William Saletan recently published an article in Slate where he concluded:
Prejudice is a persistent affliction. It deserves constant vigilance. But we’re making progress against it. That’s true of every kind of prejudice, including race, sex, religion, ethnicity, and sexual orientation. As prejudice becomes anathema, the power of bigotry declines, and the power of charging people with bigotry increases. The two problems aren’t equivalent. But their trajectories are headed in opposite directions.
He illustrates this point with three examples: The Overland Park shootings; a speech in the U.N. about Israel; and the false news about flyers being distributed in the Ukrainian city of Donetsk encouraging Jews to register. But his broader point is that antisemitic incidents (in the U.S. are decreasing) and that charges of antisemitism can “be hyped, misrepresented, or even fabricated for political gain.”
Of course they can, but how often does it happen? And is it a problem when it does?
Saletan’s examples does his case a disservice: As he is at pains to point out, the Kansas shooting was a hate crime. And although it does not point to a trend in the U.S., it is part of a global trend that ought to worry everyone. While reactions to Rima Khalaf’s speech may have inferred more than Saletan thinks is warranted, it is not without troubles. And finally, while the reports from Ukraine turned out to be false, they were unfortunately also believable.
While there may have been overreactions to all these examples, all of them warranted some reaction.
It is, of course, a sin to cry wolf, also when it comes to antisemitism or any other form of bigotry.
But while it is hard to think of a single case in history where overreaction to bigotry did harm, there are countless examples where people naively or hopefully underestimated more or less cloaked bigotry. Especially when they risk being accused of being melodramatic, overly sensitive, or uppity.
I happen to think that in spite of all the progress we hope to have made, bigotry persists in the U.S., Europe, and every other place that fancies itself a liberal democracy. It seems to me far more useful to understand the basis for accusations of – for example – antisemitism, than to dismiss them because they seem at first glance to be overblown. Each of Saletan’s examples is interesting for its own reasons – the problem he sees with them is probably the least useful element.