A couple of weeks ago, you may have heard, Jonathan Chait published a thinkpiece in New York magazine, complaining that feminists and other lefties are squashing public debate by insisting on — wait for it — “political correctness.”
I know — it’s like we’re back in college!
I had a big long thing about this, but the further into it I got, the more I just felt a kind of tiredness. And it turns out I’m not alone! Here is Digby, and Henry Farrell, and the very amusing Alex Pareene, and perhaps most tired of all is Freddie DeBoer, who notes that Chait is being a moron, but also says that there really is a sort of problem on college campuses with people of privilege using the complex language of identity politics as a kind of shibboleth to keep out people with a lot less privilege:
I have seen, with my own two eyes, a 33 year old Hispanic man, an Iraq war veteran who had served three tours and had become an outspoken critic of our presence there, be lectured about patriarchy by an affluent 22 year old white liberal arts college student, because he had said that other vets have to “man up” and speak out about the war. Because apparently we have to pretend that we don’t know how metaphorical language works or else we’re bad people.
Belle Waring follows up with a similar story:
[M]y rich fellow grad students in Classics treated my friend as something of a pariah because he was a Libertarian, and thus an oppressive evil-doer. In fact, he had come from a difficult home with a single mother, and they depended on the state at times. He signed up to be a Marine for the tuition payment benefits (among other things), went to UCB, and, having learned Arabic in the Marines, was then getting a PhD in Classics, the first person in his family ever to aim so high, academically. He read to himself, carefully and slowly, The Laches (Plato’s dialogue on courage) while he was on his troop ship on his way to the Gulf for Iraq I, and this won my heart. It made me angry when Harvard legacies disrespected him: he was the embodiment of what a functioning welfare state could achieve for a ferociously hard worker who would take risks. Sure, in an ideal world he would also appreciate the privilege he had as a white man in our society—but, dude, these were just not the people to be lecturing other people about privilege.
So. Is there something there? Probably. Sometimes. People are sometimes assholes, and lefties are no exception. And most people who are politically active on college campuses, unsurprisingly, are young people, and young people’s passion isn’t always tempered with wisdom. None of this is much of a revelation.
De Boer says he’s seen “dozens and dozens” of such incidents during his time as an anti-war activist and graduate student. But, you know, how many times has he seen someone calmly explain the privilege knapsack or unconscious bias or stereotype threat or why transgendered people are people and not jokes? What’s the ratio, where innocent, good faith allies are concerned, of calm, patient dialogue to mean-spirited dressing-down? Based on my own recent experience on a very liberal campus, it’s a lot. So, let’s keep that in mind. In a vast galaxy of conversations around very difficult topics, “dozens and dozens” of nasty wrong turns is, probably, nothing to be too worried about.
(Unlike, say, making death threats against people you don’t agree with, which really is a danger to free speech and America and so on.)
All that said, people who want you to use more modern nomenclature or not make sexist jokes or otherwise act according to a so-called “PC” standard of behavior are often unable (or, maybe, too exasperated) to calmly and compassionately explain why they want you to change your ways. This leads to the feeling that the standards are arbitrary — just a puritanical bit of social control, like the Seven Dirty Words.
Yesterday’s excellent article by Katherine Cross really nails down a big part of the problem, which is the idea that these things are about “offense,” in the sense of huffy priggishness, rather than “implicit threat,” as in “this makes me afraid of danger”:
It has to be one of the most significant rhetorical own-goals of the Left since the 1960s: allowing the word “offend” to become the go-to way of describing the harms of prejudice. “This content offends me,” “your words are offensive,” “his conduct gave offence to x,” etc. What this has always facilitated is the commonplace reactionary response to such moral injunctions, defending some imagined noble right to give offense lardered with smug Stephen Fry image macros. Cue “free speech” arguments ad nauseam that resolve into garrulous nothingness.
We saw this play out in dramatic and unsettling fashion in the wake of the massacre of many of Charlie Hebdo’s staff in Paris last month, where many rallied around the newspaper’s “offensive” tradition and stood tall on the graves of the fallen, pencils raised in the air to announce that “offensiveness” was the cornerstone of a free press and our shared right to free expression, crowding out discussion of how the French media can promote hateful stereotypes that deepen the country’s struggles with racism.
This word, “offense,” is the devil in every detail of every argument and it needs to go. To use it to describe acts of prejudice is to cede much of a hotly contested epistemic field to those only too happy to make the discussion entirely about speech rights rather than material harm . . . .
“Offense” discourse encourages every fallacious false-equivalence under the sun. The idea that calling a white person a “cracker” is racist stems from this discourse; if “offense” is your only yardstick for measuring prejudice, then yes, surely hurting feelings with that word is racist. But in the real world actual racism is not about hurt feelings. It’s about being incarcerated, harassed, strip-searched, stalked, murdered, denied career advancement or an education, or being at risk of the foregoing and then having someone rub in one’s face the slurs and stereotypes that animate it all. Against all this, the psychic paper cut of “cracker” surely pales.
We respond to prejudice in pointillist fashion: this individual said something that hurt this other individual; therefore “offense” is the best way to describe that harm. But the reality is that when we talk about something like, say, misgendering a trans woman or using her old name in public, what is happening in those situations transcends the individual offense felt by the woman in question. That is part of her experience of the event, and part of the harm, but it is not in itself a political matter. What is political, in no uncertain terms, is the way such words and ideas are the spearpoint of violence against trans women, used to justify it and all but ensure such crimes will be repeated. That is what so many transphobes on the internet deliberately access when they employ transmisogynist hate speech, and that is what takes it above the level of mere offensiveness. So many of our slain sisters died hearing their murderers misgender them; those who survive could, for instance, tell tales of angry men throwing bottles at them shouting “that’s a man!”