The name-calling from across the ideological spectrum has perhaps reached new heights in America and across the globe. I often hear the Nazi or fascist label being applied in various debates, especially toward those who take conservative stands. I also find the equivalent of anarchist or traitor applied to those who are on the cultural left.
Take for example President Trump’s attack on Colin Kaepernick and others kneeling, not standing, for the National Anthem at the beginning of NFL games. Kaepernick and those like him are deemed “unpatriotic,” even though Kaepernick was encouraged by a former Green Beret to kneel rather than sit out of respect (as soldiers kneel before the grave of a fallen comrade out of respect). Kaepernick was not out to attack America, or its democratic ideals, but to call out the attack on African American men in our society. Similarly, not all who support the NFL’s stance that all players must stand for the anthem are racist. While I do not agree with the NFL’s stance, I believe that there are well-meaning people who wish for protests concerning racism, including what is deemed police brutality toward African American men and youth, to take other forms of expression.
Another example involves the debate over undocumented people and the wall along the U.S. border. A few conservative friends of mine maintain that if you are not for building the wall, you are for anarchy and wish to undermine national security. Since when is “the wall” the only means for trying to promote border security? Similarly, some on the left maintain that if you detain undocumented people at the border and place them in camps while their cases go to court, you are a Nazi. While I am deeply troubled by the Trump Administration’s zero-tolerance policy (See for example here), we need to have zero-tolerance for hasty labels being applied to those with whom we disagree. Moreover, the Nazi label is no respecter of one’s political tribe. After all, sometimes those on the left are called Nazis for pro-choice stances.
No matter where you stand on the political and ideological spectrum, you can be assigned such labels as “Nazi” at the speed of the internet. The cause of such partisan name-calling might not always be the result of vehement disagreement over issues, including moral intuitions dividing the left and right, but loyalty to one’s tribe. Regardless of the cause, we must focus on arguments and actual and projected outcomes of positions and policies, not name-calling.
It is worth referencing the “Godwin Law” at this point, which goes something like: “Sooner or later in any online argument, someone will bring up Hitler.” Mike Godwin, the author of this claim, encourages people to make sure that comparisons to Hitler and Nazism are well-founded rather than sweeping, baseless accusations, or lazy attempts to shut down your opponent in the debate. Having said that, Godwin does not wish to rule out the Nazi or Hitler label in every case. Rather, one needs to make the case for the Nazi or Hitler association astutely and judiciously, including how one’s opponent’s stances or policies may be Hitler-like in embryonic form. Godwin recently wrote on this subject in an article in the LA Times. It is worth quoting him here:
By all means cite GL if you think some Nazi comparison is baseless, needlessly inflammatory or hyperbolic. But Godwin’s Law was never meant to block us from challenging the institutionalization of cruelty or the callousness of officials who claim to be just following the law. It definitely wasn’t meant to shield our leaders from being slammed for the current fashion of pitching falsehoods as fact. These behaviors, distressing as they are, may not yet add up to a new Reich, but please forgive me for worrying that they’re the “embryonic form” of a horror we hoped we had put behind us.
It is important that we guard against sweeping allegations, including the use of labels like “Hitler” or “Nazi,” “anarchist” or “traitor” to refer to those with whom one disagrees strongly. The guilt by association reductio ad Hitlerum and reductio ad Nazium ad nauseam will make society numb and nauseous to all uses of these labels, even when they are warranted. As with the story of the boy who cried “Wolf!” one too many fake-news-times, people will come to think every instance of “Wolf!” is fake, even when it’s real. By then, it will be too late.