Godwin’s Law is a fallacy (actually it’s a pseudofallacy, which I discussed in my article on why appealing to fallacies makes us lazy philosophers) where someone makes a claim that someone’s character or behaviour is analogous to Hitler or the Nazis. Godwin’s law says that in an argument where someone makes a Hitler/Nazi analogy, the argument is over and the one who made the analogy has lost. Godwin created the law due to witnessing far too many political debates involving Nazi analogies as a hyperbole.
Many arguments occur online through social media. Unfortunately, this environment is typically seen as where arguments are at their worst. There is trolling, harassment, name calling, and so on. At the same time, this is where much debate occurs among the general public. The topics will much of the time include politics and philosophy. Hence, analysing how arguments are conducted in this environment is worth doing.
What I have begun to see at an increasing rate are people responding to an argument by pointing out a grammatical error. For example, a person on social media may post “their is no evidence for global warming” and someone will respond with “*there”. These people have been given the title of Grammar Nazis, because of the annoyance people will experience by having someone point out all of their grammatical errors instead of addressing their argument.
There are times when pointing out someone’s grammatical errors is useful and should be welcomed. It is something I always welcome. I am far from a perfect writer and am susceptible to typos and grammatical mistakes as much as anyone else. If something is pointed out, I will thank them (if the correction was made with at least some degree of tact) and make the required correction. However, many will point grammatical errors out as a ‘got ya’ against an argument or claim they were making. Consider the claim earlier that there is no evidence for global warming. Which is the more serious problem with this claim: The person’s misuse of the word their? Or that they are saying that there is no evidence for global warming? If we are assuming this person is legitimately just ignorant about the evidence for global warming, the better response would be to offer evidence for global warming, such as data from the IPCC.
This approach follows two principles advocated in philosophy: the principle of charity and the cooperative principle. The principle of charity is (which I discuss in my tutorial on the strawman fallacy) the attempt to make an argument that is currently unsound sound. This is done by either adding assumed premises and/or removing false premises to attempt to create a sound argument. The cooperative principle is interpreting what someone is saying based on reasonable assumptions. For instance, if we are planning to go for a picnic and I say “oh, its raining outside” an application of the cooperative principle would not interpret me making just an arbitrary statement about the weather, they would assume that I am inferring that we cannot go for a picnic today.
When someone responds to a claim or an argument by just pointing out a grammatical error, they are neither honouring the principle of charity or the cooperative principle. Regarding the principle of charity, this is because there has been no attempt to see if they can make the argument sound. Regarding the cooperative principle, the reader’s ability to identify the grammatical error means the reader knew what the writer actually meant. If I can correct the use of ‘their, there, and they’re’, then I have already understood what the writer was trying to say. If I legitimately could not make sense out of what they are saying, then I would not be able to make the correction. This would be similar to your word document at times able to advise the correct grammar option, but at other times will just underline your sentence with the advice: consider revising.
This does not mean that those who commit grammatical errors are off the hook. When writing an argument, we need to try to make the argument as clear as possible and minimise distractions. This too is a part of the cooperative principle. But this is a responsibility to those giving the argument, not the readers analysing it. As readers analysing the argument, the quality of the grammar is irrelevant to whether the argument is strong or sound. And this is what we, at least should, be trying to establish.
Thus, I propose a new Godwin’s law: If someone appeals to grammatical errors as a response to an argument, the the argument is over and they have lost. Of course, just like the original Godwin’s Law, this is not to be taken literally. However, it would a good principle to adhere to if we want to argue better on social media.