Jonathan Chait has written a response to some his critics, claiming many of them don’t disagree with him as much as their denunciations of him suggest.
I am becoming disabused of my previous charitable reading of Chait on this count: he doesn’t seem interested in drawing lines between tactics that are positive and ones that are harmful within the broad societal effort to advance awareness and sensitivity to people with diverse viewpoints and backgrounds, the way I assumed he must be. He does appear to see “PC” as this one big, bad, encroaching social movement that either has essentially no redeeming value, or at least whose negative effects on discourse clearly outweigh any positive social effects.
To me, it’s clear that political correctness has quite considerable redeeming social value. I had a discussion with Belle Waring of Crooked Timber, who is emerging as a leader among Chait’s critics, in comments to a second post by her responding to Chait. During the course of our discussion she wrote this about political correctness, entirely affirming the concept – and the term – by name:
PC is, as I said, a rare source of power for liberal causes in society. Slowly, ever so slowly, it is becoming unacceptable to call things that are unsatisfactory “gay.” This seems trivial but I think it matters a lot to children who feel they might be gay. There is a huge world of human interaction in which people say varying terrible things to one another all the time. I got called a cunt about three hours ago by an MRA who disliked my views on whether women owed men attention in clubs if the men bought them unsolicited drinks. I get called that on a pretty frequent basis if I comment with a female handle and argue about feminism. I think that concerted efforts to enforce minimal standards of politeness are much more likely to help than to hurt, and seeing powerful white men struggle to find victims makes me suspicious of their motives.
I agree with that pretty much entirely. Part of me still (wants to?) believes that Chait must also recognize redeeming value in this broad social trend toward more aware, inclusive, sensitive modes of communication.
And indeed, I believe there are glimmers of beginnings of awareness in his response item that his monolithic anti-PC stance is an untenable view. Namely, Chait says that the movement to get the Redskins to change their name is not part of PC. Seemingly, the reason for this is merely that he views that cause as a worthy cause. But: of course the movement to get the Redskins to change their name is part of PC! And, when and where it’s advanced with civil and humane means, it’s a prime example of the good that political correctness does in society – the way Belle Waring talks about in her comment.
By excluding the movement to get the Redskins to change their name from PC, Chait indicates that he is aware that some – and really, it’s a lot – of what we (not wrongly) call PC is not objectionable, but positive. It’s just that he picked out the wrong target for his piece: PC in general, rather than objectionable behavior undertaken in the service of PC. I hope over time he comes to a fuller understanding of that part of his misstep in his crafting of this piece.
Because, while some people think that without treating “PC” as a monolithic threat he would not have the material to complete a piece on the topic, I don’t believe that. I think that experiences like the ones Freddie has seen cannot be that uncommon if they are frequent enough for him to see them as a problem. I think if Chait had taken the time to be more discerning about what is problematic within PC 2.0 and what is positive, he would have been able to write a valuable piece on the subject. (Something, it seems to me, Belle Waring in another comment suggests she thinks would probably have been possible, given Chait’s examples of feminists afraid to engage online, and Freddie’s examples.) Chait then might have had the time to come to understand (though he hasn’t made a clear claim to the contrary) the point made by Freddie (and our commenters Chris and NP) that, as Freddie’s has it, it is “white accelerants”, less so than minority communities, who probably are most responsible for the growth of this problem, to the extent that it’s a problem – and clearly incorporated it into his work.
Unfortunately, Chait didn’t take that time, and so we are left with the flawed piece he did write. Except that’s not all we’re left with, because the responses to him are making clear that essentially no one is comfortable dismissing out of hand the problem he points to, however poorly they think he constructs it. Instead, they are suggesting much better ways to look at it. Those pieces and much of that thinking might not have been written had Chait not quite literally provoked them. I’m not suggesting that we owe Chait a debt of gratitude for that. I am saying that I am glad that the pieces responding to Chait are being written and contemplated by people who are much more knowledgeable and insightful on the topic than he is.