The Witch Hunters - how shaming accusations of bigotry can be used to shut down legitimate debate

 

One thing we lefty liberals particularly fear is being thought bigoted. Call me dumb, naive, greedy, and selfish if you like – I can take it. But accuse me of being a bigot and I’ll immediately collapse into a period of mute soul-searching while I check my privilege.

We also know many of us are more bigoted than we realize. So, most of us will take any suggestion that we’re being bigoted seriously. ‘Am I being bigoted?’ we’ll wonder when the accusatory finger is pointed at us. ‘Maybe I am!

Unfortunately, this is a trait that can be exploited by our opponents. On realising we’ve made a pretty good criticism of their views, they may point a finger at us and say, ‘You only say that because you’re [insert relevant word here]-phobic! You’re prejudiced! You should be ashamed!’

Let me be very clear: sometimes these charges of [insert relevant word here]-phobia really are merited. I’m not denying thing that. There certainly are Islamophobes, anti-semites, homophobes, and so on among those who consider themselves liberal and left-leaning.

However, it’s also increasingly common to level such charges of bigotry and prejudice on flimsy or even non-existent grounds in order to stifle legitimate debate.

Take the charge of ‘Islamophobia’. Dare to suggest Islam has played some significant role in in oppressing women and gays, and you can be pretty confident someone will accuse you of Islamophobia. Suggest Islamism is a problem in the UK and you will likely be deemed Islamophobic. You may also be labelled Islamophobic if you merely defend the right to free speech of someone like Maryam Namazie (a UK-based critic of Islam who has, as a result, been no-platformed in some British Universities), or if you believe Islam is one root cause of terrorist violence.

Some critics of Islam and Islamism really are Islamophobic – they’re guilty of an irrational prejudice against all Muslims, period. However, Islam, as a belief system, is not above criticism, and it’s not Islamophobic to point out that it has been, and continues to be, responsible for some ghastly oppression. Still, terrified that we’ll be accused of Islamophobia, many of us prefer to bite our tongues rather than point this out.

Many are justifiably annoyed at the way the charge of ‘Islamophobia’ is used to silence critics. They claim free speech is being suppressed. The complain that the Witch Hunter’s shriek of ‘Islamphobia!‘ is being used to pressure us into gagging not only others, but also ourselves.

But here’s the irony: some of these self-styled defenders of free speech are guilty of witch hunting themselves.

So, for example, among those critical of Islam and Islamism you’ll find some who, whenever Israel is criticised, or whenever the merits of boycotting Israel are discussed, will habitually play the anti-semitism card on the flimsiest of evidence or even no evidence at all. Now yes, some who oppose Israeli policy and support a boycott really are anti-semitic. But not all. Those who complain about being labelled Islamophobes when they criticise Islam and Islamism, but are quick to accuse any and all critics of Israel or supporters of a boycott of being anti-semitic, are doing precisely what they themselves complain about. They’re using shaming accusations of bigotry to try to stifle debate and silence dissent.

Yes, we should be policing ourselves for signs of prejudice and bigotry. I’m sure I’m bigoted in ways I’m unaware of. We should dig out and reflect on our own often less-than-noble motives and biases. But that shouldn’t lead us to self-censor on these issues. For then we become fodder for the Witch Hunters: those who use shaming accusations of bigotry to shut down what is often entirely legitimate debate.

Comments

Paul Braterman said…
Indeed. One of the most glaring examples is the use of the accusation of transphobia against anyone who questions the claims of trans women to take part ub women's only sports competitions, or the wisdom of allowing self-declared trans women into women's only safe spaces.

This is one of the many problems raised by the Scottish Government's pending Hate Speech legislation, which would, some fear, breathe new life into the offence of "blasphemy", which it purpots to abolish.
ukhuman1st said…
Well said. Last night I watched the first part of Robert Rinder's excellent TV programme about the persecution of the Jews and felt a deep anger and incomprehension at the barbarity of the Nazis and their sympathisers. No people should have to suffer such oppression or the  dreadful pogroms that preceded it in other countries. But I also happen to think that the indigenous population of Palestine who lived there before the country was granted to the Jews by western powers following the Balfour Declaration have been sorely treated by the Israeli government since. It may be the case that the Jewish people now have some de jure right to live in that country but to assert, as Zionists do, that this was somehow their land by right was always a highly contentious claim.  But not all Jews are Zionists - one ought to be able to argue about the merits or otherwise of Zionism without being accused of being an anti-semite. The idea that people on the left use the term Zionist and Jew interchangeably seems quite wrong - some might, and should be called out if they do, but many others do not.
LadyAtheist said…
Words are important! Calling someone "islamophobic" also raises the spectre of cowardice.

"Anti-racism" and "implicit bias" are also words that trigger a knee-jerk reaction from someone who feels (possibly undeservedly) that their motives are unquestionable. "Nice" people can't have irrational hatred, and I'm "nice," ergo, those words can't apply to me.

Something went around Facebook recently about some people not having an internal dialogue. I wonder if those are the people who are easily triggered. I have often caught myself internally saying words that I then reflect on and realize are unfair toward the person I'm thinking about. The more I listen to that inner voice, the more aware I am of the exact things that implicit bias training talks about. It also makes me wonder about what thin people and men think of me -- fat women are the one category that the Harvard Implicit Bias study shows increasing bias over time, vs. all the other categories that have been showing a decline in negative bias.

As an open atheist/free-thinker, I've developed some responses to believers who want to portray us all in a negative light. My best come-back is "Have you heard of "love the sinner, hate the sin?" That's how I feel about you -- believing that your religion is the one right one out of dozens on the planet is not very humble, but I still like you and care about you."

Sometimes I see their brow develop pretzel-shaped wrinkles, sometimes not...
Glenn said…
I'm not sure why people need to call each other names in the first place.

If there is a dispute about the teachings of Islam regarding women or acts of violence, for example, then go ask people who have dedicated their lives to the study of Islam and have a vested interest in maintaining an reputation for intellectual integrity. The disputes could be settled quite swiftly and there would be a basis for making constructive change that would improve and enrich all our lives.

The reason these disputes keep lingering is that too many people like to bicker and score points in a 'battle of us versus them". This childish behaviour is not only easily exploited by demagogues, but it undermines respect for science and serious scholarship. Ask pre-literate cultures what happens to their societies when the young no longer respect their Elders (i.e. those who carry the wisdom and knowledge required to secure their collective well-being)

Glenn
Glenn said…
I'm not sure why people need to call each other names in the first place.

If there is a dispute about the teachings of Islam regarding women or acts of violence, for example, then go ask people who have dedicated their lives to the study of Islam and have a vested interest in maintaining an reputation for intellectual integrity. The disputes could be settled quite swiftly and there would be a basis for making constructive change that would improve and enrich all our lives.

The reason these disputes keep lingering is that too many people like to bicker and score points in a 'battle of us versus them". This childish behaviour is not only easily exploited by demagogues, but it undermines respect for science and serious scholarship. Ask pre-literate cultures what happens to their societies when the young no longer respect their Elders (i.e. those who carry the wisdom and knowledge required to secure their collective well-being)

Glenn