The first thing I noticed about the already-notorious Chait essay, when I finally bothered to read it, is that I can’t remember, during my lifetime, a controversy over a piece of writing in which parsings of subtext so completely displaced parsings of text. (As soon as I’ve clicked “post” I’ll think of twenty, but anyway.) If you read it without looking at the byline, Chait’s piece is a fairly standard example of the genre “The Far Left Is Getting Scary These Days.” Like most such pieces, it relies far too much on impressions and anecdotes, and is animated by the bizarre conviction that commencement speeches represent a vital link in the circulation of ideas. But it also signal-boosts some stories that are genuinely worth being angry about, particularly those of Omar Mahmood and Thrin Short. It’s better reading than the anti-PC rants you’d get from the National Review, not quite up to Michelle Goldberg on a good day. But because it’s Jon Chait, it has been discussed almost completely as a whine about his personal life, something he barely mentions. The article says “a tenured professor of women’s studies physically assaulted a fucking teenager because she was waving one of those aborted-fetus protest signs”, but what it means is, “You guys! Ta-Nehisi Coates handed me my ass in public and I
got fired from [correction: quit] from my snide racist magazine! The Left has gone too far!” It’s not that these things, the supposed “real” subjects of the article, don’t take up much space in it but that they are not mentioned at all, while things much more significant than Chait’s personal life are discussed at length. It may well be that Chait deserves such an entirely cynical reading if anybody does; certainly I found him obnoxious during the Bush years, when he was one more useless Washington kissass scolding those of us who saw the Iraq War for what it was. Still, the divergence between text and interpretation here is unusually striking. And I’m not entirely sure that “reading” is the correct word for … whatever activity we’ve collectively decided to do with this essay.
But I found myself worried, too, about the way the article got positioned by those who did elect to engage seriously with its contents. A friend wrote on Facebook, re: the article, that “part of the problem of extremists—left and right and up and down—is that they believe that those expressing dissent are somehow harming them.” This comment lodged in my mind because political correctness, language policing, whatever you want to call it, is generally portrayed as a matter of “extremity,” as are many other undesirable things. The picture is one in which common sense sits somewhere in the middle, like that warm depression in the couch cushion, and on either end of it are crazy people who won’t just settle into The Spot like good Americans. So, for example, if you’re a Christian and you still oppose gay marriage, it’s because you’re “extremely” Christian, but if you passionately embraced the whole idea early on, it’s because you’re “moderately” Christian and, thus, you don’t let convictions get in the way of good old consensus. The possibility that a person might passionately advocate for gay marriage because of a strong commitment to Christianity, differently understood—that you might find yourself marching or phone-banking for gay marriage out of a sense of Christian duty, even though you’re straight and it’s not your problem and you’d rather be doing just about anything else—that isn’t allowed by this formulation. The whole metaphor implies that the problem is “extremism,” and that the solution is holding your convictions a little more lightly. Personally, I think you should find great, generous things to be an extremist about, and then be an extremist about them. I don’t object to John Boehner because he believes so deeply in something. I object to him because he believes deeply in shitty things.
Similarly, I don’t think that the PC behaviors Chait attacks (PC is a sloppy term; we’ll get there in a moment) is always a problem of people being too far down some spectrum, too serious, too committed. Sometimes it’s a problem of them being insufficiently committed to free speech, persuasion, common decency, or a few other things. And in fact, as the grumpy but essential Freddie DeBoer has pointed out, some of the strongest support for the behaviors Chait labels as “PC” comes from folks who are otherwise considered politically fairly moderate.
Since I don’t like the left-wingery-taken-to-extremes formulation, and since “PC” as a term is riddled with problems, I’ve been trying to think of a better one. And I’m increasingly unsure that there is a better name for the phenomenon that we call “PC,” nor that there is a good name for this phenomenon at all, considered as its own particular problem. Partly that’s because, as Belle Waring points out in one of the responses to Chait linked above, “98% of what people angrily claim is ‘Political Correctness’ is just manners.” (It is no skin off my nose if transgender women and men don’t like me putting an -ed on the end of the word. Really, if they feel strongly enough to complain about it, I can leave it off. I don’t get it but I don’t really need to, either. People should get to decide what they want to be called.) But even for the other two percent, the sorts of behavior attacked in Chait’s essay, I’m still not sure we’re talking about a problem that’s specific to the left, or that’s even really about ideas. I think we’re just talking about human frailty.
Not specific to the left. I hope this won’t be a terribly controversial point. Think about, for example, civil liberties, to which “PC” people are supposedly insufficiently committed. So, historically, are Americans at large. And why wouldn’t that be the case? There are conservatives who care about civil liberties and there are conservatives who write op-eds in support of police brutality. Similarly, as Chait rightly points out, there is a version of the left that is rooted in the notion of basic human rights and a version of the left rooted in things like, say, Marxism (which, to oversimplify, treats human rights as a tool, to be discarded when it’s not helping the Class Struggle). There are versions of feminism that care about civil liberties and versions that do not. There are versions of antiracism that… Oh, you get the idea. And since “moderate” means a kind of vague hanging out in the middle, “moderates” will waver in their support for civil liberties along with the rest of the country—something else we saw in the early Bush years, when large numbers of polled Americans (many of them presumably apolitical swing voters) decided the best way to preserve our the Enlightened Values of Our Civilization is to flush them down the toilet forever. It’s not about where you are in some ideological spectrum, and it’s not about how passionately you commit to that location.
Not really about ideas. But even as I say that I’m visited by another, darker suspicion. The picture I’ve sketched out here still assumes that people’s behavior will roughly track with the political ideas they believe in. This seems like quite a leap of faith to make. Political ideas, like ideas in general, function in many ways in our lives; sometimes they’re badges of membership, sometimes they reflect fantasy ideation, sometimes they exist as a kind of compartmentalized mental game that hardly impinges on how we live. Maybe once in a while they serve as a guide to behavior. I think fairly hard about how to live out my Christian liberal-left beliefs, and I fail at it both knowingly and unknowingly all the time. If it turns out that I’m right and there really is an afterlife, I expect to learn some shaming things there about inconsistencies in my behavior that I wasn’t even awake enough to perceive while they were happening. I also expect not to be alone in that. And I’m someone who wants to be consistent. A lot of people don’t care. Just the other day I was reading about a trans man and would-be reality TV star who is also a conservative Christian and opposes marriage equality. Who, in terms of the congruence between their actions and their stated beliefs, is closer to the mainstream of the human race: him, or Noam Chomsky (who seems to live a life of penitential misery because he wishes to act on his impossibly noble principles)? Not to dis either of them, but it ain’t Chomsky. And I know which of those guys I’d rather have a beer with, too.
So when I think of left-liberals who behave illiberally, I wonder how much it’s really about a battle of ideas—of Mill losing ground to Marx, or Mao, among the left wing of the American public—and how much it’s about the human tendency to do what others around you are doing, to throw off social signals, to position oneself within a social grouping, to endlessly repeat lines that sound cool. I don’t mean any of this to say that we don’t have a problem. We do have a problem, and I can rail against, for example, Left Twitter’s little schismatic eruptions with the best of them. I found #CancelColbert profoundly depressing. I missed #jacobinghazi because I was off having a life that weekend, but it was horrible, after the fact, to watch a well-regarded, prominent left academic openly lie about Elizabeth S. Bruenig, who is a wonderful writer, even though she’s a bllllloody Papist. (Now there’s some language worth policing.) I am, uh, bemused that some of the very people people who—quite rightly—have set out to convince white men like me that the microaggressions are a real thing (which entails believing that other peoples’ feelings are important enough to worry about) sometimes behave as if “Oooh, did I hurt your wittle dudebwo feewings” is an unanswerable response to nearly any criticism. I resent the social pressure in some circles to not defend yourself when a person from a marginalized group makes hateful and eliminationist generalizations about privileged groups that include you (“Care in, dump out,” goes the mantra, as if it were obvious how to show care for people who have just blithely wished you off the planet). All of this stuff pisses me off.
But I think these are best seen as specimens of fallen human behavior, not some scarrry new trend on the left. They belong with other forms of self-righteousness, uncharitability, tunnel vision, or just momentary thoughtlessness, all practices in which I am as steeped as I am in white privilege. If there’s anything ultimately radical about my politics, it’s this: I want everyone to be a lot kinder, across the board. I want me to be kinder. That’s asking for something deeper, weirder, and more transformative than a revolution (which just involves a changing-over of who’s-allowed-to-be-a-raging-asshole status). And it means that winning a war of ideas, if that were possible, would get us nowhere. If we want people to be fairer, kinder, more patient, more “liberal” in the oldest and grandest sense of the word, the best argument for that position is a good example. It means going to war not just with shitty ideas but with yourself.