There is a need these days for a strong liberal argument against the tendency of some on the left to lean on silencing and censorship instead of vigorous argumentation. Sadly, Jonathan Chait’s recent piece for New York, titled “Not A Very P.C. Thing To Say,” was not 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.
To be clear, Chait has plenty of examples of what has become a genuinely serious problem of liberals who react to uncomfortable ideas by turning to censorship: Harassment campaigns against conservatives, canceling plays or art shows because of political incorrectness, tearing down anti-choice posters.
But outside of those few examples, most 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 list of ideas and articles Chait thinks should disappear is dizzying. “A year ago, for instance, a photographer compiled images of Fordham students displaying signs recounting ‘an instance of racial microaggression they have faced,’” he writes contemptuously. “BuzzFeed published part of her project, and it has since received more than 2 million views. This is not an anomaly.” Chait doesn’t explain why we should be offended that Buzzfeed gave voice to people explaining their experiences. Perhaps Buzzfeed should put a trigger warning on the next article they run about subtle racism, so that easily offended people like Chait know to steer clear.
Chait is also furious about people who took to Twitter to mock Hanna Rosin, who recently wrote a book called The End of Men, because they “found her message of long-term female empowerment complacent.” Chait can barely conceal his outrage: “One Twitter hashtag, ‘#RIPpatriarchy,’ became a label for critics to lampoon her thesis. Every new continuing demonstration of gender discrimination — a survey showing Americans still prefer male bosses; a person noticing a man on the subway occupying a seat and a half — would be tweeted out along with a mocking #RIPpatriarchy.” Odd for someone who considers himself a full-throated defender of rowdy free speech to get so bent out of shape over what is really some harmless mockery.
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.
Forget “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.” It seems we need a remedial course in “Don’t dish it out if you can’t take it.” Commitment to free-wheeling public discourse is an admirable position, of course. But it has to go both ways. “I am white and male, a fact that is certainly worth bearing in mind,” Chait writes. I will take him on his advice and suggest that’s why he doesn’t seem to realize it’s two-faced to scold lefties for being hypersensitive while demanding that they tip-toe around his own hypersensitivities. But the rest of us should not be fooled.
Amanda Marcotte is a freelance journalist who writes frequently about liberal politics, the religious right and reproductive health care. She’s a prolific Twitter villain who can be followed @amandamarcotte.