A Note to Chait: Dissent Isn't Suffocation, Internet Isn't Real Life


Jonathan Chait’s new feature for New York Magazine is called “Trigger Warning,” and it’s got a big old floppy dek:

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.

The answer to this exquisitely slippery question is, of course: yes! A white male liberal named Jonathan Chait can and may and apparently will absolutely critique political correctness, at great length, with great prominence, on a platform whose steadiness and reach depend not insignificantly on his white male liberal bona fides, via 4700 half-erect words explicitly aimed at trolling people into proving its thesis, which is that the noble American liberal tradition is dying at the hands of “the p.c. police.”

It is surely not lost on Jonathan Chait that the loudest critics of political correctness have as a matter of tradition been the people who are most accustomed to speaking in whatever manner pleases them without facing social correction—which is to say white men, a group that also often reads being named as such as a hysterical insult proper, despite there being no historical disenfranchisement attached to this identity category, and quite the opposite, of course. But it’s tiresome when people get so damn mouthy, you know what I mean?

“Can a white man express some original thought here,” asks that dek, doubling down on the identity politics it wishes to combat with objective, liberal good reason; the self-perceived disadvantages of the white male who wishes to enter this argument are outweighed by the tendency and natural gift of the white male to speak at length—”without being snowblown by a bunch of maniacally offended leftists and ‘miserable full-time victims‘ who are trying to tone-police my intelligence in a way that will ultimately only hurt them, you, in the end?”

Well, can he? Oh my god, can everyone just shut up for a second and let the man speak?

Political correctness is a style of politics in which the more radical members of the left attempt to regulate political discourse by defining opposing views as bigoted and illegitimate. Two decades ago, the only communities where the left could exert such hegemonic control lay within academia, which gave it an influence on intellectual life far out of proportion to its numeric size. Today’s political correctness flourishes most consequentially on social media, where it enjoys a frisson of cool and vast new cultural reach.

I have to say, I disagree. Pedants aren’t cool. Literally nothing less cool than popping up into someone’s Twitter mentions and being like, “Uh, I believe that your casual use of ‘balkanized’ was a microaggression towards people whose families may be actually dying from sectarian violence in 2015, and not to be grammatically ableist, I think you put a colon where a comma needs to be.”

I mean, what is more The Worst than that? A 4700-word column by a liberal white man about the dangers of political correctness on one of the biggest magazine platforms in the country? Not even. Twitter pedants are THE WORST.

But the point that Chait is deliberately missing for the sake of his argument is that there’s a significant difference between people who combine progressive priorities with a great love of being offended as well as absolutely no sense of what matters in terms of the real world of action and structural discrimination (the Twitter pedants, as well as the relatively inconsequential, embarrassingly name-checked female writers who would rather debate each other on a Facebook thread than write an article that better utilizes their skills) and the far larger and more consequential group of people with progressive priorities who are, at base, willing to hear why other people feel hurt.

The former category exists mostly on the internet; the latter contains multitudes of people with legitimately differing values who continue to engage in the relationship between popular nomenclature and real-life power dynamics with good faith despite—as Chait says, and perpetuates—everything about this process being exhausting as fuck.

Let’s return to how Chait says we got here, and where he says we’re going:

Political correctness is a term whose meaning has been gradually diluted since it became a flashpoint 25 years ago. People use the phrase to describe politeness (perhaps to excess), or evasion of hard truths, or (as a term of abuse by conservatives) liberalism in general. The confusion has made it more attractive to liberals, who share the goal of combating race and gender bias.

An obviously defensive and self-interested conclusion follows, between the lines of the page. “But we have failed in combating race and gender bias,” the article is saying. “Because when this well-reasoned article is ripped apart by social justice warriors on what will surely be nothing other than the craven identity-politicking basis of a white man’s perceived unfitness to criticize political correctness (the exact type of essentialist reading you other people don’t want for yourself, idiots!), I will win despite all the criticism; the racialized and gendered criticism of a white man, of all people, will prove we have failed at this noble progressive goal.”

How is a reasonable person to get around the fact that arguments are generally related to the identity positioning that facilitates them? How might a reasonable person attempt to understand an argument’s relationship to its attendant identity position without only reading the identity position, as if race and gender were an argument unto itself?

They’re not, and Chait writes accurately that they’re often read to be:

Under p.c. culture, the same idea can be expressed identically by two people but received differently depending on the race and sex of the individuals doing the expressing.

This is quite true—if immediately and groaningly utilized by Chait to show his real hand by highlighting the truly appalling, out-of-control usage of “mansplaining,” “straightsplaining,” and “whitesplaining”: three words which, as we all know, have done a tremendous amount to hurt the endangered economic position and cultural capital of straight white men.

(Chait, of course, neglects to take into account that perhaps he himself is not entirely separate from receiving ideas differently based on the race and sex of the individuals talking, and what this whole article is railing against as the American Tone Gestapo Prepared to Destroy the Free Market of Ideas may in actuality just be the new, social-media-enlarged voices of minorities, women, and the people who value them finally daring to disagree.)

I too dislike the internet’s tendencies towards identity politicking, and since starting at Jezebel—a site still widely viewed as a “problematic” den of white feminists—it has been a trip in itself to see how rabidly commenters and critics on other websites will speculate about our racial identities, and their implications, as if me writing a post as a white girl (which I’m not) would immediately make it easier to either trust (rare) or hate (much more often) my work.

But people who think like this, again, are dumb. They’re not to be focused on. And most often what they’re doing is not emblematizing a major modern political movement but simply conflating the ineffectual spheres of the internet with action that matters in real life.

Chait, though, is very worried not about himself here but about liberals writ large:

Political correctness is not a rigorous commitment to social equality so much as a system of left-wing ideological repression. Not only is it not a form of liberalism; it is antithetical to liberalism. Indeed, its most frequent victims turn out to be liberals themselves.

Or maybe I got that the other way around! The next sentence after that paragraph is: “I am white and male, a fact that is certainly worth bearing in mind.”

LOL. Here is the thing: it’s impossible to read this piece and imagine (perhaps as Chait would wish us to) that, for example, a black woman wrote it. One might notice in the current media scene that the minority liberal writers who have made it to institutional prominence (and I’m talking The Atlantic and The New Yorker, not the truly ineffectual supplicant-gathering of Twitter fame) are gentle and kind and reasonable and empathetic to a point of miraculousness.

Chait’s piece, on the other hand, is coldly devoid of sympathy. More bluntly, it’s smarmy as fuck. Listen to the drip-drop patter of this man’s disdain:

A white person or a man can achieve the status of “ally,” however, if he follows the rules of p.c. dialogue.


At a growing number of campuses, professors now attach “trigger warnings” to texts that may upset students, and there is a campaign to eradicate “microaggressions,” or small social slights that might cause searing trauma.

Toughen up, bitches! You’re probably doing it for the IRL equivalent of pageviews anyway.

Every media company knows that stories about race and gender bias draw huge audiences, making identity politics a reliable profit center in a media industry beset by insecurity. A year ago, for instance, a photographer compiled images of Fordham students displaying signs recounting “an instance of racial microaggression they have faced.” The stories ranged from uncomfortable (“No, where are you really from?”) to relatively innocuous (” ‘Can you read this?’ He showed me a Japanese character on his phone”).

Oh. You know what draws huge audiences even more reliably? A white man who regularly commands an audience of millions, sounding a very white male alarm about free speech.

I don’t use the word mansplaining, I don’t like trigger warnings, I don’t care about microaggressions, I am extremely un-P.C. in person and I agree that verbal policing on social media has gotten excessively out of hand. Political correctness can indeed mandate that everyone use the same vocabulary and peer through the most ideologically paranoid lens; it can suffocate the real world of complicated opinions into a pale, asterisked, overwrought mirage of protected online consent. But does that indicate that being considerate is a concept that’s now out-of-hand nonviable, or rather, that many people have their priorities way out of whack?

Everyone involved here who presents a problem—including Jonathan Chait—is just mistaking dissent for suffocation, the internet for real life. He marshals this one out-of-context sentence as proof that leftists (just say SJWs, Chait!) are explicitly and proudly unreasonable:

After the Nation‘s Michelle Goldberg denounced a “growing left-wing tendency toward censoriousness and hair-trigger offense,” Rutgers professor Brittney Cooper replied in Salon: “The demand to be reasonable is a disingenuous demand. Black folks have been reasoning with white people forever. Racism is unreasonable, and that means reason has limited currency in the fight against it.”

But who, here, is demanding that who shut up?

Says Chait:

The p.c. style of politics has one serious, possibly fatal drawback: It is exhausting.

My god, it is so exhausting. But it’s not political correctness that’s the problem, it’s stupidity, the type that caves into that identity-eating online ouroboros to a point where the dek in an article against political correctness begs seriously that a white man—who wrote, in 2013, for a national outlet, that he “didn’t think very hard about the Iraq occupation“—be able to speak in peace. It’s the type that goes into an article so fatuous that it ends with the sentence “The historical record of American liberalism, which has extended social freedoms to blacks, Jews, gays, and women, is glorious” and speaks out against dissent-stiflers by attempting to stifle dissent.

“Politics in a democracy is still based on getting people to agree with you, not making them afraid to disagree,” states Chait. Well, I agree with that statement. Punditry in a democracy is apparently also still based on white men who can’t stand their opinions to be read through a lens of race and gender, but perhaps they should get used to it—it’s the place where the rest of us have been forced to sort through the madness in service of progressive goals that we do not threaten to abandon, and carve out an intelligent living for years.

Image via Shutterstock.

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