Stephen Brunt and The Globe and Mail unwittingly adhere to Godwin’s Law

Stephen Brunt and The Globe and Mail unwittingly adhere to Godwin’s Law

Page A13 of today’s Globe and Mail contains the most odious, egregious example of Godwin’s Law I’ve seen this side of the bathroom wall. Devised by Wikimedia’s current in-house counsel Mike Godwin, Godwin’s Law, in case you forgot, posits that “as a Usenet discussion grows longer, the probability of a comparison involving Nazis or Hitler approaches one.”

And furthermore, reports Wikipedia:

Godwin’s Law is often cited in on-line discussions as a caution against the use of inflammatory rhetoric or exaggerated comparisons, and is often conflated with fallacious arguments of the reductio ad Hitlerum form.

The rule does not make any statement whether any particular reference or comparison to Hitler or the Nazis might be appropriate, but only asserts that one arising is increasingly probable. It is precisely because such a comparison or reference may sometimes be appropriate, Godwin has argued that overuse of Nazi and Hitler comparisons should be avoided, because it robs the valid comparisons of their impact. Although in one of its early forms, Godwin’s Law referred specifically to Usenet newsgroup discussions, the law is now applied to any threaded on-line discussion: electronic mailing lists, message boards, chat rooms, and more recently blog comment threads and wiki talk pages.

This all comes back to today’s Globe, in which sports columnist Stephen Brunt, given the opportunity to opine in the grown-up section on the current contretemps involving Tibet, graces us with the following:

Let’s say for the sake of argument that 100 people have perished so far in the Tibetan protests and their aftermath.

What if, as August approaches, that’s up to 200 or 500 or 1,000? What’s the magic number of dead Tibetans and Chinese civilians that might make us reconsider?

What if China cracks down harder on dissidents, announces that it will restrict what foreign reporters can do or see during the Games, makes it clear that the approach of the Olympics has caused it to harden, rather than soften, state attitudes toward free speech and human rights?

Are we still going then? Is it still just about sports? Are we willing to march into that stadium as proud, smiling Canadians, giving their blessing, playing their role, either oblivious or complicit?

Are we willing to be used as extras in a new Leni Riefenstahl production?


The implication that Canada is abetting China’s crackdown in Tibet—a mind-bending exercise in ambiguity and complexity—that we’re on the same moral plain as “extras” in Triumph of the Will, is so addlepated as to defy rational discourse. Brunt’s dazed attempt to equate Beijing ’08 with Berlin ’36 and the Chinese authorities with the Nazis is mendacious and shamefully sensational.

Still, as Mike Godwin has also suggested, “the best answer for bad speech is more speech.” In other words, what Godwin’s saying is that his law is only effective as a means of curtailing crap when somebody’s willing to sweep it away.

The hard questions in the run-up to August [Globe and Mail]• Meme, Counter-meme [Wired]