One of the more contentious problems surrounding my story on the return of political correctness concerns how we should think about the connection between the ends and the means of the p.c. left. Does this movement favor the same goals as most liberals but is simply a bit more rude and aggressive in the methods it uses to achieve them? Or is there something more fundamental about its character that distinguishes it from liberalism? A number of responses to my piece have brought this question to the surface, and a more considered explanation may be in order.
One source of confusion lies with the political right, which has both dominated and perverted the meaning of “political correctness.” National Review’s Jonah Goldberg writes a reply operating from the premise that liberalism and the far left are essentially indistinguishable. “There’s a story many establishment liberals like to tell about themselves and their allegedly rich tradition of battling the illiberal Left,” writes Goldberg. “The problem is that it’s usually just that — a story.” Obviously the author of Liberal Fascism is not going to agree with an argument that posits important distinctions between the center left and the far left.
Conservatives have spent 25 years using the term to signify, basically, anything that liberals believe. Kevin Williamson, also of NR, and The Wall Street Journal editorial page’s James Taranto both insist that I practice political correctness despite claiming to oppose it. To support this charge, the best evidence they could find was a four-and-a-half-year-old blog post I wrote describing David Koch as a man “able to spend a gigantic fortune to help bend the political system so as to become more congenial to his own economic interests.” According to Williamson, and Taranto, this is a p.c.-style attempt to discredit Koch’s argument on the basis of his identity. “One can make the case that Koch-style libertarianism — which runs the range from low regulation to gay marriage to drug reform — is bad policy,” complains Williamson. “Or one can do what Chait does here: Dismiss the argument because of where it comes from: Rich guys who inherit money, in this view, must believe what they believe out of self-interested and dishonest reasons.”
It’s true: It would be ad hominem to dismiss Koch’s argument about tax policy or regulation on the basis of his identity. Except the item does not do so. It invokes Koch’s enormous social privilege in response to Koch’s claim to be a persecuted figure. Surely citing Koch’s privilege is a relevant response to an argument by Koch about his own victimhood. But the right’s indiscriminate complaints about p.c. have hardened liberal skepticism against any such claim, however justified.
Conservatives fail to understand political correctness because they find the whole left half of the ideological spectrum too alien to dissect with any precision, and they have no interest in distinguishing the near left from the far left. Just the opposite, in fact. But since conservatives do have a real interest in talking about p.c., both when it is real and when it isn’t, they have lamentably influenced how liberals themselves understand the issue.
A second source of confusion is that the social media landscape has changed dramatically in a way that transcends ideology altogether. There is a long-standing and frequently demonstrated sociological principle called “the law of group polarization.” It holds that like-minded people grouped together tend to converge not on the center of their shared beliefs but upon increasingly extreme versions. More confident voices in the room will drown out less confident ones, and individuals will one-up each other to assume leadership roles. A jury leaning toward awarding punitive damages to a plaintiff will wind up agreeing on a much larger settlement than its members originally contemplated. A group of voters harboring suspicions of a possible conspiracy will end up deeply convinced.
More recently, other studies have found that group polarization has an even stronger effect if the group meets not in a room but in electronic form, like a chat room. And then last year, Chinese researchers studying Twitter discovered that messages of anger spread much more quickly than messages expressing either joy or sadness.
All these findings, put together, help explain the world of online discourse we see around us. We live in a culture of outrage, nurtured by tribes of fellow believers huddling together around embers of outrage they stoke ceaselessly. The recent rise of social media has created a powerful new role for the interlocutor, framed up in the most outrageous (usually oversimplistic, and often inaccurate) terms. Political writers of any persuasion have all experienced the dizzying spectacle of online hordes all descending at once, filled with rage, and usually not having read the subject of their rage. This was the context I used to show Hanna Rosin’s experience, which could happen to a conservative as easily as a liberal. Social media has constricted virtual communities, and it has made the experience of committing heresy against the internal values of these communities more visceral and even more frightening than it was even a few years ago.
Against this generalized backdrop, the p.c. left brings its own ideological peculiarities. Outraged Twitter mobs can spring up on behalf of any political view, and many nonpolitical ones. But only the p.c. left has worked out a rigorous set of norms that explicitly justify the suppression of heresy.
The most simplistic misunderstanding of p.c. is to imagine it as a form of victimization of white males. (As the case studies in my story show implicitly, and Freddie DeBoer argues explicitly, the rules of p.c. dogma are frequently enforced by white people and men, and often against women and non-whites.) A somewhat more sophisticated way of thinking imagines p.c. as a crude but effective weapon for the liberal social agenda. So, for instance, Alyssa Rosenberg presents the p.c. debate as a question of whether the left wants to be effective or whether it wants to be nice. “The overall impression the piece left,” she writes, “was that Chait was more concerned with what’s nice than what’s right, and what works.” Ross Douthat, arguing from the right, arrives at the similar conclusion. “The reality,” he writes, “is that there are contexts where making people afraid to disagree is actually a pretty successful ways of settling political and cultural arguments.”
The mistake here is imagining that political correctness can be measured by the travails of a discrete class of victims. Yes, people who were fired from student newspapers or driven out of listservs or had their performance or speech canceled can be thought of as victims, but their direct suffering is minor. Even the most extreme cases of coercion have contained effects. Members of the p.c. left can vandalize a dorm room or confiscate a protest sign, but their coercive power here runs up against the limits of the American legal system, which remains organized along broadly liberal lines. The real power they exert lies within the internal boundaries of the left. Political correctness prevents the left from reasoning internally. It makes questions of identity central to all political debate, then deems those topics beyond dispute.
So the question of whether this method is effective at helping the left vanquish its enemies passes over the far more urgent question of what it does to the character of the left itself. Rosenberg, and some other critics, have taken issue with my premise that liberals, rather than the left, deserve credit for the leftward march of American history. This is an enormous and hazily defined disagreement that depends on what one means by “the left.” My essay describes p.c. ideology as a form of Marxist thought, substituting race and gender identities for economic ones, and assigning political rights on the basis of class identity rather than individuality.
I’d argue that the historical record of Marxist regimes is an unambiguous disaster. Marxist regimes have failed everywhere they have been tried — not because of external pressure or the idiosyncratic personal failures of their leaders but flaws inherent in its ideological structure. Marxists are very good at crushing critics of their policies, but rather bad at devising the policies themselves. Those two facts are not unrelated. The construction of effective policy requires internal reasoning, not the automatic identification of all criticism as the representation of a privileged class. That is to say, the liberal ideal of free government is still the right one.