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In her memoirs, Russian combat pilot Anna Egorova remembered her mother ”kneeling before the icons, as she firstly listed all our names, the names of her children, begging God for health and wisdom for us, and then at the end of each prayer repeating: ‘God save them from slander!’” She didn’t understand that word ‘slander’ in her childhood, Egorova wrote, but after her brother was sent away as An Enemy of the People, “it was exposed before me in all its terrible nakedness.”
I was reminded once again of this story by the Southern Poverty Law Center’s agreement to pay $3.75 million to Maajid Nawaz and his organization, the Quilliam Foundation, for wrongly including them on its now-defunct list of “anti-Muslim extremists.” Sixty other organizations are also considering litigation against the SPLC.
Throughout American society, accusations of racism, sexism, white nationalism, and Islamaphobia have become common. Just the other day, a fellow academic asserted that University of Toronto professor Jordan Peterson, who has become a popular writer and speaker, was an “incel misogynist” and “committed white nationalist.” (“Incel” is an involuntary celibate, i.e., a person who is unable to attract people of the opposite sex.) After Peterson threatened to sue, his attacker issued an apology of sorts. (Calling a married man and father an “incel” provides an example of just how grade-school-level many of the current insults flying around tend to be.) Dozens of examples of such accusations, often but not always by academics, can be easily found.
The consequences of being the recipient of such accusations are, of course, not as harmful in present-day America as they were in Anna Egorova’s Stalinist Soviet environment. You’re not going to be sent to a concentration camp or shot in the neck in a GPU cellar. But wild and unfair accusations are resulting in job losses and exclusion from social connections, and many people are deciding they’d better just shut up and keep any nonstandard beliefs to themselves.
See also my posts When Slander Goes Rampant and Freedom, the Village, and the Internet. The latter post is about social media and its contribution to on-line mobbing. I reviewed Anna Egorova’s excellent memoirs here.