In 1990, attorney and Internet law expert Mike Godwin introduced an online argument theory that has come to be known as “Godwin’s Law.” Simply put, he stated, “As an online discussion grows longer, the probability of a comparison involving Nazis or Hitler approaches 1.”
Put through probability theory, any heated political or religious discussion online will almost surely dissolve into a Hitler mention.
Last week, the Times experienced Godwin’s Law with the April 1 article, “Pastor to lead book burning, public bonfire.” I posted the article on the newspaper’s Facebook page at 12:24 p.m. It didn’t take but 27 minutes for someone to post, “Hitler would approve, damn fascists.”
At 1:37 p.m., another Hitler comparison. Then another right after that. You get the picture.
The same thing happened over on the pvtimes.com website, with the fourth comment post dropping the Hitler/Nazi reference.
I understand people’s urge to make the comparison between book burning and the Nazis, because the party made a public show of such practices. But it’s also an all-too-easy reference. Godwin understood that in crafting his theory.
In 2008, he wrote “Although deliberately framed as if it were a law of nature or of mathematics, its purpose has always been rhetorical and pedagogical: I wanted folks who glibly compared someone else to Hitler or to Nazis to think a bit harder about the Holocaust.”
Even though the organizer of the bonfire and other religious leaders in this area tried to downplay the proposed book burning component after-the-fact, (see Wednesday’s article, “Sin-cleansing Easter bonfire brings reflective gathering,”) it was definitely a central idea promoted prior to public backlash.
When Pastor Tony Falcone of Pahrump’s Mountain View Chapel announced the public bonfire, he envisioned it as allowing attendees to throw into the bonfire anything that does not bring glory to God, including idols, satanic music, dirty magazines and various books. It states “books” right on the flyer. He also referenced on the flyer Acts 19:19 in the New Testament that says, “Many of them also which used curious arts brought their books together, and burned them before all men: and they counted the price of them, and found it fifty thousand pieces of silver.”
Some interpretations of the Bible use the word “scrolls,” but “books” is found in the modern King James Bible, and many versions of today’s Catholic Bible translations.
I would like to address two things. The first is that when reporter Selwyn Harris pitched the story to me, I thought it was just another interesting Pahrump story. Here’s a preacher who wants people to bring items that the person feels maybe sinful in their life and through them into a cleansing fire. And maybe that would include, I thought, a copy or two of “Fifty Shades of Grey.”
So while I penned the headline with the ‘book burning” component out front, I placed it inside on page 4, and didn’t tease it on the cover. I just didn’t think it was something to get in a twist about. For me, the religious overtones and small-town feel took me to the movie “Footloose.”
I’ve never met Falcone, but I didn’t take what he was doing as censorship on the institutional level. He was allowing individuals to make a personal act of asking for forgiveness. But he in the end did seem to realize that including even a passing mention of book burning, no matter how personal the proposed act was intended, opened him up to easy criticism.
“I think a lot of people took it as all of a sudden now I’m Hitler,” said Falcone in Wednesday’s newspaper.
By the end of Saturday’s sin-cleansing bonfire, the nearly 100 people gathered had shared prayers, tossed paper with hand-written messages into the flames, and had a peaceful, reflective time. Despite the public outcry prior to the event, which reportedly included threatening phone calls to Falcone, another pastor pointed out the peaceful nature of the gathering without the incidents that were threatened.
“Everybody is welcome in the kingdom of God and that’s probably why it’s so peaceful here tonight, it’s a family of one.”
Maybe, but I’m sure the police presence across the street didn’t hurt either.