Jim Bourg / Reuters

When the ideological left engages in what is variously denigrated as “political correctness,” virtue-signaling, performative wokeness, or “social-justice warrior” cry-bullying, many on the right find it easy to spot the flaws in those modes of discourse. But that discernment vanishes when the populist right indulges in the same vices (even as progressives become unusually attuned to their downsides).

Last month, Representative Ilhan Omar attended a banquet hosted by the Council on American-Islamic Relations, where she delivered remarks for roughly 20 minutes.

A major theme was prejudice against Muslims. “Here’s the truth,” she said. “For far too long we have lived with the discomfort of being a second-class citizen. Frankly, I’m tired of it. And every single Muslim in this country should be tired of it. CAIR was founded after 9/11 because they recognized that some people did something and that all of us were starting to lose access to our civil liberties.”

Omar’s meaning was clear: Many Muslims felt collectively blamed for something that was indisputably perpetrated by a tiny fraction of their co-religionists and marshaled new resources to protect their civil rights in response. (CAIR was actually founded in the 1990s, but expanded significantly after 9/11.)

Her speech was covered live. It generated no blowback upon delivery. Then, this month, an Australian imam stripped one of her remarks from its context and tweeted, “Ilhan Omar mentions 9/11 and does not consider it a terrorist attack on the USA by terrorists, instead she refers to it as ‘Some people did something,’ then she goes on to justify the establishment of a terrorist organization (CAIR) on US soil.”

CAIR is not, in fact, a terrorist organization. Anyone with third-grade reading comprehension can review Omar’s clumsy words and see that they do not, in fact, assert that 9/11 wasn’t a terrorist attack, nor that its perpetrators were not terrorists. Arriving at the opposite conclusion requires interpreting Omar’s words in a manner that is both implausible and willfully optimized for offense-taking.

Nevertheless, Representative Dan Crenshaw retweeted the imam’s remarks, seizing a chance for a woke callout and the expression of disdainful outrage. “First Member of Congress to ever describe terrorists who killed thousands of Americans on 9/11 as ‘some people who did something,’” he wrote. “Unbelievable.”

What’s “unbelievable” about imperfect extemporaneous speech?

There was no reason to suspect that Omar holds any objectionable views about 9/11. Crenshaw was opportunistically drawing attention to an unintentionally problematic word choice, like an “SJW” filing a frivolous complaint about a microaggression. He needlessly drew attention to an inartful locution on an emotionally fraught topic. And he was not the worst offender.

“You have to wonder if she’s an American first,” said Brian Kilmeade on Fox News. Yet in the very same speech, Omar said quite clearly, “I know as an American, as an American member of Congress, I have to make sure I am living up to the ideals of fighting for liberty and justice. Those are very much rooted in the reason why my family came here.” Plucking one phrase from a longer speech in order to question her allegiance to this country—even while failing to mention passages directly relevant to that question that cut in the opposite direction—is exactly the sort of wild, dishonest extrapolation properly seen as political-correctness-gone-wild when done to, say, Jordan Peterson.

Indeed, it is easy to imagine a populist-right commentator declaring: Donald Trump supporters are right to mistrust the media. After Charlottesville, we realized that whenever some people somewhere in America do something, we’re going to be considered guilty by association. There would be clearer, more eloquent ways to convey the intended sentiment, but its meaning would nevertheless be easy to discern. Most on the right would understandably suspect bad faith if that mildly clumsy statement was cast by an opinion journalist as an attempt to minimize the odiousness of neo-Nazis or to diminish the horror of Heather Heyer’s murder.

So why aren’t they objecting to the treatment that Omar is suffering at the hands of Fox News, Crenshaw, and The New York Post? The tabloid was briefly the worst offender here: It republished a photo of the moment hundreds died as a plane crashed into the World Trade Center, resurfacing and exploiting the trauma of New Yorkers for a cheap callout that wasn’t even substantively justified.

Then President Trump entered the fray Friday, publishing a demagogic tweet crafted to aggrieve millions of Americans with video footage of the 9/11 attacks interspersed with edited footage of Omar saying “Some people did something.”

He is callout culture’s most prominent cry-bully. This particular callout is deeply irresponsible, especially coming from a president. It is certain to incite upset, anger, and animosity, at the very least, as the majority of people who see it will never take time to watch the whole of Omar’s speech and appreciate the totally different impression one gets watching the words in context.  

What’s more, even if Omar’s words weren’t defensible, what kind of president uses the bully pulpit to push out video of a national trauma, forcing millions to relive its horrors, so that he can score cheap points against a member of Congress?

Civic conversation in America is dysfunctional in part because we have so many such outrage exhibitionists. These folks strip inartfully phrased remarks of context, ignoring the speaker’s intentions and imputing the least charitable possible meaning. This sets them up to display umbrage with the ostentation of a peacock.

Though widely reviled, such displays are nevertheless widespread, on the left and right, as even many strident critics are only bothered when their own tribe is targeted. Folks on the right who regard such displays as wrongheaded and damaging  when indulged by the left need to exert more effort in cleaning up their own house.

At the Washington Examiner, Tom Rogan shows the way. “I do not believe Omar’s words were designed to deride our fallen fellow citizens,” he writes. She was emphasizing “the ideological separation between American Muslims and al Qaeda.” It is understandable “why Omar would be frustrated at the damage that the 9/11 attacks did to American perceptions of her faith,” he added. “Many Muslims also died on 9/11, and the vast majority of American Muslims are decent patriots. Maybe I’m wrong, but I think that was her key point: al Qaeda are not us, and their evil should not be used to collectively punish Muslims. You don’t have to approve of CAIR or Omar to appreciate the legitimacy of this idea.”

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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