On Charity, Infighting, and Circular Firing Squads
The big news on the political internet today was Jon Chait’s essay on how the new P.C. police is tearing the liberalism and The Left apart. Chait believes that sections of the academic and on-line have lost their commitment to free speech and are perverting liberalism. He gives various examples including in-fighting among an on-line group of women writers that quickly turns toxic, a University Professor who was protested for correcting a student on a point of grammar, and many others. Andrew Sullivan and Dan Savage were in support of Chait. Lawyers, Guns and Money has a good round up of the many dissents to Chait’s essay.
I am generally a Chait fan and largely agree with him on this piece. The biggest criticisms of Chait seems to be not that he is necessarily incorrect but is just engaged in a game of Leftist bashing and being a boring liberal. Tod’s post shows how fighting over who is and who is not part of a group is as old as time. I once worked as a local elections supervisor for a left-wing community radio station. The station was once relevant and hot during the 1960s but fell on hard times since then. When I interviewed, I was told that there were two factions and these factions hated each other with an extreme passion. I was also the second person to complete running an election from start to finish without being fired or quitting in frustration. The factions formed sometime in the late 1960s and as far as I can tell they never really could remember why they hated each other. All they knew is that the other side was evil, killing their beloved radio station, and the main reason why young people were completely unaware of the station’s existence. The station continues to slide into a very slow oblivion. So there will always be people who dislike Chait and others for being to their right when he is largely on the same side and a good ally.
My general view is that politics is more of a circle than a line and the far left and far right have more in common than either side wants to admit and both have authoritarian tendencies and tend towards a dangerous form of utopianism. There are 7 billion people on this planet and there is simply no way to create harmony between all these people and utopianism is dangeorous because it believes in “the good life” instead of “a good life.” There is no right to be free from people who disagree with you and a person can Big Sort all they want but finding a completely agreeable community with no dissent is an impossible task. There is an old Jewish joke along these lines, “Two Jews. Three Opinions.”
When it comes to political correctness, I think there are two ways of looking at the issue. There is the conservative-libertarianish (not real libertarians but the kind that just don’t want to call themselves conservative Republicans) crowd that seems to decry P.C. because it means treating people decently. And they call themselves anti-P.C. as a kind of shield for their own racism, sexism, homophobia, classism, whatever. There are elements of the left that do take language policing too far. I would generally not call these people liberals but leftists. One mistake Chait might be making is on thinking that the people on the left he is criticizing care about free speech as an important value. Free Speech is dangerous because it means letting your opponents get their view across and this means your opponents might win the argument and change policy and laws in ways that you disagree with. So it is easier to rip up an anti-abortion poster than it is to come up with strong and rigorous arguments on why abortion should be legal. I support legal abortion within the original Roe framework but there is a good chance that much of the country does not. As I pointed out above, a person can be on the left and still have an authoritarian and undemocratic streak.
I agree that there are many things that can be labeled as microagressions and that people who are members of minorities can often face a daily barrage of harmless to not-so harmless questions or assumptions about their backgrounds and identities and this can wear people down. I’ve faced it as a Jewish person when people asked me “where is my little hat?” because I was not wearing a yarmulke. The question was completely harmless and innocent but it still struck me as being slightly off even though the conversation came up when two co-workers (when I taught English in Japan) said that they did not know any Jewish people and I said “guess again.” But a point of grammar is a point of grammar. I don’t know how someone functions in the real world or in the job market if getting corrected on a grammatical error in a paper by a professor counts as a microagression. Chait is right that calling something a microagression makes it impossible to defend against because the term is so subjective and that a person is damned if they do or damned if they don’t defend themselves against an accusation of committing a microagression. So I find myself torn to say the least. There are times when I do think it is better to operate under the guidance of “never attribute to malice what can easily be attributed to ignorance/negligence” but there can be a very fine line between negligence and malice at times and it is not really my place to tell someone where that line lays even if I get perplexed by certain protests.
There is probably no solution to Chait’s polemic. This kind of debate seems to repeat itself every 20 years or so and then dies down again. The Internet is a wonderful platform for giving voices to people who have never had their voices heard before and allows people to find communities when they previously felt very alone. These developments are unquestionably good. People will probably calm down from whatever fever pitch they are on now if they are on a fever pitch.