Jonathan Chait on the New Political Correctness

980 - Not a Very PC Thing to Say

Jonathan Chait just wrote an article about the new political correctness that is absolutely required reading for anyone with any interest in modern American politics: Not a Very P.C. Thing to Say. The hardest part of me writing about it is that there are just too many quotes that I wanted to include! I’ll try to hit the highlights, but this is really an article you’ve got to read for yourself all the way through.

So, note on the subtitle “How the language police are perverting liberalism.” Chait is here referring to the old-school definition of liberalism as being concerned with individualism and civil liberties. He notes that this is actually distinct from the political left (a statement that veers between accurate and quaint). True liberals don’t buy into PC, but the left has been influenced by Marxist ideas that discount the notion of free speech entirely:

The Marxist left has always dismissed liberalism’s commitment to protecting the rights of its political opponents… as hopelessly naïve… Why respect the rights of the class whose power you’re trying to smash? And so, according to Marxist thinking, your political rights depend entirely on what class you belong to… The modern far left has borrowed the Marxist critique of liberalism and substituted race and gender identities for economic ones.

He absolutely gets that the fundamental, driving motivator behind political correctness is not actually a concern with fairness or social justice, but a love of a particularly vicious approach to politics in the 21st century. He writes that “political correctness is not a rigorous commitment to social equality so much as a system of left-wing ideological repression” and also:

Political correctness is a style of politics in which the more radical members of the left attempt to regulate political discourse by defining opposing views as bigoted and illegitimate. Two decades ago, the only communities where the left could exert such hegemonic control lay within academia, which gave it an influence on intellectual life far out of proportion to its numeric size. Today’s political correctness flourishes most consequentially on social media, where it enjoys a frisson of cool and vast new cultural reach. And since social media is also now the milieu that hosts most political debate, the new p.c. has attained an influence over mainstream journalism and commentary beyond that of the old.

Chait also makes a simple but profound observation about the new political correctness: “It also makes money.” It does this (to summarize) as a near-endless supply of tantalizing clickbait. The effects of this new political correctness–far more virulent than the old version that peaked in 1991–is truly disturbing, and this is where Chait makes some of his strongest arguments as he describes thinkers on the left who have been cowed into silence by the new regime. Here are some snippets without context to give you some sentiment for how people react to living under the constant threat of being ostracized and publicly humiliated for thought crimes:

  • “Everyone is so scared to speak right now.”
  • “This is an environment of fear… Every other day I say to my friends, ‘How did we get back to 1991?’”
  • “If you tweet something straight­forwardly feminist, you immediately get a wave of love and favorites, but if you tweet something in a cranky feminist mode then the opposite happens… The price is too high; you feel like there might be banishment waiting for you.”
  • “It seems to me now that the public face of social liberalism has ceased to seem positive, joyful, human, and freeing… There are so many ways to step on a land mine now, so many terms that have become forbidden, so many attitudes that will get you cast out if you even appear to hold them. I’m far from alone in feeling that it’s typically not worth it to engage, given the risks.”

Just to be clear, these are all quotes from people on the left of American politics. They are feminist academics and liberal journalists, and they are afraid they will be turned on by their own. As events like Gamergate show, they should be afraid.

Chait tries to leave us with a happy note, sort of, but it’s not much to go on. He says that “the p.c. style of politics has one serious, possibly fatal drawback: It is exhausting.” The hope, as far as I can tell, is that the tyrants will just get tired of all the effort of maintaining their intellectual tyranny. And there have definitely been moments in recent news when it seemed as though the entire social justice movement was about to dissolve into a round of catastrophic cannibalism.1

It would be nice if the social justice movement self-destructed. There are definitely some deep tensions within the movement, for example between cis- and trans-women. When the Vagina Monologues gets shut down not by annoyed social conservatives but by trans-advocates who feel that it discriminates against women who lack a vagina, you start to realize the potential for a major civil war.

So yeah: it would be nice if social justice warriors just got exhausted with the labor involved or if the coalition fragmented into warring sub-tribes, but if that’s the best plan to protect democracy and civil liberties and the culture of open inquiry then we’re already in a very, very dark place.

But hey, if you want to end on a less grim note, there’s this: Army Deletes Tweet About ‘Chinks In Armor’ After People Cry Racism. Anyone with a large vocabulary can enjoy the fireworks when someone inadvertantly uses a word that sounds offensive but (if you are suitably literate) isn’t. Like when a student in my high school English class complained that heroin was a sexist name for a drug because it put female heroes in a bad light. She didn’t realize that they aren’t the same word: heroin vs. heroine.2 Of course, it’s less funny if you’re the guy who inadvertently uses an unusual word in the correct way and gets fired for it,3 but we’ve got to find some humor in the situation or we’re all going to go insane.

3 thoughts on “Jonathan Chait on the New Political Correctness”

  1. I don’t think the idea that PC makes money is as distinctive as Chait makes it sound. It’s just anger. People respond to headlines which make them angry by clicking and sharing, which increases advertising revenue. Not only is outrage journalism widespread, rather than unique to this case, Chait’s piece IS outrage journalism, and he’s writing it for the exact same reason the PC police write theirs: lots of people will read and share it. Anecdotally, it’s one of the most effective pieces of outrage journalism I’ve seen, having shown up several times in my Facebook feed and been much mentioned elsewhere.

    But that’s obviously a bad measure–anecdotes don’t give a comprehensive picture. But they’re incredibly common in outrage journalism, because they make it possible to paint the situation as more outrage-worthy than it really is. “Army deletes tweet about chinks in armor” sounds hilarious and deeply stupid. But is it really accurate that the Army is extremely politically correct? That’s never been my impression. If I recall the article correctly, anecdotes are all Chait offers.

    None of which would really undermine his point if it turned out that politically correct speech-policing were distinctive in its effects. Even if writing about political incorrectness is just another form of outrage journalism, it might be uniquely prone to making our discourse challenging. But it isn’t–that’s the outrage again, not the PC part. It can make even reasonable people feel like they’re walking on eggshells when they might find people getting mad at them for: not wearing a flag pin, saying “Happy Holidays”, saying “Merry Christmas”, driving a Prius, driving a Hummer, consulting a doctor about family planning, not consulting a doctor about family planning, owning an iPhone (works best if you’re on public assistance), enjoying Barbara Streisand’s music, and on and on.

    But the suggestion that it’s only those OTHER people who cause problems with their outrage is a good way to get clicks.

  2. Kelsey,

    I don’t think that Chait’s piece can fairly be characterized as outrage journalism. I mean, there were plenty of scoffing articles from conservatives who were cackling with glee when they got their hands on what Chait had written. Case in point: The Left Realizes Too Late that Political Correctness Is a Virus. Even that isn’t what I’d call outrage journalism, however. It’s similar, though, in that it’s about mocking “them” as opposed to “us.”

    The main reason that Chait’s piece doesn’t fit that mold for me is that he’s on the left and he’s quoting people on the left. He’s from The New Republic, after all, which while not as doctrinaire as The Nation (and therefore prone to breaking party ranks like in this piece) is unmistakably on the left overall. (Chait’s not TNR anymore, but that’s just because TNR has imploded. Which is a whole other story.)

    Additionally, I felt that his tone was measured, and that he wasn’t at all breaking it down into us-v-them. He was analyzing PC as an idea and a tactic, which is pretty much the exact opposite of demonizing people directly.

    I mean, you could argue that any piece that is negative about any trend is outrage journalism if you wanted to really stretch the definition, right? I think we’ve got to leave room for people to be able to critique something forcefully without dismissing what they’re doing as outrage journalism. And I think Chait’s piece fits that bill.

  3. What I mean by “outrage journalism” is the sort of piece which derives most of its clicks and shares by trading on the outrage of the reader, no “us” vs. “them” necessary. For clicks, that’s largely driven by the folks who write the headlines, and as Chait himself has admitted, the headlines put on his pieces don’t always reflect the content of his articles very well. So I don’t hold him particularly accountable for the way his piece was pitched to the public. But the content does a decent job of justifying the headline it currently carries (which has apparently changed), and there are a few elements of it which seem to me to qualify it as appealing primarily to the reader’s outrage.

    Notably, he adopts the description “political correctness”. That term has been so abused that it’s not ideal for distinguishing real problems from fake ones. Chait suggests in his follow-up blog post (http://nymag.com/daily/intelligencer/2015/01/secret-confessions-of-the-anti-anti-pc-crowd.html) that he’s trying to reclaim this term, so he admits there’s a problem, but the article never defined it or added any degree of clarity to the concept. It relies on readers who already find that phrase meaningful and unproblematic–that is, those to whom a reclamation would seem unnecessary.

    Which is great, because not only does he not attempt such a reclamation, he certainly doesn’t take the natural next step, of using the now-helpfully-redefined term to diagnose the problem and suggest gradual, practical steps to ameliorate it. Instead, he pretty much just says that classical liberalism is great. That kind of makes sense, because there’s so much variation in the kinds of things he uses as examples of political correctness that all he can really use to tie them together is that they are liberal and are opposed to classical liberalism.

    I think a great article could be written about what’s gone wrong with the lack of respect for classical liberalism in modern liberalism, and about how shifting conditions can legitimately change how even non-classical liberals might choose to strike the balance between rectifying power imbalances and promoting the productive use of the public square. Such an article would be largely aimed at those who support a degree of repression of speech in order to advance other goals of modern liberalism, and would take as its starting point the concepts they currently employ, taking them seriously but identifying problems with them and suggesting new ways of approaching these questions.

    This article doesn’t do that, and it has far more appeal to those who already thought P.C. was outrageous and wanted to hear a liberal agree with them than to those who have supported the measures critiqued therein but might be persuaded to change their approach.

    Lest I sound entirely down on it, I suspect the left will take this far more seriously when they see it widely quoted by conservatives than if it adopted the method I suggested of talking directly to liberals who support speech codes and the like. And I’m with him–one of the claims which is very difficult to make is that we should ease off on the most (classically) illiberal measures to fix racism, sexism, etc. I think there has been an increase in the appeal of classical liberalism to Americans, and that it would best serve progressives to increase the value of respecting it when they perform their balancing calculations. But that sounds enough like “racism is over” to be immediately dismissed by a lot of people. So whipping up some conservative crowing about how their opposition to P.C. B.S. was right all along might be just the thing to make liberals take their more classically-minded cohorts more seriously, and let the more statist liberals be disappointed.

    That does seem like an attractive way to defuse the situation, and maybe it’s the sort of discussion Chait is really hoping to indirectly get liberals to have. That interpretation makes me happy, because it gives me a reason to respect Chait more, but sad for him, because he’s positioned himself outside the conversation now. People who thought Mackinnon made a lot of sense aren’t going to see him as a friendly reformer interested in helping them pursue their agenda at a lower cost in liberty after a piece like this. If you thought that the concept of a trigger was a useful tool for helping us identify harms which matter far more to the underprivileged than the privileged, but that there might be a better solution than simply banning triggers, requiring trigger warnings, or excusing assaults because of them, would it seem to you that Chait expressed sympathy with your aims but not your methods?

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