The propensity for online discussions to descend into slanging matches involving Hitler and the Nazis was first noted in 1990 by US lawyer Mike Godwin. Now, he has intervened in the ongoing argument over migrants in the US.
Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez “raised a ruckus” this week after declaring on social media that the US detention centres holding undocumented immigrants on the US southern border are “concentration camps”, reports The Times of Israel.
The Democratic congresswoman from New York insisted it was “not hyperbole” but “the conclusion of expert analysis”, pointing to comments by Andrea Pitzer, author of One Long Night: A Global History of Concentration Camps, in Esquire magazine, who said:
“We have what I would call a concentration camp system, and the definition of that in my book is, mass detention of civilians without trial.”
The accusation sparked “intense debate over the meaning of the words ‘concentration camp’ and whether the term could be appropriately used to describe anything other than Nazi death camps”, says The New York Times.
The newspaper notes that the Merriam-Webster dictionary defines a concentration camp as “a place where large numbers of people (such as prisoners of war, political prisoners, refugees or the members of an ethnic or religious minority) are detained or confined under armed guard”.
Ocasio-Cortez’s critics – “mostly but not exclusively on the right” – said she had invited comparisons to the Nazis, which “belittles the ways Jews suffered when the Nazis turned the camps into death camps”, says The Times of Israel.
The Republican Jewish Coalition said it was “disgraceful” to “compare our nation’s immigration policies to the horrors carried out by the Nazis”, while Wyoming Republican Liz Cheney tweeted:
“Do us all a favor and spend just a few minutes learning some actual history. 6 million Jews were exterminated in the Holocaust. You demean their memory and disgrace yourself with comments like this.”
Others, including Ocasio-Cortez’s fellow Democrats and historians, defended her, with New York Representative Jerrold Nadler saying: “We fail to learn that lesson when we don’t callout such inhumanity right in front of us.”
The internet adage is arguably at the heart of the matter. Almost 30 years ago, attorney Mike Godwin developed “Godwin’s Law of Nazi Analogies”, which states that: “As an online discussion grows longer, the probability of a comparison involving Nazis or Hitler approaches one.”
Godwin had became exasperated by the level of Nazi comparisons in online debates, telling Wired in 1994:
“Invariably, the comparisons trivialized the horror of the Holocaust and the social pathology of the Nazis.”
The idea went viral and Godwin claims the number of Nazi-comparison memes reduced, but over the years the “law” was used to shut down debate as soon as Hitler or the Holocaust was invoked.
Today, Godwin himself joined the discussion, saying he believed Ocasio-Cortez’s use of the term “concentration camps” was actually “appropriate”.
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