So, Jonathan Chait recently wrote an article decrying what he considers a resurgence of “political correctness”. This has caused a bit of a stir on the Internet, and there are actually quite a few things that I can talk about in those articles, so I’m going to.
First, what does Chait really say? Well, he gives a number of examples where the idea that a particular phrasing or particular point being made has garnered severe reactions by minority groups who claim that it offends them or that it produces a hostile environment and so push for sanctions, up to and including the loss of a job (although in the big case that Chait talks about that happens after the person was pushed to apologize for what they said and refused). The cases are diverse, and include a case of a Muslim student — who is presumably not white from the context of the satirical article — and a number of feminists, who are mostly women. He also gives some examples of activists who feel that they, many of whom are women. He also at some point decries the notion that ideas can be interpreted or dismissed in certain ways depending on whether the presenter is a white man or not. Guess what part most commenters focus on? That’s right, the idea that it’s a threat to white men and their ability to communicate rather than the impact it is having on people who are not, in fact, white or men.
This is most hilariously represented in an article by Jia Tolentino in Jezebel, because the article pretty much agrees with Chait about how at least sometimes political correctness can run amok, dismisses those concerns as being unimportant and coming from stupid people, and then goes on to essentially argue about his motives and ability to make that argument on the basis of his being a white male.
But don’t just take it from me. Here are some relevant quotes where she pretty much espouses what it seems to me that he’s arguing:
I have to say, I disagree. Pedants aren’t cool. Literally nothing less cool than popping up into someone’s Twitter mentions and being like, “Uh, I believe that your casual use of ‘balkanized’ was a microaggression towards people whose families may be actually dying from sectarian violence in 2015, and not to be grammatically ableist, I think you put a colon where a comma needs to be.”
But the point that Chait is deliberately missing for the sake of his argument is that there’s a significant difference between people who combine progressive priorities with a great love of being offended as well as absolutely no sense of what matters in terms of the real world of action and structural discrimination (the Twitter pedants, as well as the relatively inconsequential, embarrassingly name-checked female writers who would rather debate each other on a Facebook thread than write an article that better utilizes their skills) and the far larger and more consequential group of people with progressive priorities who are, at base, willing to hear why other people feel hurt.
I too dislike the internet’s tendencies towards identity politicking, and since starting at Jezebel—a site still widely viewed as a “problematic” den of white feminists—it has been a trip in itself to see how rabidly commenters and critics on other websites will speculate about our racial identities, and their implications, as if me writing a post as a white girl (which I’m not) would immediately make it easier to either trust (rare) or hate (much more often) my work.
But people who think like this, again, are dumb. They’re not to be focused on. And most often what they’re doing is not emblematizing a major modern political movement but simply conflating the ineffectual spheres of the internet with action that matters in real life.
I don’t use the word mansplaining, I don’t like trigger warnings, I don’t care about microaggressions, I am extremely un-P.C. in person and I agree that verbal policing on social media has gotten excessively out of hand. Political correctness can indeed mandate that everyone use the same vocabulary and peer through the most ideologically paranoid lens; it can suffocate the real world of complicated opinions into a pale, asterisked, overwrought mirage of protected online consent. But does that indicate that being considerate is a concept that’s now out-of-hand nonviable, or rather, that many people have their priorities way out of whack?
For the most part, in that last list she’s essentially agreeing with most of the things that Chait said were problematic and causing issues. That, it seems to me, is why she put those things in that list in the first place, to essentially accept the things that she thinks are just plain dumb. And she herself has faced the precise sort of behaviour that Chait complains about. She just ignores it. So the only possible actual disagreement here is that his argument includes some cases of political correctness as being trivial or pointless when they really do matter. But if she wanted to make that argument, all she needed to do was go through his many examples and explain that this really does matter, that it really is important, and so it really is just consideration that was lacking in the people who were called out on that. Guess what she didn’t do?
Also, talking about mistaking Internet concerns for things that have an impact on real life is a bit odd when the main example is of someone who lost a job over those complaints. Internet and Twitter and Facebook rants can mobilize people to take action, and it seems to me that Chait isn’t as concerned about people ranting about this stuff on social media and more about the campaigns that these spawn and the effects that those can have on the lives of real people.
But instead of doing that, Tolentino focuses her actual disagreement on discussions of how Chait is a white male:
“Can a white man express some original thought here,” asks that dek, doubling down on the identity politics it wishes to combat with objective, liberal good reason; the self-perceived disadvantages of the white male who wishes to enter this argument are outweighed by the tendency and natural gift of the white male to speak at length—”without being snowblown by a bunch of maniacally offended leftists and ‘miserable full-time victims’ who are trying to tone-police my intelligence in a way that will ultimately only hurt them, you, in the end?”
Now, this response comes earlier, but it seems to be more of a response than what she did respond with after that, so forgive me for quoting a wee bit out of order:
The answer to this exquisitely slippery question is, of course: yes! A white male liberal named Jonathan Chait can and may and apparently will absolutely critique political correctness, at great length, with great prominence, on a platform whose steadiness and reach depend not insignificantly on his white male liberal bona fides, via 4700 half-erect words explicitly aimed at trolling people into proving its thesis, which is that the noble American liberal tradition is dying at the hands of “the p.c. police.”
Or, rather, no, since he is getting snowblown by people who are not even trying to tone-police, but are instead simply looking at him as “white male” and insisting that it’s all about him not being comfortable having to listen to people who are not white male like himself and thinking that he shouldn’t have to show them consideration:
Chait, of course, neglects to take into account that he himself is not entirely separate from receiving ideas differently based on the race and sex of the individuals talking, and what this whole article is railing against as the American Tone Gestapo Prepared to Destroy the Free Market of Ideas may in actuality just be the new, social-media-enlarged voices of minorities, women, and the people who value them finally daring to disagree.)
This comes after she at least seemingly agrees that it is a bad thing to judge an idea based on the identity of the person who made it:
How is a reasonable person to get around the fact that arguments are generally related to the identity positioning that facilitates them? How might a reasonable person attempt to understand an argument’s relationship to its attendant identity position without only reading the identity position, as if race and gender were an argument unto itself?
They’re not, and Chait writes accurately that they’re often read to be
Except that she herself is making a lot of arguments based on his race and gender identity alone, with no other evidence of any kind of argument. For example, in talking about his article:
This is quite true—if immediately and groaningly utilized by Chait to show his real hand by highlighting the truly appalling, out-of-control usage of “mansplaining,” “straightsplaining,” and “whitesplaining”: three words which, as we all know, have done a tremendous amount to hurt the endangered economic position and cultural capital of straight white men.
Consider this in the context of what she says later:
LOL. Here is the thing: it’s impossible to read this piece and imagine (perhaps as Chait would wish us to) that, for example, a black woman wrote it. One might notice in the current media scene that the minority liberal writers who have made it to institutional prominence (and I’m talking The Atlantic and The New Yorker, not the truly ineffectual supplicant-gathering of Twitter fame) are gentle and kind and reasonable and empathetic to a point of miraculousness.
But consider that many of his examples are from people who are black and/or women. So why is it so hard for her to imagine that they might write this sort of article? She asserts that the minorities who make it that far are just too, for lack of a better word, nice to write such a presumably aggressive and strident article, but just reading that semi-sarcastic summary pretty much ought to seal the deal against her. And other than making some kind of comment that those minorities just don’t get those sorts of writing gigs, there is nothing here that looks like an argument, let alone one that deals with his examples. It’s arguing on the basis of his race and gender, the idea that somehow his points aren’t valid or aren’t worth considering or are just attempts to preserve his privilege just because he’s a white man and so has privilege that is purportedly under challenge … despite the fact that none of that addresses his examples. If the various “‘splainings” that he talks about are having the effect of actually stifling debate, they are doing that whether or not the person complaining about it is a white man … and, given human nature, it is indeed the case that the people most targeted by it would be the ones who would see its effect the most. And if he’s wrong, then she ought to be able to argue that he’s wrong, or at least point out where that has been disproved elsewhere.
But I suspect that she doesn’t do that because she agrees with him that sometimes they are more used by over-sensitive people or to stifle a debate that people don’t want to have. Since she doesn’t disagree on the principle, the only valid disagreement is that sometimes the claims are accurate and reasonable. But there is no reason to think that Chait will disagree with valid and reasonable uses of those concepts, and the only reason she has for even thinking that is that he’s a white man complaining about the invalid uses. And that’s precisely the sort of identity politics that she claims to hate.