Chelsea Clinton speaks to people after the NYU vigil for the Muslims killed by a terrorist in Christchurch, New Zealand.Rashid Abbasi / Reuters

When the two strangers accosted Chelsea Clinton, she was attending an NYU vigil for the Muslims murdered by a terrorist in Christchurch, New Zealand. “This right here is the result of a massacre stoked by people like you and the words that you put out into the world,” one declared as the other recorded the encounter. “I want you to know that, and I want you to feel that deep down inside. Forty-nine people died because of the rhetoric you put out there.”

The accuser’s blend of callous indignation and extravagant nonsense brought to mind charges that Chelsea’s parents murdered Vince Foster or that her mother committed treason when the U.S. consulate in Benghazi was attacked. But these critics weren’t right-wingers parroting talk radio. They were leftist NYU students.

It would be absurd to blame any anti-racist New York City cosmopolitan for an ethno-fascist’s decision to murder Muslims in a gambit to start a race war. The choice to blame Chelsea Clinton is particularly silly. Her recent activism includes attending a 2017 Muslim-solidarity rally, protesting President Donald Trump’s attempts to prevent Muslim immigration, extolling the response of Muslims to a hate crime in Portland, Oregon, and lamenting a horrific crime against a young Muslim.

Despite the glaring unfairness of the very serious charge, however, BuzzFeed published a column by the two NYU students, who doubled down on their attempted public shaming. Meanwhile, CNN, Time, The Washington Post, the Daily Mail, ABC News, The Jerusalem Post, Jezebel, USA Today, The New Zealand Herald, People, and many other mass-media outlets covered the altercation. In a world rife with dangerous anti-Muslim bigotry, why did student activists, Twitter users, and the media focus public debate on an outlandishly frivolous accusation?

One instructive place to begin: Last month, Representative Kevin McCarthy, the Republican leader in the House, told reporters that punitive action should be taken against two Democratic House members for their statements on Israel. “It’s not clear what McCarthy particularly found offensive,” Haaretz reported, “but both lawmakers embrace the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement targeting Israel, and both have been accused of tweets that cross the line.”

On Twitter, the journalist Glenn Greenwald flagged that article for his followers. “It’s stunning how much time US political leaders spend defending a foreign nation even if it means attacking free speech rights of Americans,” he declared.

Representative Ilhan Omar responded, “It’s all about the Benjamins baby.”

Some saw her tweet as a standard leftist claim that donor money was corrupting politics, others as an unwitting or intentional echo of an anti-Semitic trope.

“Please learn how to talk about Jews in a non-anti-Semitic way,” the journalist Batya Ungar-Sargon tweeted. “Sincerely, American Jews.” Chelsea Clinton quoted those words, adding, “Co-signed as an American. We should expect all elected officials, regardless of party, and all public figures to not traffic in anti-Semitism.”

That callout upset the NYU students. They felt that casting Omar’s comments as beyond the pale was itself beyond the pale—that it made Chelsea Clinton an anti-Muslim bigot. Fast-forward to the vigil, where they called out Chelsea Clinton in turn. Though it happened face-to-face, it was, in essence, an IRL quote-tweet. The “likes” were provided by classmates who snapped in solidarity.

In all those callouts, different readers will take different sides.

Just notice that at every link in that chain of events, public discourse was dominated not by efforts to persuade or debate anything on the merits, but by attempts to cast, locate, or portray the target of one’s opprobrium as out of bounds.

The lesson isn’t that stigma is never appropriate. If someone incites violence against Jews or Muslims, for example, the words ought to be summarily condemned, not considered fodder for debate about whether violent attacks are, in fact, desirable. Still, this episode illustrates that when the constant focus is on the boundaries of legitimate speech, little time or attention is left for substance. And what’s said to constitute bigotry keeps expanding without any apparent limit.

Nowadays, the journalist Damon Linker observed in The Week, “the point is less to convince your opponent that she has made an error of reasoning or is wrong on the facts as to convince your own side, as well as the dwindling crowd of neutral observers … that they are excused from having to take your opponent seriously because she has crossed a line beyond which people shouldn’t be granted a hearing.”

The NYU students’ expansive notion of bigotry now encompasses Chelsea Clinton’s effort to call out what she regarded (whether rightly or wrongly) as anti-Semitic bigotry. Meanwhile, a Washington Examiner headline now declares, “BuzzFeed Platforms the Genocidal Bigots Who Harassed Chelsea Clinton.” Once callout culture takes hold, its perverse incentives generate inanity without end.

The BuzzFeed article by the NYU students is most noteworthy for the way it elides substantive disagreements. Core to this dispute is whether or not the tweet that Chelsea Clinton published was, in fact, bigoted toward Muslims. Clinton herself obviously doesn’t think so. Yet here’s what the NYU students wrote:

We did a double take when we first noticed Chelsea Clinton was at the vigil. Just weeks before … we bore witness to a bigoted, anti-Muslim mob coming after Rep. Ilhan Omar for speaking the truth about the massive influence of the Israel lobby … we were profoundly disappointed when Chelsea Clinton used her platform to fan those flames.

We believe that Ilhan Omar did nothing wrong except challenge the status quo, but the way many people chose to criticize Omar made her vulnerable to anti-Muslim hatred and death threats. We were shocked when Clinton arrived at the vigil, given that she had not yet apologized to Rep. Omar for the public vilification against her. We thought it was inappropriate for her to show up to a vigil for a community she had so recently stoked hatred against. We were not alone in feeling uncomfortable—many students were dismayed to see her there.

The students are so short on empathetic discernment that they presumed Chelsea Clinton would perceive her own actions just as her harshest critics perceive them. They still don’t seem to recognize that she does not believe her tweet “stoked hatred against” the Muslim community, or fanned the flames of a bigoted mob, or undermined anyone’s physical safety, whether she is right or wrong in those judgments. Needless to say, the students never consider that it might be more constructive to argue with Clinton than to call her out and wish her anguish.

The article continues: “So when we saw Chelsea, we saw an opportunity to have her ear and confront her on her false charge of anti-Semitism against our only Black, Muslim, Somali, and refugee member of Congress. We took our chance to speak truth to power.” But asserting “Forty-nine people died because of the rhetoric you put out there” was neither the truth nor a confrontation on the merits of the anti-Semitism charge. The NYU students were not engaged in an attempt to “speak truth to power.” They were engaged in public shaming.

They later write: “Many have said it was unfair to connect Chelsea’s words to the massacre in Christchurch. To them, we say that anti-Muslim bigotry must be addressed wherever it exists.” Except that they’ve tried to publicly shame Chelsea Clinton while saying nothing about countless examples of clear, virulent bigotry. And they’re still begging the question. Those who believe the students behaved unfairly do not agree that Clinton’s words constituted anti-Muslim bigotry. It is easy for many to imagine her tweeting exactly the same critique, rightly or wrongly, at a non-Muslim who said the same thing about Israel policy.

The authors come closest to valid claims when they write, “Hatred and vilification against Muslims created this killer,” and “Spurred on by professional bigots, anti-Muslim hate now permeates our culture and politics …” It’s perfectly true that anti-Muslim bigotry is pervasive and dangerous. But the (currently too-soft) taboo against anti-Muslim bigotry is weakened, not strengthened, if callouts extend so promiscuously that Chelsea Clinton, of all people, is deemed an anti-Muslim bigot, let alone complicit in 49 murders.

The NYU students did not invent this doomed mode.

They learned it through peer acculturation, perverse incentives, and adults who indulge in question-begging arguments, irresponsible accusations, and careless callouts, all of which are epidemic on the social-justice left and the Republican right. Opportunists such as Representative McCarthy recognize that callout culture is a boon to his political coalition: He can call out the left, exploiting the hypersensitivity that causes leftists to constantly eat their own, confident that he’ll never suffer if and when he is inconsistent, as most of his fellow Republicans won’t call him on the hypocrisy of supporting a serial bigot such as President Trump.

Yet every day is a chance for adults to set a better example.

Representative Omar has succeeded this week with a Washington Post op-ed that sets forth a foreign-policy philosophy and makes a substantive case for it on the merits.

Whereas McCarthy claimed in another recent callout that Representative Adam Schiff is “a modern-day Joe McCarthy,” and President Trump continues to label the entire news media “enemies of the people.” If only that inane public shaming were the work of student activists rather than the most powerful GOP officials.

Public discourse will always include moral limits. Bigotry of the sort expressed by people who favor murdering Muslims or Jews does cross them, as should some words falling short of that. Drawing exact lines will always be hard and controversial. And occasional debates about edge cases are necessary exercises. But none of that comes close to justifying the state of our public discourse today.

Imagine an alternative civic culture in which Republicans applied their purported disdain for callout culture to their own, and where the left worked toward a public discourse with better incentives, lauding participants not for zero-sum callouts but for substantively engaging ideas, people, and policies on the merits. Everyone would be better off. As I write, I see that a critic of the NYU students has resurfaced bigoted tweets that one of them published in high school, extending the chain yet again. There is no one other than all of us to make it stop.

This article is part of “The Speech Wars,” a project supported by the Charles Koch Foundation, the Reporters Committee for the Freedom of the Press, and the Fetzer Institute.

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