Overusing the Bigot Epithet

I didn’t say anything during the whole kerfuffle regarding Robert McLelland’s comments (overview here, here, here and here) because, while I thought that the pile-on was overly-exuberant and seemed politically motivated, I found Robert’s original comments to be quite wrong, and his approach following the controversy to be very self-defeating. Thus I had no window in which to make a defence.

However, recently Warren Kinsella, who I respect despite his decision to take a private feud onto the pages of the National Post, has weighed in on another blog; one called the Canadian Observer. In Warren’s words:

A few of us are trying to figure out who this bigot [canadianobserver.wordpress.com] is. Tips can be sent to the usual place, at wkinsella@hotmail.com.

Time to shine a light on another coackroach!

Now, I’ve gone over to the website and I’ve looked around, and unless they’ve removed material, I could find nothing that could be classified as bigotry. If you’re going to shine a light on a cockroach, you should at least point out the mess its made. Otherwise, I have to agree with Greg Bester’s assessment:

I am confused. Aside from calling Kinsella an “ass”, which is admittedly schoolyardish, I didn’t see much “bigotry” on display. What I did see was a lot of questioning of the policies of the government of Israel and a skepticism of the opinion leaders of the North American Jewish community. That may or may not be wrong headed, but it in no way satisfies the definition of bigotry. Mr. Kinsella should take care that, in his legitimate zeal to defend the Jewish community against anti-Semitism, he does not cross into anti-democratic stifling of dissent.

For the past few years, there has been a sentiment bubbling around that suggests that the government of Israel is somehow beyond criticism. The temptation seems to exist to link concerns over Israel’s maintenance of settlements in the West Bank, and criticism of its dealings with the Palestinians, with antisemitism. Similar epithets were hurled when people spoke out against Israel’s wrong-headed and ultimately futile attack on southern Lebanon to destroy Hezbollah.

That Israel is a democracy surrounded by enemies is not in doubt. That Israel’s human rights record stands head and shoulders over the dictatorships of Syria and the absolute monarchy of Saudi Arabia, is not in question for me. That there are terrorist groups out to destroy Israel is a recognized fact. But to say that Israel’s government should be shielded from criticism on this basis is foolhardy. And to suggest that such criticism amounts to an anti-Semitic attack is downright undemocratic.

It is very similar to the practise taken up around the time of the last presidential election equating criticism of the Bush Administration’s policies in Iraq with outright anti-Americanism — a meme still practised by such loudmouths on the right as Michelle Malkin, Ann Coulter and Bill O’Reilly. It was intellectual laziness at its worst — a refusal to debate the criticisms, legitimate or otherwise, on the other side, coupled with a response that Bill O’Reilly was particularly fond of: sit down and shut up.

Accusations of anti-Semitism and bigotry take this farther, by linking critics to the horrors real anti-Semitism has caused through history. It suggests that the critic should be forced to shut up, by being essentially shunned by all respectable members of society (who cease to be respectable members if they break ranks and speak up for the accused bigot or anti-Semite).

This practice causes real damage, to the lives of those accused, but also to future victims of antisemitism. By seeking to silence debate by overusing this epithet, the epithet starts to lose meaning. Mike at Rational Reasons says this best:

This new political weapon has been used with more frequency and with candor, as recent events in the blogsphere show. A new, McCathyist political correctness has sprung up such that even single sentences, taken out of context and which run counter to thousands of other statements are enough to condemn someone as an antisemite. An accusation of antisemitism is now used to smear political opponents, to gain political advantage for oneself and one’s political party and to remove from the debate people or arguments one dislikes.

And that practice is nearly as dangerous as anti-Semitism itself. When the charge of anti-Semitism is used so cavalierly and against people who are not anti-Semitic, the true power and meaning become watered down and lose their meaning. If everyone is anti-Semitic then who really is? When it becomes so easy to be anti-Semitic, then the phrase has lost all meaning. And when it loses meaning because of this, it will lose its much vaunted power and it will be ignored. That means that true antisemites will go unnoticed and their views, rather than being properly marginalized, will be associated with the smeared moderates, not the other way around. It will give the anti-Semite’s views power and legitimacy and attract people. Antisemitism will be so misused that it will not matter any longer and perhaps even become acceptable and ‘cachet’-politically-incorrect, a point of pride.

That will be the worst tragedy of all because it will empower those that anyone who truly cares about anti-Semitism are trying to fight, the real anti-Semites.

And I cannot help but note that the more prominent thing that seems to have attracted Warren Kinsella’s attention is the Canadian Observer is its admittedly immature and personal confrontationalism with Warren directly. And there are several legitimate responses to that, ranging from ignoring this blog, to a diplomatic and dignified rebuttal, to a good ol’ “so’s your dad!” But playing the bigotry card, by trying to out the individuals who are posting anonymously, goes beyond reasonable (or reasonable-but-immature) discourse and takes on the appearance of a power-play, attempting to silence dissent.

I’m pretty sure that’s not Warren’s intension, defender of the charter that he is. But Warren has said before, quite sagely, that words have power, and they should be used wisely. And this includes the epithets of bigotry and anti-Semitism. They should be used only on those individuals that deserve the moniker, lest the blade be blunted and rendered useless in more important fights.

To the Canadian Observer, I would observe that your approach towards Warren Kinsella appears designed to attract his attention and court controversy. I have my own problems with this personalization of political debate. It’s not constructive, and I can understand Warren’s strong response aside from the bigot epithet. How would you like it if somebody posted your picture on their blog and called you an ass? Not much, I’d wager, and I think there are better ways to make your point.

This approach is similar to what some sites on the right do, to ridicule the other side rather than engage the issues in any way that acknowledges their opponent’s equality. I know many of us on the centre and the left deplore this approach when it’s used. The question is, do we deplore this approach because the approach is wrong? Or do we simply deplore the people who use this approach (thwarting our own arguments, since it’s usually the use of such tactics that makes these people deplorable, in my opinion).

Administrative Note

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