellectually bankrupt.  It does not mean we should be afraid to make comparisons to Nazis and Hitler.  And it does not mean we should criticize people just for making such analogies.

In my last post, I made a comparison between TED propaganda and Mein Kampf.  I was careful to give this some context.  As I explained in my post, I teach Nazi propaganda in a class and I compare it to other forms of propaganda.  I do not do this to demonize anybody, but to help my students understand propaganda and how it works.  In my post, I explained that I do not think TED is promoting dictatorship.  I think it was clear that I was not calling TED followers "Nazis."  I explained that I was just making the comparison because it has historical validity and it can help us better understand how TED propaganda works.  And yet, one of my Facebook friends said that I was woefully wrong for making the Nazi comparison, and that my post was "worthy of Godwin."

What I did not explain, but perhaps I should have, is that when I teach Nazi propaganda, I try to be as charitable as possible.  I do not try to demonize Hitler or the Nazis.  I try to instruct my students in the principle of charity, as well, to make them responsible interpreters.  Here's what I tell them (in writing) when we are analyzing Mein Kampf:

To be a responsible interpreter, we must also try to understand how the text was intended to be read. We are not reading the text in its original context, or even in its original language, but that should not stop us. Assuming the translation is accurate (or accurate enough), we should try to imagine how the original text might have been interpreted in Germany when Hitler rose to power. This means we have to put ourselves in somebody else’s shoes. We have to empathize, to see and feel from somebody else’s point of view. It’s important to practice doing this, because it is not always easy to do—especially when the shoes we are trying to step into are ugly, uncomfortable or just the wrong size. But even then, we should try to wear the shoes as well as possible—what I mean is, we should try to be charitable.

The principle of charity states that, whenever we are reading or listening to a text, we should try to imagine that the person who is speaking (or writing) is as intelligent and reasonable as possible. We should not assume that they are stupid or crazy. We should try to give them the benefit of the doubt whenever possible, and try to interpret their words in the best way possible. We should not assume that anyone who liked the book was stupid, evil or ignorant. We should not assume that everybody who followed Hitler was crazy or irrational. That would be very uncharitable. The principle of charity says that we should do our very best—as hard as it may be—to think of how this book may have given an intelligent, reasonable and educated person something to believe in.
The principle of charity can be very difficult to apply, especially with a book like this. It is very easy to jump to conclusions and criticize people when they seem to be stupid or ignorant. It is hard to be charitable when we want to criticize a person or a group of people, and it is especially hard when we are talking about something as terrifying and terrible as war and genocide. However, we would not be responsible interpreters if we did not at least try. This does not mean we have to think that Hitler was right, or that anybody was right to follow him. It only means that we should not assume that Hitler and his followers were stupid, ignorant or crazy. If we approach the book with that kind of attitude, we will not learn very much at all. (We may finally decide that all Nazis were stupid, ignorant and/or crazy, but we should only come to that conclusion after eliminating every other possibility.)
I try to remember that people are sensitive to the topic, which is why I cushioned my comparison between TED and Mein Kampf  in so many ways.  But it seems that people still have the wrong idea about Godwin's Law.  They still think that any Nazi comparison is wrong just because it is a Nazi comparison, regardless of what validity the point might contain.  This attitude only cripples our ability to learn from history.

Sometimes mention of Hitler and the Nazis is offensive, irrational and intellectually bankrupt.  Sometimes it isn't. If we're going to learn from history, we have to learn to tell the difference.