In 1990, an attorney named Mike Godwin came up with a premise that the longer Internet discussion threads progressed it was inevitable that someone would make a comparison to Hitler or Nazis. The premise became what is now referred to as Godwin’s Law. Some online forums went further than Godwin himself did and established the rule that whenever Hitler or Nazis were invoked in a discussion the discussion was over and who did the invoking officially was deemed the loser. But Godwin has since made clear that he believed that comparing someone to Hitler shouldn’t automatically end a discussion as long as the person making the comparison showed some knowledge of history and was thoughtful.
I bring up Godwin’s Law now since we seem immersed in a moment when many online or in-person discussions lead to an invocation of the former or current or 44td or 43nd president of the United States not as it relates to a particular policy issue but more as a way of shutting down the possibility of any reasonable discussion. The name is hurled more as a pronouncement than that the person it’s being hurled at is irrational, unreasonable, or untethered. The results make it near impossible to have a reasonable discussion on everything from healthcare and taxes to education and poverty, as well as most things in between including which professional athletes are acceptable to root for.
When we can’t talk about pressing social issues with those who have differing views, the likelihood that we can address these pressing social issues becomes diminished. If invoking a politician’s name as an epithet shuts down the conversation, it’s reasonable to argue that perhaps it’s time for each of us to focus more on the issues about which we are passionate.
My best friend and I met in the fifth grade. We were each the best man at the other’s wedding. We live on opposite coasts but we still talk every week. Politically, we are about as far apart from one another on issues as you could imagine. Yet we still talk about social issues, politics, and policy. So far, in more than 50 years of friendship neither of us has judged the other to be evil or corrupt or an idiot because we think differently from one another. We just disagree strongly about some stuff and we each do what we can to support the issues we care about. Each of us might hope that some day we might be able to convince one another to come around to thinking differently on some things, but we don’t invoke past politicians’ names as a bludgeon to shut talk down.
It seems important to call for more focus in the way we talk to one another, even or most especially with those with whom we disagrees. Focus on the issues, not the person. Focus on the desired outcomes, not the political affiliations. Focus on being as informed as we can become on an issue rather than mouth off something we read posted on a social media site by someone we have never heard of and for which we have no context or support.
With so much noise coming from all directions, the right thing seems to be to become as informed as possible and to learn to listen as vigorously as we speak.
Jeffrey L. Seglin, author of The Simple Art of Business Etiquette: How to Rise to the Top by Playing Nice, is a senior lecturer in public policy and director of the communications program at Harvard's Kennedy School. He is also the administrator of www.jeffreyseglin.com, a blog focused on ethical issues.
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