Thursday, February 11, 2010

Godwin's Law is a Specific Example of a General Phenomenon

Godwin’s Law "As an online discussion grows longer, the probability of a comparison involving Nazis or Hitler approaches 1.” (You have to know what a probability approaching 1 means, but it will be good to research that if you don’t know it.) There are related discussions, such as whether bringing up Hitler defaults or finishes the intellectual portion, which I am not here concerned with.

That this is not a stand-alone law, as is usually assumed, became clear to me today while reading a post and comment thread over at The Volokh Conspiracy. Eugene Volokh had asked an interesting question about the recent claim that President Obama’s manner is professorial – not in a good way.
I’m hardly a foe of professors, or a friend to casual disdain for the academy. Professors tend to be very smart people, and deeply knowledgeable in their areas of expertise…Moreover, whatever the weaknesses of professors, the notion that ordinary folks are inherently wiser than the highly educated strikes me as quite mistaken.

At the same time, I wonder whether the failures of the Obama Administration are connected to what one might think of as the professor mindset, or rather the mindset of the educated elites. Professors are used to being listened to because they are professors.
That last is, BTW, the most negative statement about Obama in the post. The comment threads of both this post and its immediate successor Professors As Politicians, however, quickly deteriorated into angry exchanges about tangential topics. I hypothesised that there is a variant of Godwin’s Law by which the mention of any shortcoming of Obama elicits a response about Sarah Palin, and the mention of any shortcoming of Sarah Palin elicits a response about Obama. As this phenomenon is observable even in the higher-class neighborhoods of the internet – here, for example, or Volokh, or Chicago Boys – this descent into emotional and symbolic arguments must be pretty powerful.

The descent is not immediate, of course. Someone questioned whether this characterization of academics is just – a legitimate question, but one bringing us more into the realm of stereotype and symbol. Someone else asked whether Obama is indeed a real academic – that’s also fair, but another step down. It wasn’t long at all before someone was presenting the false choice “you’re saying it would be better to be ruled by stupid and uneducated people, then.” The trend is toward the emotional and symbolic, however gradual.

Others have pointed out that the same might be said about Stalin and Communists, Catholics and the Inquisition, and other examples of the Association Fallacy. The probability might approach 1 there as well. Fair enough. Yet if this is true, then it follows that if a discussion goes on long enough, it will eventually be composed of nothing but hot-button, high emotion, high symbolism topics. There will be a natural tendency toward the emotional and symbolic and away from the intellectual, and it will take considerable energy to return a discussion to an intellectual plane. There is a natural entropy to debate. Intellect must take more effort or energy than emotion.

It makes for uncomfortable speculations about the nature of Hell, as the Miltonic, Sartrian, and Screwtape illustrations all point in that direction. When we no longer have the wit to wrest discussion back to a better level, we descend further into the emotional, associative, and symbolic, reacting helplessly to the jolts inflicted on us.


Dubbahdee said...

I think people who disagree with Godwin's law are Nazis, in the same league with their Grandmaster of Ceremonies, the old Hitler-Dog himself.

Not one to wait around, I.

Der Hahn said...

I think understand both your comments here and the point of Professor Volokh's post. (That understanding isn't necessarily doing in my case is noted.)

In defense of the commentors to his post, speculating that because Y is an X (or exhibits the characteristics of an X) Y is behaving in the (bad) ways an X does, no matter how softly and intelligently worded, is going to bring out the defenders of Y and X's in force.

Eugene's post, though gently worded, was pretty heavy on generalities and symbolic arguments. It might have generated a better discussion had he given a specific example of what he saw as the 'professorial mistakes' Obama was making.

Going a bit OT, I'm certainly no supporter of Obama but after the last eight years I sympathize with his defenders' sensitivity to the word 'mistake'. Defining something as a mistake is heavily dependent upon context. If I say 'as the word turns' you might initally assume I made an error unless you realize that I'm talking about a revolving billboard :) not a globe.

The effort that may have the most impact on debate is trying to take events and people at face value, without attempting to make assumptions about intended outcomes and hidden motiviations.

Maybe what we're seeing in Godwin's Law and the Palin/Obama corallary is that our minds have a strong tendency to leap from the specific to the general, in such a way that we often see trends among discontinous events that aren't really there.