The Witch Hunters: how shaming accusations of bigotry are used to shut down legitimate debate

March 4, 2016

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 significant 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.


#1 The Rationalizer on Friday March 04, 2016 at 8:16am

I realise you have used the word “Islamophobia” because that is the word thrown around rather than because it is the most accurate.

The word is clearly to conflate criticism of Islam with being anti-Muslim. It’s like a stealth blasphemy law that can be invoked any time someone is saying something unpleasant about someone’s beliefs in order to shut them up.

#2 Stephen Law on Friday March 04, 2016 at 5:05pm

‘Stealth blasphemy law’ is a nice phrase.

#3 Franc Hoggle on Friday March 04, 2016 at 6:12pm

//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.//

“Bigot” is yet another word that has been bastardised almost to the point of being unusable. It’s actual dictionary meaning is -

“a person who is utterly intolerant of any differing creed, belief, or opinion.”

- and by that definition, the biggest bigots on the planet are the regressive ‘left’, campus ‘safe space’ committees and Tumblr/Twitter 3rd wave feminists. And the king of all bigots would be peezee myers.

If one of these vandals call you a ‘bigot’, you should consider it a stamp of integrity.

#4 Russell Blackford on Saturday March 05, 2016 at 3:47am

My op-ed in the forthcoming (April) issue of Free Inquiry will interest you, Stephen. I argue for shelving the word “Islamophobia”.

#5 stephen law (Guest) on Saturday March 05, 2016 at 8:31am

look forward to reading it Russell.

#6 Piers Benn on Saturday March 05, 2016 at 9:29am

Too true. There’s a disturbing tendency, among people with all kinds of different views, to say ‘You say X. But *really* you’re saying Y’. The trouble is that this suspicion is sometimes justified. But it isn’t always, and a principle of charity should lead us not to attribute malign views to people, just because they say things that *other* people, who do have malign views, also say. This happens with discussion of Islam. It also happens with, say, discussion of the true incidence of false allegations of rape, sexual assault or ‘historic’ child abuse. Point out that we don’t really know what the real incidence of false allegations is, and people will immediately assume you have a sinister hidden agenda. The only strategy to deal with this, I suspect, is a long-term one. Go on stating the likely truth (based on proper research and reflection) and show, in your other words and deeds, that you don’t have the nasty views attributed to you. Then hope that a few others will apply the principle of charity to you - while knowing that many will not.

#7 DebGod on Saturday March 05, 2016 at 10:44pm

I’ve been thinking about this recently.  I listened to an episode of Dogma Debate with David Smalley (a white man) and was surprised at how much energy and time he expended to clear up what he saw as misunderstandings that might have—just might have—led people to believe he was *gasp* racist or a bigot.  A few days ago, I listened to the Sam Harris podcast interview with Maryam Namazie and heard the same phenomenon—Sam really, really wanted to make it clear that he is not a bigot, his views are not bigoted, and therefore if Maryam thought they were, she must have been misunderstanding him.  He kept saying that Maryam was attacking him with those words.  David Smalley also described scenarios in which people of color complain or criticize white people as “attacks.”

I can think of a few other examples of a woman and/or person of color describing a white man’s statements as bigoted, while white men (not just the targets of the comments) rushed to say that of course that’s an incorrect assessment.  And maybe they add an admonishment about the nerve of the person—how dare someone call such as esteemed person a bigot, for example.  I have also seen similar defenses when people of color described white men’s statements as racist or described them as connected to white supremacist ideologies.  It made me realize that the words “racist” and “bigot” seem to be just about the worst criticism or insult that can be leveled against a (liberal?) white person, particularly a white man.

Listening to the two podcast episodes made me realize that I’m not as afraid of those labels.  When I did a quick poll of a handful of acquaintances who are “lefty liberals” and are people of color, they were also more like eh, yeah, we all have blind spots and biases but try to do better.  So I would tweak the first sentence to say this: “One thing we lefty liberals, particularly those who are white and/or men, fear is being thought bigoted.”  I find this very, very interesting.

If someone called me a bigot, I wouldn’t “collapse” and the debate wouldn’t end.  I would try to understand and ask things like “What do you mean by that?  What did I say or do that seemed bigoted to you?”  I would try to identify or “check” how my privilege might be blinding me from understanding a different perspective.  Now, it may be the case that our perspectives are irreconcilable and we still disagree.  It may be the case that I’d be blocked from further communication because I was now “a bigot.”  But as I mentioned, it’s now apparent to me that being called a bigot wouldn’t summon the same kinds of feelings for me and for some others I know that it does for others.

Be that as it may, even if my resulting feelings and the feelings of, for example, many lefty white men are different, it doesn’t mean that such labels don’t shut down discussion and debate.  The post says that some use “shaming accusations of bigotry to try to stifle debate and silence dissent,” and recommends that we combat this shaming tactic by avoiding self-censorship.  It’s helpful to me to think more about the emotion that is attached to terms like “bigot” and “racist” for others including Sam Harris.

It’s still strange to me to describe this as a “witch hunt,” though.

#8 Paul P on Sunday March 06, 2016 at 5:25am

I remember Tom Cruise playing the ‘bigot’ card on Parkinson (quite a few years ago) when Parkinson brought up the subject of Scientology and people’s criticism of it. It’s like people calling you antisemitic if you criticise Israeli foreign policy or their actions against Palestine, as Robert Fisk has done.

It’s not a good time to be a Muslim in a Western country right now. I’m a white male so I have no idea what it’s like to receive hate mail or insults of any kind just for being born into a different culture like <a href=‘’>Susan Carland<a>.

#10 Chris Humphries (Guest) on Monday March 07, 2016 at 3:51am

What is a ‘lefty liberal’? These are separate political ideas. ‘Leftism’ (as used by the tribe that self-ascribes that name) is and always has been a quasi-totalitarian system of political thought. Its organizing principle is that of state direction and control. One of its recent projects has been an attack on UK press freedom. What is liberal about that? The old left traditionally hated liberals. They had reason to do so. If you want a more contemporary illustration, look at Ed Balls’ reaction to Osborne’s pension liberalization: people can’t be trusted to make their own decisions. I wouldn’t accuse leftists of being bigots.  But they are in a state of denial about one of the main lessons of modern history.

#11 Old Rockin' Dave (Guest) on Monday March 07, 2016 at 6:33pm

The example of criticism of anti-Israel boycotters being dubbed anti-Semitic is poorly chosen. The whole issue of the role of Jew-hatred in criticism of Israel is a complex one and not easy to toss off in a couple of sentences.
Anyone familiar with the often-disgraceful antics of the BDS movement will see that often no attempt is made to separate attacks against Israel from attacks against Jews. If you doubt, the examples of recent events at Oxford and of the crude attempt to require Matisyahu, and him alone, to disavow Israel in order to be allowed to perform in a Spanish music festival are just two of the more notorious ones. Terrorists routinely attack non-Israeli Jews far from Israel’s border - Hyper Cacher for one. “Zionist” is freely used by many as a code word for “Jew”; this one comes from both right and left.
Moving beyond Israel, in the Western world anti-Semitism is waved away far more readily than other forms of racism. Alice Walker is still honored despite her vile and bizarre views. Ford Maddox Ford, Louis Ferdinand Celine, T.S. Eliot, are still considered important and essential writers. Turn Jesse Jackson’s “Hymietown” remark into an equivalent for any other group and his place on the national stage would have vanished.
Another side of the issue is that while many Palestinian and other Arab leaders talk peace and love in English, French, and German, in Arabic they spew the vilest slurs and libels against Jews, not merely Israel. A great many Israelis speak and read Arabic and only have to turn on their TVs and radios to hear and see it. Western activists and journalists usually don’t know Arabic, and ignore that element in the conflict.
I know this is both long and far away from your few sentences, but in a way that is the point. All too often such criticism feeds on nascent prejudices or simplistic narratives, and as I said above, it is fr more complex and extensive to do justice to here.

#12 Paul P on Tuesday March 08, 2016 at 12:28am

I assume the above comment (by Dave) is in response to mine. To be honest, I don’t know what BDS is, and I don’t live in Europe, so maybe that changes one’s perspective.

I did give a specific example to provide context: Robert Fisk, who wrote Pity the Nation, and who lived in Lebanon (don’t know if he still does), and who gives first-hand witness accounts wherever possible. He has been accused of being antisemitic for his reporting and subsequent criticisms of Israel’s actions.

Also Stephen, author of this post, I remember was once told to stick to academia when he questioned Israel’s human rights credentials, to which he gave a succinct and highly relevant response. No, he wasn’t exactly accused of being antisemetic, but he revealed how sensitive criticism of Israel can be.

#13 Old Rockin' Dave (Guest) on Tuesday March 08, 2016 at 9:36am

Actually, Paul, I was responding to Stephen. BDS is the so-called Boycott, Disinvest, Sanction movement, which spreads its venom worldwide, with well-publicized anti-Semitic incidents to its discredit in North America, Australia, and South Africa, as well as Europe. Matisyahu is an American and an internationally known performer. Hyper Cacher is a kosher supermarket in Paris that was attacked by a fellow-traveler of the Charlie Hebdo murderers with four dead. American white supremacists often call the US government the “Zionist Occupation Government”, conflating Jews and Israel as so many do. The left also plays into the old anti-Semitic trope of the “International Jewish Conspiracy”, also often substituting Zionist for Jew.
With Israel’s Arab/Muslim enemies spreading such garbage as the “Elders” book, “Mein Kampf” and the blood libel, with traditional anti-Semites pre-sold on attacking Israel, with many on the left resolutely ignoring the spew of fetid anti-Semitism from Israel’s opponents, is it any wonder that Israel and its supporters are sensitive? If they see anti-Semitism everywhere, that’s because it is almost everywhere and anti-Semites who would otherwise hate each other have a cause to bring them together.
There are far too many examples and far too complex a dynamic to deal with in such a small and temporary space.

#14 stephen law (Guest) on Wednesday March 09, 2016 at 3:51am

Hi Dave - I appreciate your concerns. You raise a number of incidents. However, such anecdotes about the supporters of e.g. a political policy are generally a very poor basis for judging the merits of that policy. For notice that on the other side there are similarly million horrific anecdotes about the behaviour of Isrealis and Jews towards Palestinians. I don’t repeat such anecdotes because they are just, well, anecdotes, and as scientists remind us the plural of anecdotes is not data. One problem is an anecdote - a *story* - tends to resonate with us and influence our judgement far more than more reliable evidence (in particular, reliance on anecdotal evidence makes us *very* prone to confirmation bias). If I was you, I’d rely less on anecdotal evidence and ad hominems in making your case for rampant antisemitism and anti-semtism intrinsic to BDS. That’s the same strategy that tends to be employed by those who habitually play the Islamophobia card.

Re.your comment: ‘conflating Jews and Israel as so many do’- yes, many do that and it’s a real problem. However, many of those guilty of this conflation are Isreali-supporters and Jews who equate any criticism of Isreal and Isreali policy with anti-semitism. They should pack it in.

#15 stephen law (Guest) on Wednesday March 09, 2016 at 3:57am

BTW I am not, as I keep on saying, denying that antisemitism is not a very real problem, or that Islamophobia isn’t a real problem. I am just pointing out how these cards are sometimes overplayed for political purposes.

#16 Stephen Law on Wednesday March 09, 2016 at 4:10am

PS excuse awful spelling, e.g. ‘Isreal’ etc.

#17 Lee Mark on Monday March 14, 2016 at 3:11am

I assume the above comment (by Dave) is in response to mine. To be honest, I don’t know what BDS is, and I don’t live in Europe, so maybe that changes one’s perspective.

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.

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