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?
Read: The evolution of shaming
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.
Read: The destructiveness of callout culture on campus
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.