COLUMN: Godwin's law, meet Onderwater's law


By Eric Onderwater

Disagreeing with public opinion doesn’t make someone racist

In the public debate of today, most people have come to a common understanding of certain things. Left or right, intelligent or stupid, many people choose to abide by certain conventions when they debate and discuss opinions and ideas.

For example, it is a common convention to define the terms (words, expressions) of a debate. It is also a common convention while debating to argue about the ideas that are in play, instead of attacking the people who agree with certain ideas. Just because someone is wrong does not imply that they’re a complete idiot, or vice versa.

Another, less-known convention is found in disciplines such as political science and history. This convention refers to the so-called “Hitler Argument” based on Godwin’s Law. It goes as follows: whoever refers to Hitler and the Nazis first in a debate automatically loses the debate.

Why? Well, because comparing a set of ideas (or a person) to the Nazis is almost always intellectually cheap. It so quickly becomes an ad hominem attack, directed at people instead of ideas. Too often it is simply an emotional deflection, or an appeal to paranoia, rather than a careful argument of logic and facts.

Today I propose another rule of debate or common social convention in response to multiple articles published in The Peak over the last month. One article, published Feb. 3, alleged that all opponents of the “Idle No More” protests were “racists.” Another article, published Feb. 17, alleged that all those who oppose the continued status quo of government handouts to Aboriginals in Canada were “best friends with a concept [called] racism.”

It is unfortunate that both of these authors feel the need to resort to accusations like racism to push their particular views. It should be universally acknowledged that the status of Aboriginals in Canada is one of the most important debates in Canada today. Both writers have valuable things to say, and important opinions to contribute.

But neither author is correct in smearing opponents of their views as “racists.” While it is certainly possible that a number of their opponents may actually be racist, it is highly unlikely that the vast
majority of their opponents are. Opposing government handouts to native Canadians does not make you racist. Neither does opposing “Idle no more.”

So, let me propose a new social convention, in order to regulate debate. It goes like this: the person who first calls his/her opponent racist instantly loses the debate. Why? This is due to the same reason cited for the “Nazi” rule. “Racist,” at least in Canada, is too often used as an insult or epithet, instead of as an argument. Stop calling people names and please start debating their arguments. It is insulting when someone decides to smear your name instead of properly interacting with your ideas. Too many people think that they have license to smear their opponents as “racists.”

If you want to call someone a racist, how about doing your homework before you do, just to make sure? Otherwise it’s just cheap rhetoric, and I’m getting a little tired of it.