Does political correctness exist?

So, the first week into my new schedule … I’m breaking it. Only because there are three posts about the Chait article that I want to talk about, but if I kept to my new schedule that would mean that that would take up an entire week … and the points aren’t interesting or diverse enough to take up an entire week. Especially since most of the posts are as close as I can get to simply pointing and laughing. So today I’ll do an article that I think actually makes a point, kinda, and then tomorrow talk about an article that, well, doesn’t really seem to.

Today’s article is by Amanda Taub and argues that political correctness doesn’t exist. So how does she justify that claim?

But political correctness isn’t a “creed” at all. Rather it’s a sort of catch-all term we apply to people who ask for more sensitivity to a particular cause than we’re willing to give — a way to dismiss issues as frivolous in order to justify ignoring them. Worse, the charge of “political correctness” is often used by those in a position of privilege to silence debates raised by marginalized people — to say that their concerns don’t deserve to be voiced, much less addressed.

So, effectively, her argument is that what’s called political correctness is really a term applied to a case where someone asks for sensitivity on a topic and we don’t think we ought to. So effectively, to translate this into something that isn’t just assuming its conclusion, it’s a case where someone demands that we do something out of sensitivity and we think they’re overreacting and stretching the bounds of what sensitivity can demand.

That … sounds pretty much like what Chait would be complaining about, cases where someone is getting either offended when they ought not be or offended beyond all reasonable measure and pushing for sanctions that are out of proportion to the purported offense, except that it leaves out that the cases would be ones based not on personal sensitivity, but instead based on an overall political view or statement, or association with a group that is formed or argues on the basis of political issues. So, it seems to me like she really is claiming that political correctness does exist, but is instead insisting that it doesn’t only because she thinks the term has a negative connotation and the examples are, well, good and so not deserving of that sort of negative response.

Her argument would have more weight if she’d address Chait’s specific examples. Instead, she deliberately grabs examples that he doesn’t reference without giving any indication of his views on them:

An example from outside of Chait’s article makes it easy to see how that technique works in practice. I, personally, think that the name of the Washington Redskins is racist and hurtful to Native Americans, and should be changed. So if someone asks me what I think of the debate about the team, that’s what I say. By contrast, Virginia legislator Del Jackson Miller likes the name and wants the team to keep it. But rather than making an argument on the merits of the name, he referred to the entire debate as “political correctness on overdrive.” In other words, he’s saying, this is a false debate — just another example of “political correctness” — so I don’t have to even acknowledge concerns about racism. (Miller, in fact, claimed that it was literally fake, an issue trumped up by a “rich member of the Oneida tribe.”)

So, sure, people do use it to dismiss a claim, usually because they really think it frivolous. She implies this about Chait’s examples, and then bring up one that she hopes people will agree is not frivolous, or, at the very least, will agree is being used to avoid actually having to discuss the issue. Now, putting aside the fact that Miller might actually believe this, even if sometimes charges of political correctness are used to stifle debate does not mean that the charges are, in fact, never valid or reasonable. I could indeed be totally on board with her wrt the Redskins issue and still think that Chait’s examples really are cases of political correctness run amok. The solution here, then, is not to say that there is no such thing as political correctness but instead to say that that label is only to be used for cases where it really is frivolous and where the debate is a fake one and then demand that anyone who uses that label as a criticism justify that it is a fake debate or frivolous concern. That way, we don’t exclude valid concerns but also don’t make it so that any claim of a valid concern is automatically assumed to be correct. This would seem to address both Chait’s and Taub’s concerns.

The inconsistency of argument continues in Taub’s article as well, where on the one hand she agrees that things are out of hand but on the other insists that somehow Chait is still wrong:

Likewise, Chait clearly believes that “microaggressions” aren’t important enough to merit his concern, and that “trigger warnings” are a foolish request made by over-sensitive people. But he doesn’t spend much time considering why the people who demand them might think they do matter. The open communication offered by platforms like Twitter has brought Chait into contact with ideas that he clearly finds weird and silly. But rather than considering their merits, or why they matter to the people who put them forward, he dismisses them as political correctness, and concludes that their very existence constitutes “ideological repression.”

And while I personally don’t think that trigger warnings are a workable solution to the problem of trauma, and have not used them in my own writing or teaching, I think that our society does generally struggle to take women’s safety into account, and I do not feel that shutting down that conversation is the appropriate solution to the problem of harassment of women.

So, he says that trigger warnings aren’t a workable solution, provides discussions of why, and is accused of not having considered why people want them … and she says she doesn’t think they work either and doesn’t use them, but implies that it’s about safety and harassment — which, um, isn’t what trigger warnings are actually for, as that’s what harassment policies are for — and never even bothers to ask what Chait’s view on that is or what solutions he might support, or even why he opposes them beyond, possibly, that he opposes them for the same reason she does.

She also says this:

Look at Chait’s own examples. Transwomen who protest definitions of “women” as “people with vaginas” aren’t merely bellyaching about terminology — they’re people on the margins of a group making legitimate demands for inclusion. Women of color who point out the many ways in which white feminists overlook issues that affect minority women aren’t engaging in race-based arguments just for the fun of it, they’re pointing out that the feminist movement had promised to protect their interests, but was in fact ignoring them.

Except that the example I found was about not putting on “The Vagina Monologues” because it seemed to exclude women without vaginas … despite all of the purportedly good things about it and how it does represent another marginalized group. This is where we get into questions about them being frivolous or pointless … or, more disturbingly, used as a way to dodge points, or debate, or to bury important ideas under the weight of the concerns of a group even when this part isn’t all about them. Are there cases where certain groups are unfairly excluded? Yes … and that includes purportedly “privileged” groups. But that doesn’t mean that any kind of protest of that sort of exclusion must be addressed, let alone addressed as the most important consideration in determining what action to take. It’s an easy case to make to argue that for what “The Vagina Monologues” is trying to do that exclusion or inclusion is rather not the point and that it’s valuable even with that purported flaw. If his example is right, political correctness precluded that answer … and maybe even that question.

But their arguments are fundamentally the same: that marginalized people’s demands for inclusion are just a bunch of annoying whining, and that efforts to address their concerns are unnecessary. They also betray the deeper concern: that listening to the demands of marginalized groups is dangerous, because doing so could potentially burden the lives, or at least change the speech, of more privileged people.

And sometimes those demands for inclusion really are just that. The whole arguments about political correctness here are about the case where they are annoying whining, where efforts to address the concerns are unnecessary, and where attempts to point that out are dismissed by the simple expedient of declaring that it is a concern of marginalized people and that as long as they feel that it’s a problem it is, without further evidence or argument. And if protest continues, then it’s just that you don’t want to listen to the legitimate grievances of marginalized groups.

That sometimes there can be statements, views, speech or whatever that can exclude marginalized groups is not a bad argument. But Taub doesn’t address the specific examples Chait raises to see if they are or aren’t valid. She simply insists that somehow his charge is wrong because there are valid concerns from marginalized people. The ideal here is what I said above: make people justify their claims that the concerns are or aren’t valid. Being considerate doesn’t mean that we have to accept anything someone else says or any claim of valid offense without evaluating whether or not it really is valid. Political correctness as criticized by Chait is that sort of consideration, which is why calling something out as it is seen as being overwhelmingly negative. So, there may definitely be cases where a charge of political correctness is false, but that doesn’t mean that that sort of political correctness doesn’t exist. If Taub thinks it doesn’t, then she needs to address the specific examples and show they aren’t that sort of political correctness, instead of trying to define them out of existence.

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