Why Chait is Wrong on “Political Correctness”

Jonathan Chait’s recent essay on “political correctness” is confused along several dimensions. I can’t discuss them all here, but I’ll try to explain some of why I take him to be confused. While I’d prefer not to use the term political correctness at all, since it’s mostly a slur against attempts to bring about social justice by reducing a movement’s claims to mere calls for niceties, I’ll use it in this response for the reader’s ease.

Chait’s thesis, for those who haven’t had time to read the piece, is that political correctness threatens to erode the left from the inside. So concerned are those on the left that they might say the wrong thing that they will say nothing at all or else be shouted down and criticized by others within their ranks. Chait gives several examples of this phenomenon and cites several people from academia and journalism who confirm the fear they feel living in the shadow of this spectre.

As I read Chait’s examples, I was confused. I could tell from the context that they were supposed to make me mad, but they didn’t, at least not most of them. (Aside: I provide the qualification because Chait does chronicle some events that I might not consider okay, like taking someone else’s stuff or pushing another person in the process. These examples are, predictably, red herrings. If these actions were justified, it’s not on grounds of political correctness, and if they were not justified, it’s not a failure thereof.) He gives a list of speakers who’ve recently been uninvited or who decided not to attend events at universities after protests—Bill Maher, Christine Lagarde, Condoleezza Rice, Ayaan Hirsi Ali, and Robert Birgeneau. Then he moves on to trigger warnings, microaggressions, mansplaining, and the backlash against Hanna Rosin’s book, among other things.

Chait has the gall to call these things left-wing ideological repression. Let’s get one thing straight right now. Chait equivocates about what he means by repression and free speech. None of his examples involve violations of the First Amendment. The constitutional guarantee of free speech says the government can’t make a law stopping you from saying something (with a bunch of exceptions). It sets a floor on your rights, and that floor is pretty low. It involves, at the very least, state action. Chait’s essay is about individuals and social groups, not governments.

If political correctness is not about governmental repression, what is it about? I submit that it is about calling out people who aren’t used to being called out (or, better, called in) and those people reacting poorly. In most of Chait’s examples someone has said or done something. Some person or group objects to what that person did or said and makes their feelings known. In some cases, this results in the first person feeling bad, or in convincing a third party to take some action with respect to the second person. Described like this, what’s the problem? Far from left-wing ideological repression of ideas, this sounds like a relatively effective demand for recognition.

Take Chait’s example of Hanna Rosin. Rosin’s book, which I haven’t read, received criticism from some feminists. They made a hashtag. A hashtag, you guys! They made fun of her with a hashtag, then she didn’t want to tweet anything after that if she was worried it might make people make fun of her again. Is that ideological repression? Because to me it seems like Rosin just doesn’t take criticism very well. Criticism comes in many forms, to be sure. Some of it is mocking, some of it is mean, some of it is helpful. Sometimes a person objects to your view, and you just have to accept that you and that person disagree. Criticism is not always repression, but Chait’s essay assumes that this sort of politically correct criticism is unhelpful and misguided to the point where it is given without regard for the seriousness of the offense and no response on the part of the criticized is sufficient.

No one is perfect, and at some point we will all say things that could hurt other people in ways we shouldn’t hurt them (and reinforce social structures we oppose). How we respond to our own actions is important. It is painful to think you might have hurt someone or done something wrong, but stomping your feet and insisting that you’re blameless is not a good look. Even if you ultimately decide that what you did was fine, you should take someone at their word that what you did struck them as problematic. If they aren’t accepting your apology, maybe you’re not doing a very good job. Maybe you don’t seem to understand what you’re apologizing for. Maybe. I am trying to cull ableist language from my vocabulary; it’s hard. Some of the words I’m trying to eliminate come to my mouth and mind very readily. I’m not doing it so that I won’t get yelled at; I could stand to be yelled at a little more for this. I’m doing it so I’ll be less ableist. When student activists object to Bill Maher or Condoleezza Rice being on campus, they aren’t doing it so that they can have the moral high ground and feel good about themselves. They’re doing it to show they object to their views on various issues. Let Maher and Rice respond. Let the Universities respond. Let’s all talk about it.

Maybe I’m missing something here. It seems to me like Chait and other backlashers against so-called political correctness are the ones who are trying to shut down debate by reducing genuine calls for social justice and accountability to disingenuous or childish demands instead of reckoning with the possibility that they aren’t the sole arbiters of what the left should look like.

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