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 impossible.” 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.