Friday March 13, 2015

Justin Trudeau, Steven Blaney and Godwin's law of Nazi analogies

Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau speaks at the Royal York Hotel about "Liberty in a culturally diverse society."

Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau speaks at the Royal York Hotel about "Liberty in a culturally diverse society." (Toronto Star via Getty Images)

Listen 9:14

Twice in the past week ​prominent Canadian politicians have made references to the Holocaust and Nazi rhetoric. Both have brushed up against something called Godwin's Law, which states that if a discussion (usually online) goes on long long enough somebody will compare someone or something to Hitler or the Nazis. Mike Godwin, creator of Godwin's Law, joined Day 6 to discuss when it's okay to make a Nazi comparison.

Brent Bambury: We just heard two prominent Canadian politicians make reference to Nazi Germany. I want to find out from you if you think those references were warranted. Let's start with Mr. Trudeau. Did you think what he said was appropriate? 

Mike Godwin: Yes I actually do I think that it’s served Canada well to remain aware that the singling out of people on the basis of their ethnic or religious background is not something that Canadians have totally been a stranger to. That in the run up to World War Two certainly Jews in Canada had that experience …. I think that Canada of this century is a better place and I think what Mr. Trudeau is saying is in line with what I think majority of Canadian values are today. 

You are aware that some people did criticize him for that comparison perhaps unconsciously thinking of Godwin's Law. 

I am aware of it and I think that the thing that I would say in defence of Mr. Trudeau is that he is not saying that anyone who is afraid of people of different cultures or people of different ethnic groups is inherently going to act like a Nazi or be like Hitler. I think what he's saying is look, let's be aware of history, we should remember our mistakes and not repeat them. 

Peter MacKay and Steven Blaney

Justice Minister Peter MacKay (right)looks as Public Safety Minister Steven Blaney talks to reporters on Parliament in Ottawa on Wednesday February 26, 2014. (Fred Chartrand/The Canadian Press)

Let's look at minister Blaney who seemed to draw a line between certain kinds of speech and the Holocaust. Do you think that that comparison was acceptable. 

Yeah. Well first of all it should be understood that I have never been trying to say that there were unacceptable comparisons. I've always been very careful not to say this is forbidden or this is something that you can't say. What I've always tried to do is make people aware when they are making comparisons of what his history teaches us … I want to say, in defence of Mr. Blaney, that in fact bad ideas can lead to bad real world outcomes. That is certainly true and nobody can dispute that. But what free and open societies like Canada's and like those of other developed nations really try to do is not attack the ideas by suppressing them. We try to have an open full airing and full discussion and full debate and we think that bad ideas will fail on their merits. We think that if we allow people to speak freely that will ensure that the democratic values, the inclusive values that we care about in the developed world, and in our democracy, that is going to prevail. 

But isn't part of the idea, or the spirit of Godwin's Law, the idea that if you do make these comparisons you have to be careful and you have to be prepared to back them up, because otherwise you could lose the argument?

I think that is absolutely one of the things that I tried to do when I first when I first came up with Godwin's Law 25 years ago. I really wanted people not to make silly or glib comparisons that really show no awareness of history... and I think that to that extent Godwin's Law has succeeded. 

'I really wanted people not to make silly or glib comparisons that really show no awareness of history... and I think that to that extent Godwin's Law has succeeded' - Mike Godwin

Can you give me examples of times when people did make comparisons that were unjustifiable say in the last quarter century since the law came into effect?

Oh sure! Well even in political races in the United States that I've voted in where they had said for example that Michael Dukakis is some kind of a communist or they say that Bill Clinton is really sort of an authoritarian figure … people compare each other to Ayatollahs and Hitler all the time I guess you can't take those comparisons very seriously. I think that if all Godwin’s Law ever does is make people think harder about how they invoke history, I think I've done some good. 

Do you do you ever worry that it goes too far? A few weeks ago Newsweek published an article that asked whether it's unfair to compare ISIS to the Nazis. What do you think?

Well as you know, I was quoted in a piece by Benny Avni for Newsweek and I had a discussion with him on the phone and I said, 'First of all I'm not too worried about being fair to ISIS. I think ISIS invites all the unfairness that they get.' But having said that, ISIS in terms of the great currents of world history, has not yet risen to the level of a worldwide threat the way some other movements that we remember from the twentieth century have done. And let's hope it never does. Let's hope that the community of nations figures out effective ways to respond to problems like ISIS. 

Did you ever have any idea when you coined it that it would become one of the most famous internet rules of all time?

I got the idea that I wanted to spread it around and I was quite enthusiastic about it when I started out .. but I didn't know I was going to be continue to be talking about it twenty five years later!  I was interviewed a couple years back for a magazine piece ... and the reporter said 'How do you feel about the fact that this will be in the first line of your obituary?' and I said 'I'm still alive I'm still working if I work really hard maybe I can get it down into the second line!'