Jonathan Chait Fundamentally Misunderstands Political Correctness

By Doctor Comrade

Liberal hawk Jonathan Chait recently penned a searing criticism of political correctness for New York Magazine titled "Not a Very P.C. Thing to Say: How the Language Police are Perverting Liberalism".  In the piece, Chait lambastes academia, feminists, SJWs, Marxists, and liberals for genuflecting upon the altar of political correctness, saying, "Political correctness is a style of politics in which the more radical members of the left attempt to regulate political discourse by defining opposing views as bigoted and illegitimate.... And since social media is also now the milieu that hosts most political debate, the new p.c. has attained an influence over mainstream journalism and commentary beyond that of the old." Chait equates political correctness and its apologists with censors who mindlessly and dangerously repress even the smallest of identity-politics criticisms. But Chait is wrong about the underlying critique that proponents of political correctness level at structures of power; Chait's perspective not only ignorantly conflates legitimate identity-politics concerns but also reinforces the narrative that liberalism will someday cure racism and sexism.

In summary, Chait's thinkpiece attempts to explain how political correctness is equal to censorship. He starts with a pair of vignettes about an editorialist fired for a bad satire piece about "the culture of taking offense that pervades the [University of Michigan] campus." When the "satirist" published his piece in a conservative paper, his apartment was vandalized, officially marking him, in Chait's words, as a "thought-criminal." Chait then goes on to link this incident to the writings of feminist law professor Catharine MacKinnon and the work of her proteges, who forcefully protested and attempted to censor an exhibit on prostitution in 1992. Of course, Chait links both to "deep roots on the political left," and then mindlessly ties all three together with the various reactions to the Charlie Hebdo murders.

We should begin by analyzing the organization of Chait's arguments. He juxtaposes vandalism with feminism, attempting to draw a discursive and rhetorical link between the two, collapsing the two signifiers into what he believes is "censorship." What is revealed is simply Chait's red herring, an attempt to draw readers into believing that vandalism by several unknown and alleged SJWs merits the same kind of criticism as radical feminist protests, which are obviously not the same. Chait's fallacy obfuscates context by collapsing signs.

Chait also invokes the dreaded term "thought-criminal," which is needlessly provocative. Evoking the dystopian Thought Police of Orwell's 1984, who imprison and brutally torture political dissidents, is completely unwarranted in this context. The fact that Chait complains about censorship while simultaneously expressing his views to the entirety of the blogosphere and New York Magazine's audience is evidence enough that Chait will not be kidnapped in the black of night and brainwashed by Big Brother. Or maybe he's afraid Big Sister will get him.

Then Chait goes on to invariably conflate numerous terms under the "political correctness" umbrella: microaggression, trigger, censorship, without ever adequately explaining why any of these terms are used, relying instead on strawmen and carefully-selected quotes from anonymous college professors. For instance, he criticizes privileging the term "microagressions" because they are "small social slights that might cause searing trauma." Yet Chait misses the essential importance of microagression by never addressing why political correctness targets it: microaggression reinforces racism and sexism by routinely entrenching stereotypes.

Minorities in the United States are habitually victims of microaggression. One of the examples Chait cites as offensive is when a student is asked, "No, where are you really from?" A question that is never asked of white Americans because of the underlying assumption that whites belong here. When Asian, Latino, Black, or Native American students are asked, "No, where are you really from?" it reinforces the notion that they are other, that they came from somewhere else and are therefore strange, exotic, different, and not really American. Yet when an Asian person of Chinese descent says, "Cleveland," and the first word they hear back is "No," it teaches them that they are not accepted, and moreover teaches the person who asked the question to alienate those who seem different. Over a lifetime, those who have been subjected to microaggression may either internalize these attitudes and believe themselves to be different, or they may feel disempowered by peers who can never truly accept them. This is racism, and dismissing it as "discomfort," as Chait did, also dismisses legitimate identity-politics concerns of minority Americans.

His examples only hurt his case: Native American students mobilized against Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson, a rock musical with Andrew Jackson as the protagonist, and in which a central plot point is a comical explanation for his removal of Native Americans. Why would Chait chafe at Americans using their free speech to oppose a historically problematic depiction of their experience? What about Native Americans makes Chait balk at their personal narratives?

UCLA students mobilized against a professor who used microaggression against a student who spelled "indigenous" with a capital I. Words like Latino, African American, and European are spelled with capitals, something that Chait doesn't attack. This professor obviously needed to reconsider their position on the term Indigenous, which a student spelled with a capital letter for the express purpose of identifying an ethnic group, a common device for identifying others. And if this microaggression was the result of subtle or subconscious racism, then criticizing its appearance is a legitimate form of social discourse, especially in a university setting.

Mount Holyoke College students mobilized against The Vagina Monologues because they exclude women without vaginae. That's just factual, and especially problematic if those who cast the play purposefully excluded transgender women. This should be a topic of critical discussion to uncover the socio-cultural reasons why productions of culture continue to exclude certain sexualities.

And despite his claims that these examples are indicative of widespread censorship, the problem with subtle and subconscious racism/sexism is that it is never exposed as a problem until it becomes exposed by protests. Chait can't account for the millions, or billions, of acts of microaggression which may take place across the country and yet are unopposed by the majority of Americans. Chait refuses to consider how many children are indoctrinated into a racist/sexist system by microaggression from teachers, parents, strangers, and peers. Perhaps targeting microaggression in the academic system is actually insufficient, rather than censorial.

What is Chait afraid of? Being criticized? A nuanced discussion of racism and sexism? Subtlety in how we treat other humans? Chait points to protesters who attempted (with varying success) to drive away "mildly controversial" speakers at colleges. Why is Chait so afraid of this kind of free speech, while he seems to privilege offensiveness? Why are mass protests, a pure form of free speech and democracy, unwelcome in social discourse?

"I am white and male, a fact that is certainly worth bearing in mind." [Emphasis his]

Even though Chait dismisses these self-evident biases in that paragraph, the fact remains that his ideology is inseparable from his lived experience. Chait enjoys almost unlimited privilege in contemporary American society: he is white, male, educated, financially secure, and has a wide audience for his polemics. What becomes apparent is that Chait denigrates the legitimacy of microaggression because he has been the benefactor for his entire life. Microaggression has only reinforced his privilege. And I'd add that perhaps he doesn't oppose microaggression because he has never experienced it as a victim. Chait argues, "If you consider this background and demographic information the very essence of my point of view, then there’s not much point in reading any further." Well, I read the whole thing, which only convinced me that Chait does not understand that different people who are not white men experience the world differently, where a spoken phrase to one group does carry a significantly different meaning when applied to another. No one is surprised when he embodies a socially-constructed positive trait because he's white; yet African Americans (pg. 331) routinely experience surprise when they defy stereotypes, which sends the message that African Americans, as a whole, conform to stereotypes. The lived experience of others, and their concomitant narratives, matter, and can't be dismissed by a white man who does not understand their quotidian encounters.

"People use the phrase [political correctness] to describe politeness (perhaps to excess), or evasion of hard truths, or (as a term of abuse by conservatives) liberalism in general.... But political correctness is not a rigorous commitment to social equality so much as a system of left-wing ideological repression.... Political correctness makes debate irrelevant and frequently impossible." Politeness is treating another person with respect. An evasion of hard truths is ignoring how racism and sexism pervade our culture and express themselves undetectably to white men. Political correctness, while problematic, is anther means for society as a whole to interrogate its most internal limits, and it strives at social equality through deconstruction of oppressive linguistic structures. Words have complex, rich, and multilayered meanings, and for that reason the discourse must target the words themselves in order to take apart structures of racism and sexism. When people use words in forms like microaggression, then we must also criticize those words in the vernacular until we render them free of their predispositions. Everyone has the right to express their opinion. The true question is how well that opinion fairs under criticism. If microaggressive words, or politically incorrect tendencies, can't survive critical bludgeoning, then perhaps they deserved it.

I think most damningly, Chait concededs that "Since race and gender biases are embedded in our social and familial habits, our economic patterns, and even our subconscious minds, they need to be fought with some level of consciousness. The mere absence of overt discrimination will not do." This is why contesting the linguistic structures of power is so important. The racism and sexism of our culture have invaded our subconscious minds and must be fought with consciousness, or as I would say, conscious deconstruction of linguistic oppression. Suppressing microaggression is a worthwhile goal to this end.

Chait claims that "The historical record of American liberalism, which has extended social freedoms to blacks, Jews, gays, and women, is glorious. And that glory rests in its confidence in the ultimate power of reason, not coercion, to triumph." Chait is unforgivably forgetting how courts and Congress had to coerce lower jurisdictions into following SCOTUS rulings like Brown v. Board. But he also neglects how these so-called "social freedoms" have been stunted in their application by covert, rather than overt, racism and sexism. He idealizes the liberal political utopia, but simultaneously seeks to silence the narratives of those who remain oppressed by liberalism's piecemeal agenda.

Even analyzing how he constructs the sentence is disconcerting: the phrase "liberalism... has extended" reveals how paternalistic and hierarchical Chait's version of the world remains. For him, rights are something that are given by a benevolent polity to its less-fortunate members. People on the radical left reject this premise, choosing instead to assert their own agency and forcing society to adapt. If a society must be so benevolent as to give rights, then that is not benevolence or altruism, that's paternalism and racism.

Perhaps "political correctness" should destroy liberalism because liberalism has failed in its alleged mission to create an egalitarian society. Equality, Chait's favorite value, is not achievable within a hierarchical structure in which an omni-gracious class decides which minorities are entitled to which rights. Chait's liberalism is a system of silence in which minorities must suffer the attacks of their well-meaning and misinformed white, male decision-makers. Targeting oppression like microaggression through linguistic deconstruction inverts this hierarchy, opening the intellectual space for the unequal to take what belongs to them. For this reason, those who protest and contest microaggression are doing the real work to force society to adapt to a working model that embodies Chait's supposed values of equality.

And don't even get me started on Chait's "critique" of "Marxism."