Quotes of the day

The Marxist left has always dismissed liberalism’s commitment to protecting the rights of its political opponents — you know, the old line often misattributed to Voltaire, “I disapprove of what you have to say, but I’ll defend to the death your right to say it” — as hopelessly naïve. If you maintain equal political rights for the oppressive capitalists and their proletarian victims, this will simply keep in place society’s unequal power relations. Why respect the rights of the class whose power you’re trying to smash? And so, according to Marxist thinking, your political rights depend entirely on what class you belong to…

The p.c. style of politics has one serious, possibly fatal drawback: It is exhausting. Claims of victimhood that are useful within the left-wing subculture may alienate much of America. The movement’s dour puritanism can move people to outrage, but it may prove ill suited to the hopeful mood required of mass politics. Nor does it bode well for the movement’s longevity that many of its allies are worn out. “It seems to me now that the public face of social liberalism has ceased to seem positive, joyful, human, and freeing,” confessed the progressive writer Freddie deBoer. “There are so many ways to step on a land mine now, so many terms that have become forbidden, so many attitudes that will get you cast out if you even appear to hold them. I’m far from alone in feeling that it’s typically not worth it to engage, given the risks.” Goldberg wrote recently about people “who feel emotionally savaged by their involvement in [online feminism] — not because of sexist trolls, but because of the slashing righteousness of other feminists.” Former Feministing editor Samhita Mukhopadhyay told her, “Everyone is so scared to speak right now.”

That the new political correctness has bludgeoned even many of its own supporters into despondent silence is a triumph, but one of limited use. Politics in a democracy is still based on getting people to agree with you, not making them afraid to disagree. The historical record of political movements that sought to expand freedom for the oppressed by eliminating it for their enemies is dismal. 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.


[T]he illiberal policing of speech, the demonizing of dissent, and extreme identity politics have now transcended the academy and arrived in social media with a vengeance. Twitter and Facebook encourage mutually reassuring groupthink, in which individuals are required to “like” anything that isn’t white, male, cisgendered etc., in which an ideology is enforced by un-friending those with other views instead of engaging them, and in which large numbers of Twitter-users can descend on a racist/sexist/homophobic etc miscreant and destroy his or her career and social life in pursuit of racial/gender/orientation “social justice”…

It seems to me they are being intimidated by an ideology that utterly rejects the notion that free speech – including views with which one strongly disagrees – can actually advance social justice, and by a view of the world that sees liberal society entirely in terms of “power” rather than freedom. And if you look across the non-conservative online media, this orthodoxy is now close to absolute. The few brave enough to take on these language and culture police – I think of Emily Yoffe’s superb piece on campus rape in Slate – will get slimed and ostracized or ignored. Once you commit a heresy, you cannot recover. You must, in fact, be air-brushed out of the debate entirely.


The other factor is that respect for free speech on campus—and everywhere else—seems to be cyclical. I first came to campus in 2006, at the height of anti-Bush sentiment. Republicans were ascendant for years, and liberals had grown accustomed to being part of a political minority. At the time, the right to dissent was a necessity for young leftists, and so part of their mantra concerned allowing voices that clashed with those in power to speak, airing perspectives contrary to the mainstream, etc. But as liberalism’s fortunes changed, free speech ceased being a priority or a useful tool for the activist left.

The tragic result is that more and more students—and not just the journalists—now expect “freedom from speech,” as Foundation for Individual Rights in Education President Greg Lukianoff put it.


While the article purports to be a lambasting of “the culture of taking offense” and censorious attitudes, it quickly becomes clear that the only speech Chait is interested in protecting is conservative or contrarian. When it comes to people saying uncomfortable or provocative things from the left, Chait comes across as just as censorious and silencing as any of the leftist prigs he attempts to criticize…

[M]ost of Chait’s article is not a defense of rowdy public discourse at all, but the opposite: Most of the piece is little more than demands that liberals silence certain forms of discourse that make Chait uncomfortable. For a piece that mocks the use of “trigger warnings” to alert people about disturbing content, it sure seems Chait has no problem trying to silence anyone who says something that might hurt his feelings…

The irony begins to collapse in on itself and form a black hole from which no self-awareness can escape with this sentence: “It is likewise taboo to request that the accusation be rendered in a less hostile manner. This is called ‘tone policing.’” Got it. Demanding that someone adopt more P.C. language to step around the sensitivities of liberals is unconscionable, but demanding that lefties on Twitter adopt a softened tone to step around the sensitivities of Jonathan Chait is just good sense.


Excessive speech-policing by overzealous campus activists certainly happens. But Chait is wildly exaggerating the threat it poses—calling it a “philosophical threat” to liberalism, instead of a minor annoyance people like Chait have to deal with in the brief period just before they officially assume their positions in America’s power elite. (This wouldn’t be the first time Chait has inflated a perceived threat to America to existential proportions.)

In reality, the single most notable example in the last 15 years of an academic being punished for his speech is probably former University of Colorado professor Ward Churchill, who was fired not for offending feminists but for claiming that some victims of the September 11 attacks were complicit in the crimes of the American state that provoked the attacks. Just a few years ago, liberal Democratic members of Congress and other officials publicly demanded that Brooklyn College cancel a forum featuring academics who support a financial boycott of Israel. Lawmakers threatened to withhold funding from the school if the event took place. Just this month, Duke University announced that it would not allow a weekly Muslim call to prayer to happen at the campus chapel, following criticism and threats from Christians and evangelical leaders. This is what speech policing in America actually looks like: Like regular policing, it’s wielded primarily by people in power against marginalized groups and anti-mainstream opinions.


Now, some will say that Chait has been unnecessarily provocative in his writing. That he should’ve made a better effort to reach out to the people he’s criticizing. The problem with this framing is that it presumes the angry rage mobs roaming Twitter in search of someone who has insufficiently checked his or her or its privilege are open to debate, to having their mind changed. That they’re interested in having a calm, rational discussion. This is a faulty presumption. It’s impossible to have a polite discussion on this topic because the outraged don’t want to have any discussion on this topic…

It’s hard to have even a calm, rational discussion with someone who thinks your only appropriate response is silence. That the only thing you can do is sit there and listen and nod your head, admitting that you have been blind to the truth and, yes, deserve the vitriol heaped upon you. I kind of hope that Chait is offered a speaking gig on a college campus just to see how quickly it’ll take for him to be shouted down and demonstrated against, petitioned and picketed.

All this being said, I wonder if Jonathan Chait now regrets writing that conservatives should really watch their tone when they criticize the president. Probably not. Browbeating the opposition into silence is only bad some of the time.


Chait notes, rather obliquely, that the PC system has created what is essentially a Speaker Caste System with some speakers’ being in higher castes, and thus more privileged (and thus willing to churn out ALL CAPS RAGE without expecting to be called on it (and in fact getting even more ALL CAPS RAGEY if they are called on it)), and others being in lower castes, and thus quite disadvantaged, and only really permitted to apologize and beg forgiveness whenever someone in a Higher Speaker Caste demands they do…

Privileging certain speakers — the more female, the more black or minority, the more gay or trans or other sexual ethnicity — thereby empowers them to break the normal rules of social interaction as they may please, resorting to personal attacks and ALL CAPS RAGE at the drop of the hat…

This is exhausting. All similar behaviors are exhausting. When people exhibit such exhausting behaviors, we generally exclude them from further participation, because we just won’t put up with that crap.

But we have many people who now believe that they are Privileged to belong to a Higher Speaker Caste and may employ any number of emotionally-angry and abusive tactics in what should be rather light conversation (all academic conversation is “light;” compare it to talking to you doctor about a surgery) that are forbidden to everyone else, and in fact have been forbidden for 3000 years of intellectual history.


I’m glad Chait has suddenly decided that speech policing is a terrible idea. He’s only a couple hundred years behind the times, but better late than never, I suppose. Unfortunately, I don’t think he’s all that sincere about it. In fact, I think he just opposes speech codes when they’re used against him or his fellow travelers. And the reason I think that is because I’ve actually read what Jonathan Chait has written about people on the right who disagree with him. It’s one thing for Jonathan Chait to oppose the practice of using speech codes against Jonathan Chait and his friends, and another thing entirely for Chait to oppose speech codes used against his political opponents.

A person who thinks it’s wrong to otherize one’s perceived political opponents in order to make their opinions appear illegitimate would not write a piece with the headline “Sorry, Obamacare Denialists, You’re Insane.”…

Jonathan Chait isn’t mad that speech codes are being employed by the online left. He’s mad because he and his friends have been caught in the web. He says all the right things about why the speech and thought police have a corrosive effect on our politics, he just doesn’t practice what he preaches. Speech codes and identity politics are fine, you guys, just so long as you don’t use them against me.


Jonathan Chait’s recent critique of political correctness insists that the phenomenon has undergone a resurgence. It hasn’t; contrary to Chait’s characterization, it never went away. The difference is that it is now being used as a cudgel against white liberals such as Jonathan Chait, who had previously enjoyed a measure of immunity. Chait is in roughly the same position as Lena Dunham, who is so obviously confused by feminists who insist that she, a spoiled white Manhattan princess of progressivism, has little to contribute to the discussion of the situation of women who do not come from such rarefied circumstances. 

Because Chait is intellectually dishonest, I will not go into his essay in great detail. And that isn’t really even necessary. Chait is stumbling, in his way, toward the realization that in political arguments intelligent adults pay attention mainly to what is being said, while fatuous children pay attention mainly to who is saying it. Chait is hardly in a position to complain about that, given his own heavy reliance on that mode of discourse. Chait isn’t arguing for taking an argument on its own merits; he’s arguing for a liberals’ exemption to the Left’s general hostility toward any unwelcome idea that comes from a speaker who checks any unapproved demographic boxes, the number of which–”cisgendered,” etc.–is growing in an appropriately cancerous fashion. “White males” is a category that includes Jonathan Chait and Rush Limbaugh, and Chait, naturally, doesn’t like that much…

If he wants to argue for an end of ad hominem as a substitute for analysis, then I’m altogether with Chait. But he’s only arguing that people like him should be immune to the very sort of dishonest stupidity that he practices.