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The impact of the Trump era on political correctness, freedom of expression and everything in between

by Nadav Tamir

"Unite the Right" rally in Charlottesville, 2017.

"Unite the Right" rally in Charlottesville, 2017. Image by Samuel Corum, Anadolu Agency, Getty Images.

Below we proposed the analysis by Nadav Tamir on Peres Center.org

Two major phenomena intensified since Trump entered the White House and the color returned to the cheeks of shallow populist leadership, both nationally and internationally. One is a disregard for politically correct behavior and the other, an attack on freedom of expression in the media. The populist Trumpists resent the so-called "tyranny" of political correctness in contemporary discourse attributed to liberal agendas, yet they strive to impose restrictions on the media, which they view as an arm of the "liberal elite" alongside the judiciary and the professional public sector.

The populists' argument is that the Left avoids making clear statements regarding certain segments of the population, thereby promoting moral relativism, and preventing a clear distinction between good and evil. However, the distinction between what is considered ‘PC’ and what is considered a clear statement is relative to the viewpoint of the beholder. More often it is the Right which prevents a clear and decisive statement when such an action serves their cause.

This is akin to the discourse on superstition: an empirical sociological analysis showed that most who believe in superstition define the concept of superstition as the beliefs of others, thus separating themselves from their own beliefs which they clearly take very seriously.

In the allegations against political correctness, a notable example of the phenomenon of intellectual dishonesty occurred during Barack Obama's presidency - the Right in the US and Israel criticized him for refusing to treat terrorism as a Muslim phenomenon, while at the same time categorizing criticism of Jewish groups or Israeli policy as anti-Semitic. To Obama's credit, it must be said that his refusal to generalize the phenomenon of terrorism to Muslims was justified. Muslims throughout the world are more often the victims of these same acts of terrorism, and they should be considered allies because their actions fighting Islamist terrorism may be much more effective.

The same people who were happy to condemn Obama for refraining from generalizing about Muslims, were the ones who (rightly) expressed shock at the New York Mayor's conduct toward the ultra-Orthodox in Brooklyn for their stand on vaccination or his definition of their refusal to comply with the Coronavirus regulations, as a Jewish phenomenon.

Another example of intellectual dishonesty is those on the Israeli Right who express shock at general statements made in Europe concerning Jews, including those relating to religious practice or the influence of "Jews" in the world. At the same time, the same people attempt to encourage liberal European countries to treat any Arab or Muslim immigrant as a security or demographic threat. Too many Israelis returning from Europe complain about the continent’s changing atmosphere and political orientation, due to Arab immigration. However, if they heard similar discourse regarding Jews, they would holler “anti-Semitism” and fight to prevent it.

The prevalence of self-censorship in the West in general, especially in the United States, is greatly pronounced regarding criticism of Israel or Zionism which is regarded as being anti-Semitic, while too many expressions of Islamophobia are highly tolerated. Many on the Right thought it problematic to use the Koran during a swearing-in ceremony (when Keith Allison was the first Muslim to be sworn in as a representative in the House), while for Jewish members of Congress including Orthodox ones, the use of the Jewish bible during their swearing-in has been a regular phenomenon on Capitol Hill for many years.

Similarly, President Trump's negative discourse regarding the Hispanic minority was received on the Right in Israel with equanimity. However, if the same rhetoric had been used against Jews, we would do anything in our power to silence it.

In Israel we strive to pressure other governments to take measures against Holocaust deniers, but for years we have refrained from acknowledging as genocide the massacre perpetrated by the Ottomans against the Armenians and other similar cases.

The fact that anti-Semitism had been declining in the US for many years before the Trump era, can be attributed to the fact that anti-Semitic discourse has become contrary to the accepted norm of political correctness. Until recently, it was very "un-cool" in America to be anti-Semitic. Anti-Semitism began to flourish again when Trump became President and granted legitimacy to abusive statements toward minorities, breathing fresh air into racist, especially white supremacist movements.

"Unite the Right" rally in Charlottesville, 2017. Image by Samuel Corum, Anadolu Agency, Getty Images.

Similarly, sexual harassment and abusive remarks towards women also decreased dramatically as soon as statements which were once considered legitimate masculine behavior, went against the social norm of political correctness. However, such misogynist statements made a comeback when Trump entered the White House. Trump gave legitimacy to the hopes of men longing to bring back ‘the good old days’, disappointed that they could no longer tell sexist jokes. The quality of life for women who feel threatened by this discourse is not of any particular interest to the populists on the Right.

In a democracy, freedom of expression is an essential value. Legislation limiting this freedom should be avoided as much as possible. However, demanding non-abusive discourse and self-restraint is completely justified. We must be mindful that words can be offensive and lead to discrimination, especially of minorities and vulnerable groups. Curbing this type of rhetoric can make a significant positive impact on their quality of life. Unfortunately, populist Right-wing leaders are trying to do just the opposite.

The writer is the executive director of J Street Israel, a member of the board of the Mitvim think tank, adviser for international affairs at the Peres Center for Peace and Innovation and member of the steering committee of the Geneva Initiative. He was an adviser of President Shimon Peres and served in the Israel Embassy in Washington and as Consul General to New England.

    Nadav Tamir, Peres Center's senior advisor for governmental and international affairs and former personal adviser of Shimon Peres for diplomatic affairs

    Analysis by Nadav Tamir, Peres Center's senior advisor for governmental and international affairs and former personal adviser of Shimon Peres for diplomatic affairs

    5 February 2021

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