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Jon Chait’s Political Correctness


Unlike at least one commenter, I’m inclined to think that Erik’s reaction to the unfortunate Chait p.c. piece was pretty much appropriate.  But I suppose what’s wrong with it could be spelled out in more detail.  First, as Angus Johnston says, it has a serious “what’s true isn’t relevant and what’s relevant isn’t true” problem.  Obviously, vandalism as a response to speech is illiberal and indefensible, but these isolated cases aren’t representative or defended by liberals of any influence or significance.  His examples of behavior that’s more common, on the other hand, tend to be self-refuting calls for less or different speech. People expressing disagreement with who gets chosen to receive a hefty check to express platitudes before a captive audience, for example, are not actually attacking on free speech; they are engaging in it. (Citing events invoking Catharine MacKinnon from the first Bush administration to pad out the list of anecdotes is a tell here, like a conservative culture scold still basing arguments around “Piss Christ.”) As Amanda Marcotte puts it:

While the article purports to be a lambast of “the culture of taking offense” and censorious attitudes, it quickly becomes clear that the only speech that Chait is interested in protecting is conservative or contrarian. When it comes to people saying uncomfortable or provocative things from the left, Chait comes across as just as censorious and silencing as any of the leftist prigs he attempts to criticize.

To be clear, Chait has plenty of examples of what has become a genuinely serious problem of liberals who react to uncomfortable ideas by turning to censorship: Harassment campaigns against conservatives, cancelling plays or art shows because of political incorrectness, tearing down anti-choice posters.

But outside of those few examples, most of Chait’s article is not a defense of rowdy public discourse at all, but the opposite: Most of the piece is little more than demands that liberals silence certain forms of discourse that make Chait uncomfortable. For a piece that mocks the use of “trigger warnings” to alert people about disturbing content, it sure seems Chait has no problem trying to silence anyone who says something that might hurt his feelings.

As Marcotte and several other people have observed, this argument in the Chait essay is particularly problematic:

Two and a half years ago, Hanna Rosin, a liberal journalist and longtime friend, wrote a book called The End of Men, which argued that a confluence of social and economic changes left women in a better position going forward than men, who were struggling to adapt to a new postindustrial order. Rosin, a self-identified feminist, has found herself unexpectedly assailed by feminist critics, who found her message of long-term female empowerment complacent and insufficiently concerned with the continuing reality of sexism. One Twitter hashtag, “#RIPpatriarchy,” became a label for critics to lampoon her thesis. Every new continuing demonstration of gender discrimination — a survey showing Americans still prefer male bosses; a person noticing a man on the subway occupying a seat and a half — would be tweeted out along with a mocking #RIPpatriarchy.

Her response since then has been to avoid committing a provocation, especially on Twitter. “If you tweet something straight­forwardly feminist, you immediately get a wave of love and favorites, but if you tweet something in a cranky feminist mode then the opposite happens,” she told me. “The price is too high; you feel like there might be banishment waiting for you.” Social media, where swarms of jeering critics can materialize in an instant, paradoxically creates this feeling of isolation. “You do immediately get the sense that it’s one against millions, even though it’s not.” Subjects of these massed attacks often describe an impulse to withdraw.

Let me get this straight. Rosin wrote an article promoting her recent book in Slate with the title “The Patriarchy Is Dead.” Some people on Twitter disagreed with this rather obviously silly and overstated premise and even used — avert your eyes! — what the kids today call “hashtags” to express their disagreement. (There are cases where Twitter can be used to engage in outright harassment rather than just disagreement, but nobody seems to be claiming that this is one of them.) And apparently the principles of freewheeling liberal free discourse are that — these people should not have disagreed with Rosin’s piece? That using Twitter snark to express disagreement crosses some magical line? To the extent that “P.C.” means anything at this late date, it’s Chait who’s expressing the “P.C.” views here. I admire a lot of Rosin’s work, but we should also return once again to dsquared: using provocative contrarianism to attract attention and then whining when people take the bait is not very sympathetic behavior.

…I also recommend this from Jia Tolentino. 

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