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Freddie deBoer:

“I have seen, with my own two eyes, a 19 year old white woman — smart, well-meaning, passionate — literally run crying from a classroom because she was so ruthlessly brow-beaten for using the word “disabled.” Not repeatedly. Not with malice. Not because of privilege. She used the word once and was excoriated for it. She never came back. I watched that happen.”

I’ve got a question, Freddie: Why? Why did you watch that happen? Why did you let the situation escalate that way? Why didn’t you step in?

It sounds like you’re describing something that happened in a classroom in which you were teaching. If so, you really screwed up that day. Because when a student is getting attacked by other students for making a mistake, it’s your job to intervene — not just on her behalf, but so that other students feel the freedom to speak and to stumble.

If a pile-on like that happened in one of my classes, I’d remind the students that we all screw up, and that screwing up is how we learn. I’d discuss the way that what’s considered appropriate speech evolves. I’d discuss why “disabled” is deprecated these days, and I’d talk about the roots of the shift to other terminology. If, at the end of that, everyone hadn’t calmed down, I’d be shocked. And if people were still angry, I’d be in a position to direct their anger toward me and away from their classmate.

This isn’t hard. It isn’t complicated. And it’s absolutely not forbidden.

Back to deBoer:

“If I’m not allowed to ever say, hey, you know, there’s more productive, more inclusive ways to argue here, then I don’t know what the fuck I am supposed to do or say.”

Who said you’re not? Seriously, who? Give me a quote. Give me a quote where someone said that you’re not ever allowed to intervene when people are hurting other people with leftier-than-thou outrage. Show me where someone said that, and I’ll go yell at them, if you’re afraid to.

“Do you know what I’m supposed to say to some shellshocked 19 year old from Terra Haute who, I’m very sorry to say, hasn’t had a decade to absorb bell hooks? Can you maybe do me a favor, and instead of writing a piece designed to get you yet-more retweets from Weird Twitter, tell me how to reach these potential allies when I know that they’re going to get burned terribly for just being typical clumsy kids?”

Yes, I know what you’re supposed to say. You’re supposed to say that sometimes we all get yelled at, and sometimes it stings. You’re supposed to say that sometimes the yellers are right, and sometimes they’re wrong. You’re supposed to say that getting yelled at isn’t the end of the world. You’re supposed to say that screwing up is part of the process of learning how not to screw up, and that nobody ever got good at anything without sucking at it first.

That’s what you’re supposed to say, and if anyone says you’re not allowed to say it, send them to me.

Update | Oh, and one other thing, Freddie. You knew, or should have known, that using “you guys” in your post title was going to piss people off. And you knew, or should have known, that “herp de derp” was going to do the same. That crap isn’t cute. Don’t be a jerk.

Second Update | The original title of this piece was more obnoxious than was necessary. I’ve changed it.

Third Update | Being yelled at isn’t the end of the world. That applies to Freddie, and it also applies to me.

Could I have been less snarky in my post? Absolutely. Was I ungenerous to Freddie? Yeah, I think I was, on reflection. And I’m sorry for that. I was trying to simultaneously express my frustration with the parts of his post that set me off and reply constructively to the rest, and I should have let it sit for another round of editing before I pressed “send.”

So… Sorry, Freddie. I apologized yesterday evening on Twitter, and I’m apologizing again here.

Now. Having said that, there’s some stuff in the post I absolutely stand by. I do think that it’s both possible and appropriate to intervene in situations like the ones he describes, though yes, figuring out how and when to do it can be complicated. Professors should stand up for students who are being hassled in their classrooms not just as a matter of defending the class as a space for open dialogue, but also as a matter of modeling the kind of generous behavior we’d like to see more generally. It’s absolutely true, as commenters have noted, that issues of social capital are embedded in these kinds of blowups, and that means that folks with social capital are often the ones who have the most ability to step up to put them on a better track.

Can any of us always intervene productively, directly, in every situation? No. Not always. There will be situations in which what someone has to say will be rejected by the person behind the call-out — and not always wrongly. Sometimes people need to be called out, and sometimes defusing people’s anger isn’t appropriate or helpful, and sometimes a particular messenger isn’t likely to get a proper hearing.

But even in those situations, if we feel that someone’s being piled on inappropriately — or even if we feel that the initial pile-on was appropriate, but we don’t want to see someone driven from the classroom or organization or movement — there’s almost always stuff we can do later on to mend the breach. We can, as I suggested in the original post, sit down with the person who was the target, in private, and offer support and context. We can also go to the person or people who were doing the targeting, one-on-one, away from the spotlight, and see if reconciliation is possible. We can work with the folks involved to figure out how things blew up and to try to keep them from blowing up again.

And crucially, we can speak out before things blow up, too. We can work to establish shared standards of behavior. We can create mechanisms for resolving conflicts formally or informally. We can create spaces where folks can ask fraught questions without fearing the consequences of screwing up. We can — as I did with Freddie and “herp” and “guys” here — point out potential sources of tension before they set anybody off.

All of that is stuff we can do. All of that is stuff I do. And all of it, I strongly suspect, is stuff Freddie does. So rather than having an endless public pissing match about the sins and virtues of the left, let’s do more of that. Let’s do more of it, and let’s do more talking about how to do it better.

That’s a conversation I’m here for. That’s a conversation I’m eager to have. And that’s a conversation that I’ll still be eager to have even if I get yelled at some more in the process.

Because getting yelled at isn’t the end of the world.

So last night I was invited to go on This Week in Blackness to talk about Jonathan Chait’s political correctness essay. It was a really fun time, and a great conversation — the video is here, and my segment begins around twenty-three minutes in, though you should watch the whole thing.

Anyway, there was a lot of sharp stuff said, but rewatching the thing one of my own comments stuck out as something to bump up. We were discussing the back-and-forth between Chait and John Hodgman on Twitter, and I said this:

“Hodgman began by saying that a lot of times people on the internet, including progressives, take offense for the sake of taking offense. That a lot of times people act like jerks around issues of privilege and power. That a lot of times students on campuses take up causes which are maybe not the brightest causes.

“And nobody on the left was yelling at Hodgman for saying that, because we were all like, ‘uh, yeah, that does happen.’ Right? It’s not like we deny that there are flaws and excesses and obnoxiousnesses within our community. We know that’s true. What we object to is somebody who pretends to be on our team weaponizing those flaws and frailties which every group has, and using them as a cudgel to beat us up with.”

Chait keeps telling us that the identity politics left forbids critique. But yesterday middle-aged straight white man John Hodgman went on an endlessly retweeted, dozens-of-tweets-long rant that included a bunch of pokes at Twitter leftists. “I have watched sides entrench, circular arguments tighten into sanctimonious death spirals and jockeying for grievance status,” he wrote, in a typical tweet. But although that snark received 27 RTs, 77 faves, and Bladerunner joke in response, nobody raised a peep of criticism.

Why? Because Hodgman was coming from a place of love. Because when Hodgman says he values and respects this messy, ridiculous, hot-tempered community of ours, it’s clear he means it.

Jon Chait yearns — and demands — to be liked by people he doesn’t particularly like himself. He wants to be accepted as part of a community that he disdains, because he takes such acceptance as his due. Hodgman, on the other hand, clearly actually likes the people he’s talking about. “It enlarges me to be called out,” he says, “even when I conclude the caller is a troll, and especially when it’s by a person I respect.”

And when he says it I believe him.

What follows is a very lightly edited transcription of a Twitter rant I went on this morning.

One of my heroes is a white woman who was deeply involved in the civil rights movement in the 50s and 60s. She’s someone who was hugely active in the movement at great personal risk and with great effect. I was honored to get to know her.

Once, years ago, she invited me to a panel she was on. A campus roundtable on the civil rights movement. There were three people on the panel: Herself, and a black professor and a black student leader from the campus. She gave a speech I don’t remember much of, as did the prof. Then it was the student’s turn to speak.

The student excoriated her. Attacked white people in the movement generally, and her in particular. Angrily. Vituperatively. Eloquently.

I was mortified. Horrified. I don’t remember the Q&A, how anyone responded. I just remember being shocked and so upset. Later, at dinner, I said something like “That must have been really hard.” She was confused. Asked what I was talking about. I told her. She looked at me, the penny dropped, and as best as I can remember, she said, “Well, he’s a nationalist.”

She didn’t feel betrayed or wounded or defensive. She wasn’t angry or embarrassed. At the same time, though, she wasn’t dismissing him. She understood his position. She’d had the discussion many times over the course of decades. She’d read what he’d read. It wasn’t new. She understood his position, and either respected it or didn’t. (Probably some of both, though that’s just a guess.) But the path he was on wasn’t the path she’d taken, and that was okay. She didn’t need to bring him around. That wasn’t her job.

If you’re a white person doing anti-racist work, “Listen to the voices of people of color” is crucial advice. Maybe the most crucial. One reason I’ve never told this story in print is that I don’t want it to seem like the moral is “You do you, white people!” But the reality is that just listening to people of color can never be the end of the journey. Because POC aren’t monolithic. (And for a hundred other reasons, but that’s a big one.)

But here’s a thing: If you’re white and a person of color thinks you’re racist, it’s not the end of the world. Your life isn’t over. They may be right, they may be wrong. (They’re more likely right than you think. Remember that.) But it’s not the end of the world.

Chait’s argument is that “racist” is so anathematizing — his word — that its intemperate use is not legitimate speech. And that’s bullshit. We win by having these conversations, not suppressing them. We, as white people, move forward by feeling that hot flush of shame I felt that night, and figuring out what to do with it.

Some people of color are jerks. Some women are jerks. Some gay people and trans people are jerks. Because many many people are jerks. But incivility isn’t the problem there. “PC” isn’t the problem there. Jargon and hashtags aren’t the problem.

If being online doing this work is too much, don’t do it. If you need help, lots of us want to help. I want to help. But there’s no way to get everyone to like you. There’s no way to be the perfect ally to everyone. There’s no cookie at the end of the tunnel. There’s no place where nobody thinks you’re an asshole. That’s not the goal.

The goal is to do good important work. The goal is to help make things better. The goal is to keep learning. The goal is to fuck up less and help more. The goal is to not hurt people through ignorance or malice or carelessness. The goal is to help to build something beautiful.

The goal is not to build a space where everyone loves you. Because not everyone is going to love you. And that’s okay. It has to be okay.

In his huge new essay on political correctness, Jonathan Chait offers a few examples of situations in which folks on the left engaged in acts of vandalism or property destruction in confronting ideas they found offensive — students on one campus who scrawled on a conservative student’s dorm-room door, a professor at another who ripped up a photograph of an aborted fetus. But while it’s true that these things happened, it’s also true that such incidents are rare.

I actually agree with Chait that this kind of behavior is illiberal and obnoxious, although I don’t see it as reflecting any particular anti-freedom animus on the left. Sometimes people get so upset by speech that they egg someone’s door or snatch a flyer out of their hands, but if Chait has evidence that folks on the left are more likely to engage in such behavior (or embrace it) than others (or than they used to be), I’d like to see it.

These isolated acts of vandalism aren’t Chait’s true target, though. They aren’t what he’s really angry about. What he’s really angry about is angry speech with which he disagrees. What he’s really angry about is people getting really angry about things he doesn’t think they should get angry about.

Chait is angry that the Michigan Daily fired a columnist for writing a piece they didn’t like. He’s angry that students have organized protests against speakers they object to. He’s angry that professors like me are including trigger warnings in our syllabi. He’s angry that some people get angry about microagressions. He’s angry that college theater groups are choosing not to stage plays that some people find obnoxious. He’s angry that professors are being challenged on their use of language by their students. He’s angry that some in the media are giving a soapbox to positions he finds unworthy. He’s angry that people are launching hashtag campaigns to mock people with positions they find unworthy.

Deep breath. Halfway done.

Chait is angry that some people treat his views with skepticism or disdain because of his race and gender. He’s angry that the term “mansplaining” is increasingly used imprecisely, and that it’s spawned additional related neologisms. He’s angry that people are accused of “tone policing,” and of being bad allies. He’s angry that people once yelled at each other on a mailing list to which he doesn’t belong. He’s angry that some leftists don’t share his belief in the transformative power of the marketplace of ideas. He’s angry that a lot of writers are angry about how people react when they get angry.

Chait is outraged by all of these things, and all of these things are speech acts.

When someone protests a campus speaker, they’re engaging in an act of speech. When they complain about microagressions, they’re engaging in an act of speech. When they challenge their professors, or trend a hashtag on Twitter, or write trigger warnings into their syllabi, or accuse each other of racism, or criticize our country’s conception of free speech, they’re engaging in acts of speech.

Isn’t that what they’re supposed to do? Isn’t that what he’s looking for?

Jonathan Chait’s essays do not lack for impassioned, cogent critics. Every time he publishes something, thousands of people take to their keyboards to argue with him, including many of our country’s most prominent liberal and left voices. Not infrequently, Chait engages with these critics at length — on blogs, on social media, in national publications. People are taking his ideas seriously and they are confronting him earnestly where they think he’s wrong. But that’s not enough for him.

Chait doesn’t just want engagement, he wants engagement on his terms. He wants his interlocutors to stop accusing him of mansplaining. He wants to be able to chastise them for their tone without being accused of tone policing. He wants them to stop dismissing him because he’s white, or because he’s male. Never mind that there are legions of his critics who stand ready to do just that. He wants them all to do that.

Now, yes, it can be scary to talk in public these days. It’s easy to make mistakes and to say things wrong. It’s easy to spark an argument when you don’t intend to. But that kind of reaction isn’t generally hard to defuse. Apologize immediately if you can, step away from the keyboard if you can’t. Figure out how you screwed up, explain your mistake briefly and non-defensively, and maybe take a little break while things cool down. Soon everyone will have either accepted your apology or forgotten about your transgression, and everything will be back to normal. In the vast majority of cases in which someone puts their foot in their mouth on the internet, the whole thing blows over pretty quick.

When things get difficult is when the thing you said that set people off wasn’t a mistake — when the statement that lit the fuse was one that you stand by. Where things most often get heated and stay heated is where someone thinks you’re wrong and you think they’re wrong and neither of you is misunderstanding the other.

And that’s the position Chait finds himself in at the moment. He thinks his critics are wrong, and they — unsurprisingly — think he’s wrong. At the same time, though, he thinks they’re wrong to think he’s wrong.

Chait describes his opponents on the left as enemies of free speech, as proponents of coercion over reason. But a hashtag campaign isn’t coercion. It’s speech. Calling someone a racist isn’t coercion, it’s speech. Complaining about mansplaining and microaggressions and tone policing? Speech, speech, speech.

In Chait’s framing, PC conventions “lock in shared ideological assumptions that make meaningful disagreement possible.” But what does this even mean? If it means anything, it means that people who share certain views disagree vehemently with people who don’t share those views — so vehemently, perhaps. that amicable chat becomes difficult.

And that’s what really upsets Chait — the vehemence. He is, he is certain, a man of the liberal left. He is, he is certain, an anti-racist and an anti-sexist and a supporter of the oppressed. He is, he is certain, a friend of these terribly wrong people. A friend and an ally. And if you don’t agree with him about that, if you refuse him his rightful recognition as a member of your team, you’re not just disagreeing with him, you’re silencing him. You’re coercing him. You’re denying him his rights.

But nobody has the right to be embraced. Nobody has the right to be liked.

Not even Jonathan Chait.

Update | I’ve written a bit more on the white liberal’s fear of being called a racist.

Since Obama’s proposal that the federal government and states enter into a partnership to make the first two years of community college free, there’s been a lot of ink spilled discussing the plan and debating its merits. But one consequence of the announcement is deserving of more attention than it’s received so far — the effect it’s having on higher education debates on the state level.

Take my home state of New York, for example. Here, the two weeks since Obama’s reveal have seen pols launch no fewer than three different plans to dramatically boost economic access to public higher education. Of the three, two can be fairly described as free higher ed plans. Let’s take a look:

  • A proposal from New York City council member Ben Kallos would commit the city to paying off ten percent of any CUNY graduate’s college loans for every year they stayed in the city. After ten years, the full debt would be retired at no cost to the student.
  • Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams wants to go further, faster — he’s suggesting that the city beat Obama to the punch by eliminating tuition at CUNY’s community colleges completely. No federal legislation required, no two-year limit, no hoops of grades or enrollment, just free CUNY community college for all.
  • In his State of the State speech yesterday, Andrew Cuomo proposed a model for means-and-residency-tested loan forgiveness statewide. Under his “Get on Your Feet Loan Forgiveness” plan, CUNY and SUNY grads who stayed in-state and whose income fell below $50,000 a year would have their first two years of loan payments absorbed by the state.

None of these proposals is going to be implemented tomorrow, and even Cuomo’s — the least ambitious and most likely to see enactment — took a huge, unexpected hit with the federal indictment of the state legislature’s most powerful Democrat this morning. But the near-simultaneous emergence of the three plans reflects the shift in the national discussion wrought by Obama’s announcement and the new territory for legislation and organizing that’s opening up. (One of the three plans — Cuomo’s — technically pre-dates Obama’s, but though it was first mooted in October it received virtually no attention and no public push at the time. Post-Obama it got a big writeup in the Times and prominent placement in the SotS.)

About This Blog

n7772graysmall is the work of Angus Johnston, a historian and advocate of American student organizing.

To contact Angus, click here.

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