Tuesday, January 27, 2015


I have mixed feelings about Jonathan Chait's denunciation of contemporary "political correctness." I have differing opinions about the things Chait damns as fascistically PC (trigger warnings: not a big fan; protests against bigots and war criminals who want to deliver high-profile speeches on college campus in which they'll repeat exactly what they say at all the other high-profile venues where they get to hold forth: go ahead, shut 'em down). I agree with many of Chait's critics that he's decrying attempts to silence the "politically incorrect," but his response is to try to silence the silencers -- who are mostly just trying to engage in speech acts of their own, which the First Amendment doesn't guarantee will always be nice, polite, or temperate. On the other hand, I just read that right-wing column that got the guy canned from his student paper and led to his room being vandalized, and I think the column was pretty mild stuff, not that vandalism is ever a proper response to speech. (Then again, neither is threatening to rape and kill the speaker, which is a common occurrence in the lives of people Chait isn't defending in this essay.) So. y'know, it's complicated.

But one of the smartest things I read about Chait's essay was from the Rude Pundit:
Inside and outside the college campus, one reason why people dig in and call out every instance of potential offense is that it's a way to have some power in a time when power is being consolidated by fewer and fewer members of society. You might not be able to vote some sexist asshole out of office because you can't afford a Super PAC, but if, say, Todd Akin says something about "legitimate rape," you can make his life a living hell, for good reason. Speech in this way is an equalizer. Hashtag advocacy may seem facile, but its potency cannot be denied. And if you have carved out a space where your voice matters, like the classroom or a Facebook group (one of which Chait describes), then you are going to defend that, sometimes even to excess. The solution would be more power in general going to a more diverse and larger group of people, in our politics, our business, our lives.
Chait says the current moment reminds him of the early 1990s, when, he says, speech was being policed (on campuses, at least) in much the same way it is now. If there were excesses then and there are excesses now, maybe it's because the times were similar: Then, we were in the third consecutive Republican presidential term, and there seemed to be no end to the Reaganite backlash, and we were also in a recession that left young people facing bleak job prospects; now, we have an economic downturn that's longer and more miserable, and while Obama's in the White House, he's been Bushite on a few things by his own choice and the country is run by Mitch McConnell, Rupert Murdoch, John Roberts, and the Koch brothers on many others. And did I mention relentlessly increasing economic inequality?

So, yeah, a lot of people feel powerless. They feel they've been kicked by powerful forces and can't kick back. So they kick the dog.

Chait says the last P.C. era ended with the Clinton presidency:
The most probable cause of death of the first political-correctness movement was the 1992 presidential election. That event mobilized left-of-center politics around national issues like health care and the economy, and away from the introspective suppression of dissent within the academy. Bill Clinton’s campaign frontally attacked left-wing racial politics, famously using inflammatory comments by Sister Souljah to distance him from Jesse Jackson....
Chait may have the timing right, but I think his explanation is wrong. Under Clinton, the economy got better; maybe young people didn't feel they had any more political power, but suddenly they seemed to have a bit more economic power. A generation later, that seems long gone, though maybe there's a break in the downturn and things are finally changing. Until that time, it's understandable if the young are looking for something to kick.


Arctor said...

".... but his response is to try to silence the silencers -- who are mostly just trying to engage in speech acts of their own..."

Steve, I read that quote of yours and revisited Chait's article. I don't see that sentiment expressed there. I read his article not so much as this single idea versus that idea, but of a style of debate that he is fighting. Honestly, I don't see how it could be denied that OUTRAGE is the currency of the day. To me, the Left doesn't realize how much it has become Foxified along with the Right. On the whole, it's not symmetrical, I don't adhere to a pox on both sides. But the left doesn't acknowledge the psychological toll that rhetorically dealing with the insane mix of aggressive stupidity and willful lack of self-awareness of Fox has taken on them for almost 20 years now. It's been exhausting for me, I will be honest. Fox revels in its bias and uses lefty respect for science and objectivity as its camouflage (“Fair and balanced.”) Fox tacitly acknowledges the unique legitimacy that objective journalism possesses.

But a portion of the left is as grotesquely biased but jettisons the ideals of the Enlightenment and reverts to the endless intertextual play of Foucault and Derrida. Ironically, I prefer the right's mask to that used by this subset of the left. One cannot argue with a strong version of postmodern multiculturalism. I've tried. I think it's ironic that both are engaging in a version of tribalism, but they have found their own ways to hide it, most of all from themselves.

Regarding Chait, I can't find where he tells his opponents to be quiet, to literally stop talking. That seems a strawman. I do, however, see him advocating in a straightforward way for Enlightenment values such as reason and persuasion. Yes, he is criticizing PC, but his offered solution is debate, not silence. His examples all highlight the existential, all-or-nothing quality of the left's approach. You don't see the tonal shift on sites like Salon or Jezebel? Slate to a lesser degree, as well. Salon, for example, where I stopped visiting the site for two months and then read the headlines, and every article was a tale of minority victimization and/or white privilege. There's no need for me to read the articles, anymore, since I know ahead of time how rigorous the ideology will be/has become.

I have read and enjoyed your blog for years, quietly, having never commented. I was curious how you'd respond, given that 1) you have a strong authorial voice, often laced with derision, and 2) are rational and fair and often utilize quotes, etc.
This is a tough tightrope to walk; I often sense that you are holding yourself in check, that your anger is so strong at the staggering hypocrisy out there that it taxes one's willpower to not slip over the edge.

In this case, though, I disagree with your viewpoint. I of course agree that 'it's complicated.' Sure, it's race and we're in America. But just as you found the campus satire mild, I found Chait's article as a whole pretty mild.

I cannot say how many times I have been bewildered by the lazy hate of identity politics across lefty websites. It's simply incredible how accepted it is for writers to invoke privilege as some sort of blank check that is presumed beyond the pale to criticize. Privilege is deliberately invoked to end the conversation, not to broaden it. I thought Chait's examples all made this basic point.

I note your shift at the end of your post towards psychologizing Chait's foes in a positive light (e.g., kicking the dog). I agree. I empathize. I used to read politics online for hours a day. Over the past two years I've found myself dwindling to reading only three per day, one of which is yours. I couldn't understand precisely why I was doing this, except that I was experiencing an increasing contempt for online discussion.

Arctor said...

I cannot tell you how strange it was, to agree with the people I increasingly dislike. I think gay marriage is settled. Trans rights are, too. I can't see how to stop there, and think polyamorous marriage should be legal too. I feel queasy about incest but won't take the space to digress further. I recently wathced Altman's MASH was awestruck at the misogyny involved. I feel discomfort at the ludicrous whiteness of, say, Friends.

In the digital age, everyone is scrapping for that shred of attention. this ratchets up the rhetoric on both sides. But it quickly leads to plain nonsense. Yes, white males are privileged in their overall power. What I was waiting for Chait to say more explicitly, however, was that the left was CORRECT. Not just philosophically, as he puts it, but morally. It is an overpowering moral intuition for us lefties that the right was wrong about the Civil Rights era. I think the Fox watchers realize just how complete their cultural defeat is becoming - gay marriage's recent rapid widespread acceptance as their most recent example.

My point is that the left was undoubtedly correct to embrace and expand its moral vision in the 60s. But now, they are blinded by their own self-righteousness. This is not to be underestimated. While the white rich Christians of America are the biggest group, while they have significant power and privilege - they have lost the moral high ground. And it is an extremely important, unique form of power to have - because a single voice of one that shouts with moral authority still has that ring of truth to the masses. The multiculturalists have found their own legitimizer, as Chait has found in his virtue of reason and debate. Chait's foes, though, think they have a unique claim to this high moral ground. They don't. No one does. But because they think they do, they can engage in thuggery like tearing down protester's signs because they think they are right. No, forever no.

This is what Chait is targeting, I think. If you think this trend is limited to college campuses, I disagre. If you don't think that this vociferous minority doesn't dominate social media, I disagree. If you don't see their footprints trampling through the comments of the major pop culture sites, I'd disagree.

I have come to hate tribalism with such intensity that I can't stomach any version of it, even those who agree with my own values. This is my take, at least. I want no part of this culture any longer. At this point, I wish to silence no one but myself. But of course, that cannot be true - look how long this comment was.

Philo Vaihinger said...

He's not trying to silence the silencers, he's deploring their conduct and especially (but not only) those parts of it that are both not speech at all and not legal.

As for attempts to get people fired solely because they espouse un-PC values or politics or even in some finicky way "offend" somebody, the problem is not that people use speech to achieve that end but that they seek to achieve that end at all.

If you think that's fair play and Chait does not your disagreement is not about speech at all, much less free speech.

Chait effectively denounces the entire PC movement as of the political devil, and its entire project to silence the opposition as beyond the pale, unliberal, undemocratic, and part of the problem not the solution.

You don't directly engage him on these things but I take it you disagree.

His history lesson is interesting, too, in that when this idea of denying the rights of your political enemies was characteristic of Marxists (but far from all of them - Chait overstates that) liberals rejected it but today when it is a central tenet of radical feminism and (ironically so-called) anti-racism liberals are falling for it all around us.

Personally, I think that's another reflection of the fact that contemporary liberalism is mostly a movement of middle and upper class whites with pretty much only contempt for the white working class.

But there you are.

Dark Avenger said...
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Dark Avenger said...

Politically incorrect is pointing out the number of unarmed African-Americans shot to death by cops in this country. Politically incorrect is mocking somebody on a Twitter over an article they wrote somewhere on the Internet.

Politically correct is saying that Obama is a Muslum. Politically correct is describing fictitious Muslim "no-go zones" as really existing in major European cities, including Manchester, U.K.

That's the Faux News version. YMMV.

Robert Daniel Pickard said...
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Robert Daniel Pickard said...

"...the p.c. left is actually more philosophically threatening. It is an undemocratic creed." --from Chait's article

I don't see where in Chait's essay he was saying that people shouldn't be able to express their discomfort or views ('silence the silencers'). I think he is pointing out that what he refers to as the PC left are really advocating for censorship under the guise of tolerance. No where did he say people shouldn't claim offense or use words like 'mansplaining', just that they are not particularly useful for actually reaching consensus.

The selected quote from Rude Pundit unintentionally supports Chait's underlying argument; "..then you are going to defend [that space where your voice matters], sometimes even to excess." The 'voice' should not be the most important thing in discourse, the quality and pragmatic value of the argument should be. Todd Akin's argument was crap and was rightly ridiculed as only being able to come from someone who doesn't understand what consent is. However (and not that this was sighted in your post) neither is the argument that rape victims should be automatically believed (1). Both are bad arguments. But only for one would it be OK to 'make his life a living hell'.

This is a personal issue to me because I happened to have been unlucky and involved in three subcultures that, from where I saw it, have been trashed by the PC left; 1) Occupy Wallstreet 2) online Atheists 3) video games. All three have been badly tarnished by the actions of the PC Left. In my experience groups on the left tend not to have a 'strong center' from which the group is directed. It is natural as many people who consider themselves left of center need or necessarily want an authoritarian directive.

The lack of center can be exploited to gain a large audience on which to push an agenda. This only seems to work for temporary gains as people with an agenda need to quickly divide the insiders and outsiders, which eventually disrupts the dynamic of the group to the point that it either falls apart or becomes something wholly different. It should be noted that it is not very different from the cynical use on the right of fear to drum up support.

For Occupy it was the introduction of the "Progressive Stack", for online Atheists it was "Atheists+" and for games it is "Feminist Frequency". The tactics used by the individuals to move to the center of left leaning groups and take over are what the PC Police Chait describes.

It is isn't what you say, it's who you are. That is the opposite of progressive.

I appreciate you keeping comments open on your blog.

(I deleted my last comment to correct errors)