Thursday, January 29, 2015

Pity the white liberal man

For the record, I hate you because you're wearing that T-shirt
On Tuesday, New York magazine posted an article by Jonathan Chait attacking "political correctness", and Twitter took notice. Since then, loads of responses have been written, running the gamut from supportive to combative to dismissive to outraged. My initial reaction fell nearest to "dismissive". I have a very low opinion of Jonathan Chait, and I have a very low opinion of complaints against "political correctness". An article by Jonathan Chait complaining about political correctness... I was afraid the eye-rolling might never stop.

I knew what the article said before I read it. No, that's not true. I knew Chait's basic thesis before I read it. To his credit, this isn't a standard expression of straight/white/male resentment produced on auto-pilot. This is a standard expression of straight/white/male resentment produced with great care and skill. I guess that's a pretty back-handed compliment, and there's no getting around that, but I don't mean it to be. What I'm trying to say is that Chait argues his position about as well as it can be argued. And I'm glad he did, because I think this argument is very much worth having. It's not going away, in any event.

Chait's article provides a number of examples which convey his point very clearly, and I'm not entirely unsympathetic to it. It's easy for me to identify with his perspective. I think it's outrageous that a guy should lose his job at one publication for having written a satirical piece in another. I agree with him on most of the examples he gives. Chait's article attempts to bundle these examples together into a dangerous trend of political correctness run amok, but it's not clear to me what broader issues connects his examples. He calls it "political correctness", and he defines it as a "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." But there's a practical problem he doesn't seem to have noticed.

PZ Myers puts his finger on it: What exactly do you want, Jonathan Chait? It seems like a pretty innocuous question, but it is in fact utterly lethal to Chait's entire position, because Chait cannot even begin to answer it. It's not that there is no answer, but that any answer he might honestly give will be discrediting. He wants leftists to stop doing stuff he doesn't like. That's the long and the short of it. The most charitable answer (charitable because it assumes that he's right about everything) is that he wants people to stop being wrong about everything. I want people to stop being wrong about everything too. But the people who I think are wrong about stuff (like Chait) usually think that they're right.

There is nothing, absolutely nothing, in Chait's article that would have any hope of convincing anyone towards Chait's point-of-view. That is to say, if you resemble the villains of political correctness Chait describes in his piece, there is nothing in the piece to explain why that's a bad thing. In all of the examples he uses, he never explains why his view of the controversy is correct. Partly that's because he chooses his examples in order to create the impression that he is correct. Partly it's because he skews his presentation of those examples to reinforce that impression. Mostly, I think, it's because it never occurred to him that he might have anything to learn from anyone to his left.

In every one of Chait's examples of leftists "going too far", the leftists in question disagree that they are going too far, and Chait doesn't even bother to argue the point. You need to do a lot more work to give "going too far" any kind of content as a criticism, and Chait doesn't even bother. To be fair, he can't, because categories like "too far" and "not far enough" are too simplistic to accommodate the wide range of disparate issues Chait is trying to address all at once. There is no one argument that simultaneously explains why that guy shouldn't have been fired and why trigger-warnings are unnecessary, for example. Each of those issues requires its own argument to establish what is the appropriate position. There is no broad principle, not even "political correctness", that ties it all together.

But Chait's piece has struck a chord with aggrieved white liberals, including many of atheism's white liberal "leaders" like Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris. Chait's article doesn't make any mention of atheism, but the "political correctness" he's talking about is precisely what has caused "deep rifts" in the online atheist community. Like Chait, Dawkins has frequently been the target of criticism from his left, and that clearly gets under his skin (for example, see Adam Lee's The Suppression of Richard Dawkins). For Chait, the criticism tends to come from Ta-Nehisi Coates and "black Twitter". For Dawkins, it's what he calls "radical feminists" (it's really mainstream feminists, but he doesn't know that). They are both complaining about being criticized from the left, and they both feel (genuinely, I'm sure) bullied and intimidated by people who don't seem to recognize their inherent goodness. 

They both think they're dealing with a new kind of toxic leftism which has emerged only in the last few years. They each have a sense that social media is somehow driving the problem, but neither one has yet grokked the real story... in a world of social media, they are no longer the gatekeepers of respectable opinion on the left. Before Twitter, leftist opinions were confined to academia because they were excluded by the media. Anything to the left of milky-white liberalism is still mostly excluded by the media, but not social media. The only way this problem will ever go away to the satisfaction of Chait and Dawkins would be if leftists were once again marginalized and denied a voice in the conversation. The honest answer to PZ's question is that Chait wants to go back to a world where opinions to the left of his own were ignored, excluded and suppressed. 

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