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.