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Youssefi: Let’s discuss the message, not the messenger

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Late into a family Shabbat dinner, someone dropped a Trump bomb, and a couple of people spoke in the U.S. president’s favour. I objected that, in addition to every other problem, Donald Trump has shown himself to be anti-Semitic, or to at least hold anti-Semitic views.

I elaborated with a recent example, when Trump, in speaking to the Israeli American Council’s National Summit, repeated anti-Semitic tropes about Jews and money, telling the audience that while they may not like him, they will be his biggest supporters, because they don’t want to pay higher taxes. In the president’s apparent view, I said, Jews care exclusively about financially enriching themselves at the expense of everyone and everything else. Had the same words, I added, been spoken by someone else – say Barack Obama – they would be immediately dubbed by most Jews as anti-Semitic (many Jewish groups, did, in fact, condemn the president’s message).

But Trump too often gets a pass.

The response to my missive at the Shabbat table was not to evaluate Trump’s message. It had nothing to do with content. Instead, the validity of my conclusion was challenged with a question: “Have you ever, in your life, voted Conservative?”

When I hear things like that, I fear democracy is in danger. We need to be more vigilant. 

Increasingly, public and private political discourse, including among Jews, is not really about facts, evidence, or policies. It is about personalities. The audience does not judge the validity of arguments or the truthfulness of a claim by the facts and evidence the speaker relates, but by the ideology of that speaker. Truth and accuracy are not determined by what is said, but by who says it.

At the Shabbat table, it mattered not what I said, and whether what I said was, in fact, true. It did not even matter what Trump said. All that my critics needed to know in order to invalidate my claim was where I leaned politically. Anything I say about Trump, even if true, is dismissed because I lean to the left.

This has become a common and acceptable mode of reasoning.

I experienced a similar incident on Facebook recently. Someone posted an article about an executive order signed by Trump, one supposedly intended to help Jewish students on campus. I commented that Trump is not a friend of the Jews, that his actions and values were contrary to Jewish values, and that he panders to anti-Semites.

The response boiled down to a dismissal of my argument with an attack on my presumed political ideology: “I suspect your post stems from the fact that you lean to the left and simply cannot handle the fact (like the Democrats with the impeachment witch hunt) that he is actually president,” one person responded.

I’m progressive, therefore I am wrong.

Why debate the usefulness of bike lanes, when you can dismiss its advocates by calling them “pinkos?” Why rationally discuss the pros and cons of student union fees, when you can label its proponents “Marxists?” Why deal with the substance of allegations that a president may have invited foreign intervention into electoral matters, when you can call any inquiry a “witch hunt” and throw in Jews as the perpetrators?

Now, I am not saying that those who identify as liberal or left-wing are immune to the same kind of tactic. As readers of this paper are well aware, we have increasingly seen the label “Zionist” used by some on the left to demonize people discussing Israeli-Palestinian relations, or even used to disparage a request for kosher food on campus. I believe that these instances often have something more sinister at heart, and that they too present a threat to democracy.

This fusion – or rather, confusion –of political leanings with the validity of a person’s claims and opinions is dangerous for several reasons. It obstructs civil, evidence-based discussion. It blinds us to reasonable criticisms of those whom we support, and results in our ignoring and excusing the wrongdoings of those leaders. Consequently, we do not hold our leaders accountable.

And it is not surprising that we increasingly conflate a person’s political leanings with the legitimacy of their arguments. After all, we are merely mirroring the absurdity of the conversation of some of our politicians and media personalities. 

Undermining an argument by attacking the speaker is not new in politics,but it does seem to be a growing phenomenon. Its proliferation and acceptance as a compelling means of dismissing an actual fact or argument is an alarming threat. It should concern us, and urge us to teach our children to separate evidence from opinions, fact from fiction. 

We need to assess allegations and facts objectively, refrain from knee-jerk dismissals that do not fit our preferred narrative. Let’s hold commentators and politicians who use inflammatory rhetoric accountable. It’s time to reclaim our right– our responsibility – to substantiate events, words, and facts, for ourselves. When the struggle to determine and search for the truth ends, so does democracy. 

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Dyanoosh Youssefi is a professor of legal studies at Humber College in Toronto. She can be found on Twitter at @DyanooshY.