Is it ever OK to call someone a Nazi?

Hitler poster

British radio presenter Jon Gaunt has lost a legal challenge after he branded an interview guest a "Nazi". But is language like that ever acceptable?

Gaunt was interviewing Redbridge councillor Michael Stark about the London borough's plans to ban smokers from fostering children when he labelled him a "Nazi", a "health Nazi" and an "ignorant pig".

Some 53 people complained to the media regulator Ofcom about his language during the November 2008 interview on Talksport and Gaunt was subsequently sacked.

Now the High Court has backed up Ofcom's ruling, saying it did not breach the presenter's right to free speech.

But while Gaunt's line of argument might have been unacceptable for the public airwaves, it would have been utterly unremarkable in many corners of the internet.

That's because Gaunt's diatribe characterises an extension of Godwin's Law - a rule that, over time, all internet debates will end up with one participant comparing another to Adolf Hitler, or the Nazis.

Godwin's Law

Start Quote

As an online discussion grows longer, the probability of a comparison involving Nazis or Hitler approaches 1”

End Quote Mike Godwin

Its author, US lawyer Mike Godwin, created his theory in 1990 after observing participants in Usenet newsgroups - early online discussion forums - hoping to make people think before they posted.

Comments like Gaunt's, he says, are all-too familiar.

"No-one can justify calling someone a Nazi simply because their views differ on matters of healthcare policy," he says. "When you get these glib comparisons you lose perspective on what made the Nazis and the Holocaust particularly terrible."

Despite this, Mr Godwin - who now works as general counsel to the Wikimedia Foundation - believes there is no need for regulators to get involved when people use offensive language.

Comparing someone to Hitler has become an internet faux pas, he points out, with fellow users quickly citing Godwin's Law in response to offending posts.

However, he says there has been a worrying decline in standards in the wider world.

Mike Godwin Mike Godwin says his internet law can be observed in the wider world

Through the 1990s and into the 21st Century, use of terms such as "feminazi" - to describe liberal feminists perceived to be intolerant of conservative views - has mushroomed, he suggests.

Mr Godwin says those who label US President Barack Obama a Nazi in response to some interventionist government policies fail to appreciate the absurdity of the suggestion.

"People are driven to make extreme comparisons because of the intensity of their feeling," he adds, suggesting the economic situation has added to those pressures.

As a commentator with a libertarian bent, Gaunt might not seem to have much in common with former London mayor, and left-winger, Ken Livingstone.

But Livingstone also found himself invoking Godwin's Law when he told a Jewish newspaper reporter he was "just like a concentration camp guard".

Reflecting on the incident this week, Mr Livingstone remains unrepentant.

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People use the term for impact but it's wasted - people focus on the word, not what's being said”

End Quote Jason Vit

"[A]ll my life I have lived in a country where people say 'jumped-up little Hitler' and 'behave like concentration camp guard'," he told the Evening Standard newspaper.

"They have entered the popular culture. You are suddenly told you can't use these terms."

Whether or not such comparisons have become more unpalatable, one expert debater says deploying the N word is just lazy arguing.

"Any time you use an extremist term or insult, you lose both the moral high ground and the debate almost immediately," says Jason Vit of the English Speaking Union, which promotes exchange of ideas through debate.

"Often people use the term because they think it will have a big impact but it's wasted because people focus on the word and not what's being said."

Mr Vit says it is fine to describe an argument as ignorant, short-sighted or pointless - but never a person.

"If you call someone 'ignorant' it means you're no longer listening to what they're saying because you've made a value judgement about them."

And, he adds, it is always better to use words that get across the argument without carrying any "baggage".

Below is a selection of your comments

What I'd like to know is whether Michael Stark was more offended at being called an "ignorant pig" or a "Nazi"? I know which I'd like least. My goodness, what if he'd used the adjective 'draconian' would we be seeing Jon Gaunt's public execution? Probably not because we've all forgotten where the word came from. Just like we will with Nazi in another 2,500 years. Teenage kids describe their parents as Nazi's because they've been grounded. Come on let's stop with this 'turn on, turn off' political correctness.

Tom, Chester

In many people's opinion, Mr. Gaunt is rather too full of himself to be an effective interviewer. Accordingly, I would hazard a guess that most of the complaints were about 'how' he said whatever he's accused of saying - rather than 'what' he said.

Brain Cole, Surrey

Anyone who, like me, lived through that period of our history would be very circumspect about using such terminology to describe someone, for whatever reason. Hitler was a Nazi, so were this henchmen who murdered millions of jews, gypsies and homosexuals, not to mention the countless allied troops killed during the second world war. In my view it is best to leave that term of abuse to the history books.

Roger Holloway, Lampeter, Wales

Most people just use the word 'nazi' as a term and dont mean the persons an evil dictator from the 40's! Plus ONLY 53 people complained, how about the other 100k or more who listen to the show and werent 'upset' by this at all. I do wish people would listen to the majority more instead of a few Victor Meldrews (Am I allowed to say that in this PC world ?)

Paul J, Manchester

I agree that the moral high ground is lost when an argument descends into name calling. My personal view is that it's 'acceptable' to use any word to describe somebody in a personal situation. If they are used to incite provocation it is distasteful but permissable. What I think is not permissable is for broadcasters like Gaunt to totally lose any sense of balance or impartiality like he did during that interview. I just listened to it and I think it was the worst interview technique I have ever heard. Constantly speaking over the guest and judging him before he has even expressed a full point. Gaunt got what he deserved!

Alan, London

The reason that calling someone a Nazi signals that you've lost the argument is that it is always such a complete overreaction, and shows that you have no sense of proportion. Whatever your feelings about not allowing smokers to foster children, to imply that it is in the same league of evil as brutally killing thousands of innocent people is just barking mad.

Stevie D, Selby

This article does not mention one of the most mainstream occurrences of the term 'Nazi'; and that is in the TV show Seinfeld with the "Soup Nazi". Perhaps using the word so flippantly helped to erode its impact in modern culture? In north America at least it is seen as an almost comedic adjective to describe someone in power who didn't let you have what you wanted. I do however fear it dilutes the memories of a particularly dark period in human history.

James Saunders, Vancouver, Canada

Using the term Nazi to discribe someone who has extreeme views or views which ristrict other people on an unacceptable level is common place among young people and the english language is constanly changing and evolving. I have been to auzwich and I am a stong belivier in educating children at school about the horrific events that took place, but I would have no qualms in calling someone a nazi to discribe their extreeme views

Jay Jackson, Saltburn

It should be no more/less offensive than calling someone a communist. But if this was the case, I seriously doubt it would be a discussion people would engage in. Freedom of speech is more important than offence. Taking offence is subjective, you can never legislate against it completely as we all find different things offensive. Freedom of speech is the fundamental right of a free people in a free society... Or should we draw our own conclusions about how free the UK really is?

Max Andronichuk, London

Calling someone with extreme views a "whatever-nazi" isn't "offensive" (although everything is offensive to someone - Dortman's Law), it is just modern language. Any more than calling someone a "vandal" is offensive to people of east-Germanic decent. Nazi and nazism is now simply a common term, much like Vandalism.

D Dortman, Durham

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