(P.C.) Power On

The last article to talk about comes from Stephanie Zvan. Her main focus is about power, and as pretty much everyone did she ends up pretty much agreeing with Chait while claiming to disagree with him:

So, up front, do the traditionally disenfranchised always use the power they gain wisely and well? Do they use their newfound platforms for nothing but good? Do they always correctly apply the tools of analysis they’re taught? Do they never overreach? Do they never abuse anyone?

You’re laughing with me right now, right?

These questions are absurd. No group, as a group, can say that they always handle power well. The temptations and pitfalls of power are infamous.

So, the idea is that the sort of “political correctness” that Chait talks about — or perhaps social media, it isn’t that clear — gives disenfranchised groups power. They don’t always use that power wisely. They sometimes incorrectly apply the tools they are given to exercise power. So, sometimes, they get it wrong.

How is this not agreeing with Chait that sometimes using discussions of things like “‘splaining”, “privilege” and the like are overdone and invalid, and are taken too serious, and are used to stifle debate? The most you can complain about Chait is that he might be dismissing the tools themselves instead of just the invalid uses, but then the proper response is to agree that sometimes they can be abused but that there are times when it’s valid, here are examples where it is, and that we need to be able to keep the good uses while filtering out the bad.

Did Chait reflect on his own power before associating people engaged in hashtag campaigns and writing petitions—people “meeting speech with more speech”—with “a system of left-wing ideological repression”? Did he consider the fact that these are some of the most-harassed people on Twitter, recipients of threats and racist and sexist degradation? Did he stop to ask whether painting these people as threats to a free society would increase that harassment?

The thing is that he didn’t really associate the people with that in that way. Instead, he called out the instances of the behaviour, generally specifically. He didn’t really paint the people in general as being that, only the people who use political correctness and therefore their power invalidly. If pointing out that their behaviour is bad will increase their harassment, then that’s bad, but I fail to see how that is an example of Chait using power irresponsibly … especially considering that one of the ways to teach people how to use power responsibly, as Zvan wants them to, is to call them out on it when they get it wrong. Again, she doesn’t in any way argue that the people in the examples Chait cites are doing it right and that he’s wrong about them doing it invalidly, but instead simply says that somehow Chait has power and privilege and they don’t and so criticizing their behaviour is somehow bad. How does she expect people to get better at using power when all attempts to point out that they are abusing their power is deflected away by focusing on the person who said it, or what some people will do when they find out that those people were abusing power? Surely, we can do so tactfully in a way to minimize that, but Chait didn’t do it that way. Ironically, Jia Tolentino did, arguing closer to Zvan’s side than Chait’s.

In fact, if Chait is truly interested in the creation of space for dialogue, rather than just telling society’s effective critics to shut up, he could do worse than to look to the left he’s so concerned about. If we ever manage to build a strong consensus about how to successfully navigate competing power and interests, the solution we adopt will have been developed by the left.

I think that Chait characterizes himself as someone on the left, actually. In fact, most of his examples are of people being attacked for expressing views from the left, and his main thesis is that this attitudes is destroying the left. So why is this relevant, so much so that later she can simply dismiss that the right sort of solutions will come from Chait?

I don’t think we’ll see Jonathan Chait doing this anytime soon. I don’t think we’ll see most of the people who write pieces for large audiences about being afraid to speak doing this work. I do think, however, that the people we see putting these strategies into action will come from the left, not the center.

And this just seems patently false. Why? Because it’s the people in the centre who won’t have any particular attachment to the left or right view being given. They’ll be the ones who can see that the abuses of power come from both sides, just in service of different principles. Without having the political attachments, they can evaluate it as if it really might be an issue, without generally getting caught up in defending the side they identify with in defending the abuses, which is what Zvan does in spades throughout the entire article.

If you’re concerned that you’re promoting undesirable behavior by promoting these voices, find the people or pieces you do want to promote. The tricky part of this is that you still have to represent interests that aren’t yours. If you don’t, the people you’re passing over will continue to do what they need to do to be heard. The point, aside from the basic work of making sure everyone’s interests get a hearing, is to make sure people understand that they can be heard without the vitriol that worries you.

Where is her evidence that Chait is not doing this? Part of not promoting undesirable behaviour is, as Zvan will surely accept, pointing out that you aren’t promoting it and that the behaviour is undesirable. While chiding Chait for opening people up to harassment by criticizing them, Zvan here explicitly promotes avoiding and excluding people by choosing those whose behaviour you consider undesirable, which is farther than Chait wants to go. And in context, if people are haranguing people over perceived exclusions and you don’t share their judgement, by Zvan they are justified in doing whatever they need to do … even to the extent of the vitriol. And consider that they will decide that based on whether they think they can be heard without it, with no real need for reality to chime in on the matter. So, how do they determine that?

It’s hard to trust someone talking about using power responsibly when they essentially say that they will use their power harshly and feel justified about that if you don’t do things the way they want and agree with them and their voices. It’s hard to trust them when they give no opening for debate and, in fact, seem to agree that the examples were at least not entirely reasonable and yet spend all of their time ranting about how people pointing that out are abusing their power when they do nothing more than, well, point that out. If Zvan would at least explicitly concede that the examples are bad and leave off the deflection that pointing that out might have increased harassment of some people who might, well, actually do those bad things and so deserve to be called out, then there might be a starting point. But as it is, it sounds like she’s saying that you can’t call out the bad behaviour of these people who are abusing power because it might be bad for them, and that if you don’t provide the means for them to feel that they can be heard on their terms they will continue to abuse their power … even against those who aren’t actually abusing their power against them. Yeah, not an example of responsibly using power, methinks.

Zvan’s article dives off into discussions of power, but she fails to link it to the actual points. As we’ve seen in all three of these articles, they essentially agree with Chait but try desperately to find reasons to dismiss him and what he says anyway. Thus, they all seem to pretty much prove his point about judging ideas based on the identity of who expresses them, and they all agree that these sorts of things can be cases where the traditional ideals and concepts are abused to stifle speech. But they don’t seem to care about that at all, and so find themselves having to oppose something that they agree with. Hence the deflections.

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