The Liberal-on-Liberal Debate Over Political Correctness

A fascinating argument was touched off when Jonathan Chait, a writer I usually like, posted “Not a Very P.C. Thing to Say: how the language police are perverting liberalism” on the New York magazine site.

Chait began by recounting an incident that really is objectionable: A Muslim man at the University of Michigan wrote a column for the campus conservative newspaper of the sort that campus conservatives think is clever, a spoof of someone from a marginalized group looking for things to be offended by. Not my cup of tea (or probably Chait’s either, for that matter) but what upset Chait was the reaction: Four people littered the steps of the student’s apartment building with copies of his column written over with insulting and hostile messages.

Up to that point, Chait was on firm ground; that kind of intimidation isn’t an appropriate response. But from there he segued into a stream of conservative tropes:

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.

Naturally, conservative writers loved watching liberals argue about this. The Federalist‘s Robert Tracinski wrote:

I have observed several times before that the actual essence of the Obama era’s “post-racial” politics is: white people calling other white people racist. The true icons of racial politics in our era are not a fiery Jeremiah Wright or Jesse Jackson or even Al Sharpton, taking the white man to task for keep black folk down. No, it is the average Obama voter—a left-leaning, college-educated white person like, well, like Jonathan Chait, who uses his support for Obama and the Democrats’ agenda as evidence of his enlightenment, which in his mind makes him superior to Obama’s critics, who must be motivated by insidious, secret racism. … So you can see Chait’s dismay at seeing good white “liberals” have their Not Racist credentials challenged by those who are farther out on the left. Don’t they know how the system is supposed to work?

Because that whole “racism” thing is such a scam in the post-Jim-Crow era, when we all have equal opportunities and are treated the same wherever we go.

I thought about writing my own Chait-response article, but other liberals — mostly people Jonathan Korman linked to on Facebook (thanks!) — have been doing a better job than the first ideas that occurred to me, so I’ll mostly just link to them and decide at the end whether I have anything worth adding.

My problem with Chait is simple: As long as we’re not talking vandalism or violence or physical intimidation — and we’re not, in almost all of the cases he mentions other than that first one — saying that somebody’s view is “bigoted and illegitimate” is just as much an exercise of free speech as whatever that person said in the first place.

But wait, Belle Waring said it better:

People like Chait also don’t merely want to be allowed to say whatever they wish about whomever they wish for the sake of debate itself. Because he can already say whatever he damn well pleases! Look at him go! What he wants is the right to both say things which are offensive to some people and remain a liberal in good standing once he has said them. This is a stupid right which no one should have. … Chait wants to say offensive things and not be criticized.

And for Chait to write off such objections as “political correctness” … doesn’t that label represent the same kind of de-legitimization he is objecting to? But Vox‘s Amanda Taub has that covered:

First things first: there’s no such thing as “political correctness.” The term’s in wide use, certainly, but has no actual fixed or specific meaning. What defines it is not what it describes but how it’s used: as a way to dismiss a concern or demand as a frivolous grievance rather than a real issue.

Chait identifies a long list of disputes that he describes as examples of “p.c.” demands that are hurting mainstream liberalism. But calling these concerns “political correctness” is another way of saying that they aren’t important enough to be addressed on their merits. And all that really means is that they’re not important to Jonathan Chait.

Because it’s up to white men (like me and Chait) to decide whether your concerns deserve attention, or if you’re just being too sensitive. We’ll let you know what we decide, but until then try to keep the noise down so that you don’t disturb the neighbors.

Anti-war activist Fredrik deBoer offered a more nuanced opinion: Chait may be full of it, but that doesn’t mean there’s no problem in left-wing discourse. He described a series of situations where he’s seen left-wing groups chase away potential young recruits by coming down way too hard on them the first time they say something that offends a marginalized group — which is bound to happen, because marginalized groups have been marginalized; if you don’t belong to the group, you probably have never been taught how to consider their point of view, and you won’t figure it out until you go through a certain amount of well-intentioned trial and error. In the long run, might it be more productive to point out and correct those errors in a nicer way?

I don’t want these kids to be more like Jon Chait. I sure as hell don’t want them to be less left-wing. I want them to be more left-wing. I want a left that can win, and there’s no way I can have that when the actually-existing left sheds potential allies at an impossible rate. But the prohibition against ever telling anyone to be friendlier and more forgiving is so powerful and calcified it’s a permanent feature of today’s progressivism. And I’m left as this sad old 33 year old teacher who no longer has the slightest fucking idea what to say to the many brilliant, passionate young people whose only crime is not already being perfect.

An interesting detail: In deBoer’s examples, the people coming down hard on the newcomers are themselves from privileged backgrounds, which suggests that a cycle-of-abuse thing might be going on: I got hazed when I joined the movement, so I’ll be damned if I let you get away with anything.

Like deBoer, Julian What’s-He-Doing-At-the-Cato-Institute Sanchez starts with an accurate critique of Chait:

For people accustomed to seeing their opinions greeted with everything from dismissive condescension to harassment and death threats, a successful writer complaining from a perch at New York magazine about his friends being “bludgeoned… into despondent silence”—because people are mean on social media—simply sounded whiny.  Chait also moves a bit too seamlessly from real, honest-to-God censorship by public institutions to more informal social pressure in a way that makes it sound like he’s conflating them—claiming that criticism is somehow tantamount to censorship or repression.

But then he goes deeper. Every movement, Sanchez says, needs to watch out for a certain discussion-constraining dynamic: When the group’s extreme fringe takes its good ideas too far, it’s a thankless job for anyone within the movement to say, “Hey, wait a minute.” So instead, that criticism winds up being made by opponents, who just want to shut the group down. And once that starts happening, any insider who raises a similar point is siding with the enemy, and implicitly endorsing the whole ream of bogus criticisms enemies raise.

When teetotalers are the only ones willing to say “maybe you’ve had one too many,” because your friends are worried about sounding like abstemious scolds, the advice is a lot easier to dismiss. Which is fine until it’s time to drive home.

You see this dynamic, in fact, with the response to Chait’s essay: Progressives who think maybe he’s kinda-sorta got a point quickly move on, ceding the field to those who want to revoke his ally card and conservatives eager to welcome him, at least for the next ten seconds, to “their” side. … And this makes it still easier to conclude that nothing interesting or valuable is lost by any self-censorship that may be occurring. We know what the counterargument looks like, after all: It’s the garbage those assholes are spouting. Discourse gets increasingly polarized and, in the process, stupider. Which, again, seems like a bad outcome even if you don’t particularly care whether Jon Chait gets his feelings hurt.

So, do I have anything to add to that? Maybe I’ll just kibbitz a little to resolve the apparent contradiction between two people I think are both right: Taub saying PC doesn’t exist and Waring talking about it as a real thing that has positive value.

Let’s start with the definition I gave in “A Conservative-to-English Lexicon“:

Political correctness. The bizarre liberal belief that whites, men, straights, Christians, the rich, and other Americans in positions of privilege should treat less privileged people with respect, even though such people have no power to force them to.

Removing the snark: political correctness is the attempt to extend to powerless people the same kind of courtesy that powerful people can take for granted.

Just as an example, suppose you work for a large corporation and somehow find yourself talking to the Big Boss. Maybe you’re on an elevator together or standing in line next to him at the cafeteria, hard as that is to imagine. Naturally, the wheels in your head are spinning as you try to imagine his point of view, so that nothing you say or do will accidentally offend him. But if you were in a similar situation with a janitor or some other person of low rank, you probably wouldn’t work your empathy nearly so hard.

Maybe you should. Or maybe you should at least work your empathy harder than most of us usually do.

Extend that to groups. When you belong to a powerful group — say, men or whites or straights or something similarly normative in our culture — you can take for granted that nearly everyone you run into has a general appreciation of your point of view and knows better than to piss you off in obvious ways. Members of marginalized groups can’t assume that. They’re constantly being jostled or hassled or put on the spot; occasionally by haters, but more often by ordinary folks who can’t be bothered to think too hard about them. PC is the attempt to raise the overall level of consideration to the level that powerful groups take for granted.

That, I think, is the PC that Waring sees value in.

Taub, on the other hand, is talking not about PC as it would be defined by its practitioners, but about the undefined negative label that gets thrown around by critics. And she’s right: The most common usage of “political correctness” in the media is to label some issue as beneath my concern, because the people being offended or victimized or insulted aren’t people I care about, and aren’t powerful enough to make me care.

I think maybe I should add that usage to the Lexicon.

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  • Leo Eris  On February 2, 2015 at 11:06 am

    I really don’t see the conservative problem with political correctness. It does not have force of law. It does not force anyone to say anything or deny them the right to say anything. It merely points out, using the same First Amendment rights they appear to be defending, that if you say certain things then you are an asshole.

  • Charles  On February 2, 2015 at 11:55 am

    Political correctness is hard to explain to people in positions of privelege, because they’ve never had to (for example) deal with racial slurs. Your example does a good job of bringing in a relatable power dynamic. I like it.

  • coastcontact  On February 2, 2015 at 2:23 pm

    So is Jonathan Chait a liberal and should I really care? The commentary class wants to put everyone into a pigeon hole. You are either a liberal or a conservative. There is no in-between. Why can’t I agree with some liberal views and some conservative views? What does that make me?

    You would be wiser spending your time writing about Mitt Romney’s short effort at his 3.0 version of a run for president or Hillary Clinton’s apparent impact on the Democratic Party and what it tells us about the direction of that party.

  • Anonymous  On February 3, 2015 at 12:08 am

    Thanks for distilling all those viewpoints. I saw a whole flurry of articles responding to Chait but I was damned if I was going to plow through them all. 250+ comments on CrookedTimber alone — and they are /not/ a suscinct bunch, let me tell you!

    I agree with your analysis on the dual meaning of the term and the tension it often raises on the left. Perhaps we need to remember that raising the level of respect for the less powerful* doesn’t require lowering the level of courtesy toward the privileged.

    [*] I don’t like ‘powerless’ because it robs them of all agency.

  • Wulfolme  On February 4, 2015 at 3:18 am

    Well. I need to say that I can’t agree with you on this one. I read every word of Chait’s article, and I agreed with just about all of it. It’s gotten harder and harder for me to agree with the pervading liberal viewpoint on matters of offensiveness and social harm, and I’ve really crossed the line of accepting that I’m just going to have to make some of these people I fundamentally agree with angry. More and more, I’ve felt that the fear and demand for ideological purity pushed by the left side of popular politics has been going somewhere that I can’t follow. It’s hard to accept that you won’t agree with someone on everything after you’ve agreed with them on a great deal. This article brought that struggle up for me about this website. It’s a challenge to look at the opinions of someone you want to respect and tell yourself that they aren’t something you can bring in line with your own feelings. I don’t think that the world of frantic avoidance of politically incorrect offense will lead anywhere good.

  • Anonymous  On February 13, 2015 at 1:13 pm

    I sometimes wonder if some liberals, perhaps not consciously, wield the PC hammer, and other things (eating organic, local, the latest environmentally correct thing) as… well…class signifiers. Are you educated or intellectual (or perhaps reading the right things, hanging with the right people?) enough to know the latest, most liberal response. It’s like the conservatives are right after all…the liberal elite is a real thing… and folks really want to make the point that they are indeed part of it. And maybe you (well me! anyway!)…are not, quite in. It’s not that I don’t think we can’t wonder aloud (but gently) to our friends how certain things might be heard by one group or another. Just as we might about how another individuals might feel — when we are chattering off from some narrow perspective we’ve fallen into. But the way some things are pounced on – it sure feels like something beyond an attempt at empathy…is going on.

  • Lindsey H  On February 3, 2016 at 11:33 pm

    The problem with PC culture is not that people shouldn’t be treated with respect and dignity, it’s that too often it gets hijacked by people who don’t want their ideas challenged. Anyone who has even the most tenuous ownership of the “marginalized” label can silent dissidents under the guise of being oppressed by them. Islam, I think, is the prime example of this. In the UK Imams are free to preach hatred of non-Muslims, uncovered women, sexual minorities, and Jews with impunity.

    In Birmingham, Islamic groups tried to take over state schools in order to instill their own hardline curriculum. Retrograde cultural practices like FGM and cousin marriage are overlooked so as not to unfaily judge others’ cultures. MPs like Keith Vaz have tried to introduce blasphemy laws that protect Muslims from “offense”, whatever that means. It is clear that the law treats Muslims differently than non-Muslims. Why? Because any time someone poses a legitimate grievances with Islam,the Koran, or the Hadiths, they will be called a bigot, a colonialist, and a racist. Political correctness is supposed to improve the lives of marginalized people, what about those people who are marginalized by Islam?

    • weeklysift  On February 4, 2016 at 8:06 am

      I am not familiar enough with the situation of Muslims in the UK to discuss your comment intelligently. (Maybe some reader is?)

      In the U.S., I often hear similar arguments about how political correctness shuts down legitimate criticism. When I dig into the details of particular cases, though, I very seldom end up believing that the complaint is valid. What look like “special rights” to the majority are often anything but that.

      So: Given that you’re talking about a situation I don’t know anything about, I have to admit that you might be right. But my intuition is to be skeptical.


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