In the team sport of politics, few things are more poorly tolerated than a traitor. It’s one thing for, say, George Will to question politically correct speech, but when a former liberal champion like Jonathan Chait does so, all hell breaks loose.
In a long-form article for New York Magazine, Chait took to task the ugliness of the new political incorrectness that had a few minutes in the sun in the late 1980’s, when feminist lawprof Catherine MacKinnon proclaimed herself Speech Queen for a Day.
MacKinnon’s beliefs nestled closely with an academic movement that was then being described, by its advocates as well as its critics, as “political correctness.” Michigan had already responded to the demands of pro-p.c. activists by imposing a campuswide speech code purporting to restrict all manner of discriminatory speech, only for it to be struck down as a First Amendment violation in federal court.
In Ann Arbor, MacKinnon had attracted a loyal following of students, many of whom copied her method of argument. The pro-MacKinnon students, upset over the display of pornographic video clips, descended upon Jacobsen’s exhibit and confiscated a videotape. There were speakers visiting campus for a conference on prostitution, and the video posed “a threat to their safety,” the students insisted.
It’s back. Who are its victims and victimizers, however, remains a matter of which team you’re on, and even then, whether one is sufficiently attuned to the nuance of the moment as to what words are permissible and what must be stricken from the lexicon.
Chait’s article is long, meaning it goes in all sorts of directions, some good, some bad, some sound, some facile, some reflecting the hypocrisy of the self-loathing liberal and some reflecting the hypocrisy of the true believer. It’s a mess.
And Chait’s article almost instantaneously drew harsh reactions. At Student Activism, Angus Johnston smacked Chait around for complaining about how PC speech impaired free speech, since both are just speech. At Talking Points Memo, fem Amanda Marcotte took her patented approach of mischaracterizing Chait in really poor prose:
The irony begins to collapse in on itself and form a black hole from which no self-awareness can escape with this sentence: “It is likewise taboo to request that the accusation be rendered in a less hostile manner. This is called ‘tone policing.’” Got it. Demanding that someone adopt more P.C. language to step around the sensitivities of liberals is unconscionable, but demanding that lefties on Twitter adopt a softened tone to step around the sensitivities of Jonathan Chait is just good sense.
Chait raised “tone policing” as one of the phenomenon occurring, though Marcotte misstated it as one of Chait’s “demands.” At Gawker, Alex Pereene milks his liberal antagonists for lulz:
So, here is sad white man Jonathan Chait’s essay about the difficulty of being a white man in the second age of “political correctness.” In a neat bit of editorial trolling, New York teased the column with [the] following question: “Can a white, liberal man critique a culture of political correctness?”
The answer, as anyone with internet access or a television or the ability to see a newsrack could tell you, is a resounding yes, they can and pretty much constantly do. But the second half of the question, and the real point of the column, was left unwritten: Can a straight, white man do this without having to deal with people criticizing him for doing so? The answer, in 2015, is no, and that is what has Chait’s dander up.
Why he says the second question is “the real point” isn’t clear, as is his claim that Chait’s “dander” is up. It seems obvious that Chait would anticipate blowback, and his dander is where it’s always been. At the same time, watching the other team beat up on Chait brings smiles to McKinnon’s disciples.
But without having one’s finger on the pulse of the inside baseball of liberal PC politics, it can be hard to follow these attacks, or appreciate the motives behind them. For those of us who truly couldn’t care less about who will win the most politically correct person of the year award, one reaction to the substantive points in Chait’s article seemed to wrap it up.
The response comes from lawprof Corey Rayburn Yung, who has been a bit noseblind to his own political bias because he, like so many others, suffers from the “I’m not biased; I’m right. The other guys are biased because they’re wrong.” As much as I like Corey otherwise, he suffers this massive blind spot when it comes to his own views. That doesn’t make him unique, but it also doesn’t relieve him from the prejudice of his politics.
At Concurring Opinions, Corey breaks down his beef with Chait in a concise and clear fashion:
After learning from discussions with many people holding views similar to Chait, I have had some success in distilling the problems of offensive speech to simpler terms. I call it the “don’t be an asshole” rule. It lacks nuance, I admit.
Nuance, schmuance. I consider this a feature rather than a flaw. In fact, it was the first rule here.
The applications of “don’t be an asshole” are many. Here are just a few:
Don’t yell “fuck” in the middle of a wedding ceremony or funeral.
Don’t fart in someone’s face.
Kind of gross, but sure. Definitely poor form. And for the benefit of the logic-impaired, this does not mean Corey approves of farting in the deceased’s face while yelling “fuck” at a funeral.
Don’t post your ex-girlfriend’s nude pictures online.
Unless she asked you to. Why she would do so is beyond me, but then again, why people take nude selfies and send them to people they barely know is beyond me too.
Don’t name your sports team an offensive ethnic slur.
Which would make more sense if it happened after the name was roundly condemned as an offensive ethnic slur, rather than at a time when things like this and this were considered proper viewing for children. Today, they are considered patently offensive. It’s hard to rewrite history with all those football jerseys out there.
Don’t call women “sluts” even if you believe in your heart-of-hearts that you also call promiscuous men “sluts.”
While not up there with basic life rules like don’t fart in someone’s face, okay. I fail to see what calling promiscuous men “sluts” has to do with anything, though. While that rationalization finds favor with younger people, it fails the relevancy test for those of us who aren’t easily goaded. If you’re ugly, my being ugly doesn’t make you less ugly.
Don’t use ethnic, religious, homophobic, racial, sexist slurs.
Absolutely. Though who decides what words are forbidden slurs seems to be the problem, not the admonition not to use them. I tried to make a list once, but I didn’t have enough RAM.
Recognize that you might be racist, sexist, homophobic, or otherwise bigoted and not know it.
This is a surprising faux pas for Corey. We are all bigoted, whether we know it or not. That he uses “might be” suggests he has yet to come to the realization that not even the most PCist among us is pure.
Fair enough, but at what point does charitable listening turn to “get real.” We can give everyone the benefit of the doubt until they had said or done something to make that a foolish and unreasonable assumption. To say listen charitably is fine, but naïve. At some point, charitable listening turns to foolishness.
And if someone calls you are [sic] a racist, sexist, bigot, etc., the “don’t be an asshole” rule even has a course of action to take:
Step one: Apologize.
Step two (optional): Thank the person for letting you know (assuming you don’t want to be an asshole in the future).
Step three: Don’t be an asshole again.
This isn’t the “don’t be an asshole” rule (at least not mine). This is a variant of the “heckler’s veto,” that someone screams bigot and therefor you must be one. Nope. First, there’s the problem of the PC prigs who whine that anyone who doesn’t adore them is some flavor of bigot, reducing it to meaninglessness.
But the overarching question is who decides? An obvious answer is in the first comment to Corey’s post:
Let me try to simplify further: “don’t do or say things that Corey Yung finds offensive.” Have I nailed it?
Of course, it’s not just Corey. Every self-proclaimed champion of social justice is entitled to condemn without challenge, with all the potential for internal conflict that ensues.
But as Angus Johnstone notes, so what? This is all speech. Free speech for all, including free speech to counter free speech, to challenge free speech. So what? And he’s right, unless, of course, the proponents of political correctness demand laws against free speech, like bullying, harassment, hate speech and revenge porn. Or a law embodying Corey’s “don’t be an asshole” rule. But the politically correct would never do that because they love free speech as much as they hate Jonathan Chait.