Secret Confessions of the Anti-Anti-P.C. Movement

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I write frequently about health care. Nobody has ever thought to insinuate that my strong advocacy of Obamacare reflects a personal reliance on the law to insure my own family, which is fortunate enough to have had employer-provided insurance before the law took effect. Even my strongest critics understood that I advocated the law as a generalized good, not as a matter of self-interest. My recent article on political correctness provoked a very different and unusual response.

The story describes a set of social norms and protocols within communities of the left that make meaningful disagreement impossible on issues related to race and gender. I decided to reclaim the widely misused term political correctness rather than invent my own. Within these p.c. subcultures, outrage is pervasive, a charge of bias cannot be disputed without further confirming its truth, and there is a presumed right to be “safe” from opposing views, which can even justify the heavy-handed squelching of opposing views. (I described in some detail an incident where a professor seized an anti-abortion poster, not because this episode shows it is no longer possible to protest abortion, but because the multiple defenses of her behavior displayed the lengths to which p.c. ideology can extend its idea of “safety.”)

One possible response would be to defend these practices on normative grounds — the sort of confident defense that a confirmed left-wing critic of liberalism like Catharine MacKinnon might make. Another possible response might be to question the veracity of the description I provided.

Interestingly, the critics chose neither response. Instead they settled on a strange line of attack: that the essay represents special pleading on my own behalf, a comical complaint of victimization. This theme supplied most or all of the rhetorical power in the replies written by Anne Theriault (“In New York Magazine, Jonathan Chait discusses how hard it is to be a white man these days”), Glenn Greenwald (“a trite note of self-victimization”), Amanda Marcotte (“Chait has no problem trying to silence anyone who says something that might hurt his feelings”), Alex Pareene ("here is sad white man Jonathan Chait's essay about the difficulty of being a white man in the second age of 'political correctness'”), Jia Tolentino, Jessica Valenti, and many others.

Some of these replies quote the headline to the story — which, in the print edition, asked, “Can a white male liberal critique the country's current political-correctness craze (which, by the way, hurts liberals most)? We're sure you'll let us know.” This was my editors’ playful way to provocatively anticipate the firestorm the piece would set off. It was not a summary of the piece itself. And indeed, nothing in the story actually expresses any sense of victimization on behalf of myself or of white males. (Few of the sympathetic figures in the story are white males.) The story’s critics have repeated their claim that I am personally upset so often, they have come to take it as an obvious fact. (“It's understandable that Chait, and the many others who agree with him,” writes Amanda Taub faux-sympathetically, “find it so upsetting to be on the receiving end of what he refers to as ‘P.C.’ criticism.”)

I am not upset in the slightest degree. Nor do I count myself among those whose freedom of expression is constrained by p.c. culture — as evidenced by, among other things, the existence of my story itself. The examples of p.c. culture described in the piece affect many people, but not me.

If there were a single sentence in the story expressing self-pity, it would be widely quoted by the critics, but no such line can be found. (Belle Waring, unable to find any quotes substantiating her characterization of my views, actually goes so far as to invent her own quotes that supposedly describe my thinking.) Nor is such a sentiment hidden, lurking somewhere outside the text. I don’t feel victimized in any way by political correctness or (as some have alleged, in one strange variant of the charge) by new media, which has been a boon to me. I feel, with regard to my career and my place in American society, things have never been better. The response partly reflects the p.c. culture’s inability to evaluate arguments about identity as abstract arguments rather than reflections of the author’s own identity.

But it also shows something else. The intensely personal and mostly imagined response reveals a fact about the left that is actually encouraging. My interlocutors have little appetite to defend the norms of p.c. culture. Some of them concede as an aside that they more or less share my critique (Valenti: “there is a good conversation to be had over how ideological one-upmanship and ‘call out culture’ impacts rigorous debate.” Marcotte: “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.” Etc.) They object to the problem being framed in a way that strikes them as an attack on their own culture from an outsider. “There's a lot about this lefty PC culture to criticize but it's an internal problem,” writes Heather Digby Parton, revealingly. Only Taub is dogmatic enough to insist that political correctness does not (and, as a matter of a priori ideological truth, cannot) exist.

They don’t want to hear a critique of p.c. that appears to implicate themselves and their friends, and above all, they don’t want to hear it from goddamn Jonathan Chait. Many of the responses devote considerable space to recounting my past ideological offenses as a way of underscoring their conviction that I lack the standing to criticize their community. This tribal response is a natural one — I embarrassingly succumbed to it in 2006, when I argued, incoherently, that Joe Lieberman was annoying but the people attacking him annoyed me even more. But the personalized character of the response also shows my critics are not so much pro-p.c. as anti-anti-p.c., which is not exactly the same thing.

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There is also another line of thought running through some of the replies that does not rely on any personal animus against me. (Indeed, several of my friends have made versions of it.) Political correctness may involve “overcorrections,” argues Megan Garber, but only in the noble service of tolerance. The argument concedes that, yes, political correctness may be bad, but racism and sexism are worse. Why should we concern ourselves with the lesser evil rather than the greater evil against which it is directed?

The first response to this objection is practical. The assumption that political correctness is perhaps too effective at fighting bias presumes that it is effective at all. But is it? An alternative possibility, which I find plausible but which can’t be proven, is that p.c. provokes a backlash that hinders the struggle against bias. Associating charges of racism or sexism with tendentious ideological hectoring naturally makes people more skeptical of the veracity of any such charges.

What’s more, it is true, as anti-anti-p.c. critics charge, that complaints about political correctness are frequently used to defend beliefs or behaviors that don’t deserve defense. But it is easier to conceal racism or sexism behind complaints about political correctness when political correctness is real. The same dynamic was probably true with McCarthyism. (I am not equating the two phenomena in scale, but merely describing a similarity in the style of arguments surrounding them.) McCarthyism supplied American communists with the romantic aura of unjust persecution, and it taught many liberals to treat any charge of communism with reflexive suspicion. Actual communists hid their noxious beliefs under the guise of anti-McCarthyism in exactly the same way that actual racists hide their beliefs in the guise of anti-political-correctness. Communism in the 1950s was a very real and very terrifying threat, and yet the most effective response to it was probably not indiscriminate accusations of communist sympathy.

The second response is that, irrespective of its practical impact, making distinctions is important and valuable. Voting may present us with limited and imperfect choices. But when we analyze the world, we don’t need to restrict ourselves to binary choices. We can oppose both racism and inappropriate responses to racism. Indeed, that kind of multifaceted thinking is a special responsibility for liberals.

The objection to my argument from the right is just the opposite: that my condemnation of p.c. is too limited, and for different reasons, likewise self-serving. National Review’s Kevin Williamson, like many jeering conservatives, objects that I only object to p.c. when it is used against white liberals. (To find an example of me describing a target of p.c. who is neither white nor liberal, you need to read all the way to … the first sentence.) Another way in which my definition of “political correctness” differs from Williamson’s is that I am comfortable imputing racism to things like describing a black person in animalistic terms and calling them a “primate.” The critics of my argument from right and left share an apparent belief that we must either endorse all the accusations of racism or none of them.

Taub, for instance, argues, “An example from outside of Chait's article makes it easy to see how that technique works in practice,” and she proceeds to describe a controversy over the offensive name “Washington Redskins.” Now, the fact that Taub has to go outside my article is itself an important signal of her inability to grapple with the facts within it. Because, of course, it may be true, as she points out, that some defenders of the Redskins’ name have described efforts to change it as “political correctness.” But I did not and would not describe it that way. The fact that some people use allegations of political correctness inappropriately does not make p.c. nonexistent.

Naturally, people will disagree about the legitimate definition of which ideas are bigoted and which are not. I do not claim omniscience in settling these disputes — Michelle Goldberg and Freddie deBoer land on conclusions similar but not quite identical to my own. I submit that the answers need to be arrived at through reason, a channel to which everybody has access regardless of identity. That settling these questions through reason rather than through appeals to identity has become controversial is, of course, my point.