What Jonathan Chait Gets Wrong (And Right) About Political Correctness

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[Content Note: some harsh misogynist language]

Jonathan Chait, a 40 something white man who writes for New York magazine, published an article this past week that caused the expected stir on social media. The piece lampoons identity politics and “political correctness” as a philosophical juggernaut quickly frustrating and undermining and dividing the Left. At once a call to unity under the old banner of “liberalism” and a skewering of current social media driven discussion of politics, the essay cites wide-ranging examples of PC politics gone mad. Arguing that trigger warnings in academia are both therapeutically absurdist and academically restrictive, Chait moves from the classroom to the political sphere and back again, connecting and framing the current “Politically Correct” movement as a retread of the early 1990s, Clintonian politics that supposedly threatened to rip the American Left to shreds.

The piece is genius in its hyperbolic simplicity. Any critique of the piece occurring in an environment not approved of by Chait (i.e., anywhere on social media) is automatically suspect. The PC brigade is simultaneously a loose association of individual peoples and a hive mind incapable of processing and engaging dissent in good faith. And because this shadowy brigade is poorly defined, any and all reasonable critique is immediately subsumed and lumped together with that of the trolls and the pot-stirrers.

It’s actually pretty elegant in its simplicity – simply pre-emptively position any and all critiques of your piece as unreasonable political correctness, and voila, any and all “backlash” can be safely ignored. That takes some skill.

That catch-22 must be noted and taken into account before any critique can actually begin, because extra care must be taken not only to be reasonable but to seem reasonable if one’s critique is going to be taken seriously in any form.

And therein, too, lies the rub. Reason, in any case, is demonstrably seen as the domain of institutional power. Chait is a man writing in a professional magazine, having worked in media for most of his adult life. I am an almost-29 year old just beginning to cut my teeth in the professional writing world, having worked full time as a freelancer for 18 months now. I’m writing on my blog. He’s writing in New York Mag. Any possible dialogue starts from a position of imbalance, and there is no magic power of free speech that will level that ground. My words will reach a smaller audience – even if I did pitch this everywhere I could. It is a bare fact of the world in which we live.

I’ve seen this “reasonable critique” standard play out over and over throughout my years of work online as an activist and a writer. A white man once informed me that by very nature of being a woman engaging in theology, my work was less likely to be “objective” and “reasonable.” By the same token, I have had to work on my engagement of anger and tone when a woman of color critiques my work as a white feminist – I fight my social conditioning to see the reason behind and beyond any perceived hostility. I've realized, after immense personal work, that social conditioning had tainted my perception of the words of many people of color, causing me to see tones that simply were not there. Social conditioning likewise commands me to dismiss and demean any argument that seems to be said in an “angry” or “hostile” tone.

Our social location, our positioning in the broad universe of American power structures, matters because it unconsciously colors our every perception of a discussion. When I talk about feminist issues with men hostile to feminism, I’m deeply aware of how much more work I have to do to make myself seem reasonable to them. And, I’ve discovered, it only takes one outburst of anger or one perceived slight to undo all the work I had done in seeming reasonable.

It takes no more than a moment of essentially being myself – my full, angry, loud, raucous self – to receive a flurry of dismissal at the hands of people I had counted as friends. And with such instances comes the basic realization that my reasonableness did not humanize me to those who would oppress me – it merely made me a convenient token of a teacher who could be disregarded the second I stepped out of line.

It’s very hard to be “privilege checked,” as one might call it. It doesn’t feel good, mostly because it involves the realization that we’ve done something wrong, we’ve stepped on toes or hurt someone. We want people to think the best of us and doing something out of blindness to privilege is a fairly easy way to realize that we may not be as good or as nice or as reasonable as the image of ourselves we uphold. But it is precisely this tension that the “PC brigade” invokes and antagonizes – and for that reason, it is utterly and completely important to the function and survival of an otherwise banal and weakened political left. It provides accountability – accountability necessary to liberalism, to politics, to activism, to life as a human being functioning within a system of oppression.

HOWEVER.

This is not to say that Chait’s imprecations are entirely without point. Many writers and pundits functioning in the current system of quick moving social media and Internet publishing have watched from the sidelines and learned with fear that fame comes with consequences. For many feminist writers, visibility comes with the possibility of being doxxed, of having threats became real, of living in fear of becoming a new Anita Sarkeesian-esque target for vitriol and hate. The response – either from the “PC police” or from the (much more likely) gamergaters seeking to hurt women – can sometimes feel like a mob, an unending wave of negativity and critique. It understandably makes it hard to look for reasonableness when your mentions on Twitter are full of “fuck you cunt” and the like.

These nightmarish spirals are physically and emotionally taxing, as quick response in real time versus social media time are often dissonant. There is a sense that a wrong step in a fast moving social media world will be a career-ender. For some big names, these “wrong steps” have cost jobs or forced people to take positions with less visibility. The “social media mob” can take its toll when one’s follow count and visibility reaches a certain, unknowable tipping point. At some point, feedback becomes unmanageable, and any perceived wrongdoing (whether it be from being “un-PC” or from merely being a woman online) becomes magnified encompass the whole of a person’s identity online. And that identity covers not only oneself, but also taints friends, making wrong steps an instantly toxic move for everyone involved.

A pervasive sense of guilt by association colors even the most well meaning of critics. I’ve been warned away from certain people, judged by my friendships, and treated differently by editors because of who I happen to know (for better or worse).

The fallacy of guilt by association tampers with and changes our perception of conflict. People are dismissed based on how problematic their faves are, as though enjoying a binge watch of Say Yes to the Dress or bopping your head along to Macklemore (okay, I get it, I’m white) are mortal sins deserving of the deepest punishment. Endorsement or promotion by the wrong person becomes a millstone weighing us down. We must distance ourselves from the “wrong” people, even if just to rescue our own livelihoods.

Such emphasis on disliking and dissociating from the “wrong” people turns human relationships into a fundamentally utilitarian exercise. Friendship is only valuable until it begins to affect us professionally as activists – and then it becomes disposable. But this utilitarian approach to people and relationships is not unique to the internet – as long as there have been backrooms for people to whisper in and villains to distance oneself from, guilt by association has created a force of accountability that is at once right and wrong.

Now, there are times when it is possible and important to warn people off from problematic behavior. If a person is demonstrating a consistent pattern of disregard for other people, a consistent callousness toward people they hurt, and apologies that mean nothing, then it is likely safe to say, “Okay, this person’s probably not a safe person to engage with on certain topics.” But I have to stop short of judging people for associating with problematic people because each person experiences a relationship differently. I’m a firm believer in the idea that jerks, like the truth, will out eventually. And perhaps I believe too, in ever-valiant hope, that people can change.

I have no words for how to stop the Twitter Outrage Machine – mostly because I don’t think it needs to stop. Like every tool, it can be at once positive and negative. Because it is produced, created, and essentially consisting of humanity at its core, the machine contains multitudes and kills fascism by mere existence. It is never just one thing or another.

The best we, as individuals, can do is remember the human behind the keyboard, the life behind the words, and the story behind the need for a trigger warning or a content note. I firmly believe that righteous anger, challenging of what it means to be powerful, and pointing out problematic behavior (or “calling out,” as it may be) are necessary to any movement toward progress. We have to be willing to be uncomfortable, especially if we are in positions of privilege. But we also have to be willing to see humanity, to empathize, to see the person and not just the mistake.

In this way, Jonathan Chait is right in realizing that empathy is hard to find sometimes in the world of the internet outrage cycle, even when the cry is for people to have greater empathy. But such dehumanization is not unique to the left nor is it a special feature of the internet. The democratization of any platform comes with the cost of realizing that our speech has consequences, that nothing simply floats out into the ether. And this, ultimately, provides needed accountability, as long as it comes with a heavy dose of humanity.