[guest post by JVW]
In the continuing effort to acknowledge those moments when our ideological opponents have a moment of sanity and allow themselves to see things from our perspective, let me bring to your attention Jonathan Chait’s interesting exploration in New York Magazine of the politically correct mania currently sweeping not just our country but by and large all of Western thought.
Chait begins the article by rehashing the familiar story of Omar Mahmood, the University of Michigan student who was kicked off of the daily campus newspaper after writing a satirical column mocking political correctness and microaggressions for a conservative campus publication. Chait, a Michigan alumnus, ties that story in to a 1992 incident at that very campus in which radical feminists influenced by law professor Catharine MacKinnon attempted to shut down an exhibition by a feminist videographer which aimed to explore the lives of workers in the sex industry. The arguments of the radical feminists 22 years ago will sound familiar to those of us up to date with the current movement to censor ideas that exist outside the narrow canon of tolerance: that being exposed to this material poses “a threat to the safety” of those students which justifies their claiming the mantle of victimhood and the corresponding right to act as censor. As Chait notes in comparing the 1992 and 2014 incidents at UM, “In both cases, the threat was deemed not the angry mobs out to crush opposing ideas, but the ideas themselves. The theory animating both attacks turns out to be a durable one, with deep roots in the political left.”
It’s a long piece and Chait weaves in several different pieces of evidence, from protests against campus speakers to the Obama-Clinton primary battle of 2008 to Charlie Hebdo. He traces the journey of politically correct totalitarianism from the rarefied and dopey mores of academia to the hive-like communities that have developed on social media. Those who are judged to be insufficiently deferential to the oppression suffered by the victim group du jour are routinely hassled, bullied, and threatened on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and other platforms popular with a young audience that is susceptible to mindless conformity in the name of social popularity.
But Chait also makes a very keen observation regarding another reason for why we are now hearing of so many instances of the left enforcing PC orthodoxy. As Chait writes, “Every media company knows that stories about race and gender bias draw huge audiences, making identity politics a reliable profit center in a media industry beset by insecurity.” At the same time success breeds imitators, so every interest group that manages to browbeat its critics into submission is an enticement for another interest group to attempt the same. This leads to an unacceptable situation that Chait neatly summarizes:
Political correctness is a term whose meaning has been gradually diluted since it became a flashpoint 25 years ago. People use the phrase to describe politeness (perhaps to excess), or evasion of hard truths, or (as a term of abuse by conservatives) liberalism in general. The confusion has made it more attractive to liberals, who share the goal of combating race and gender bias.
But political correctness is not a rigorous commitment to social equality so much as a system of left-wing ideological repression. Not only is it not a form of liberalism; it is antithetical to liberalism. Indeed, its most frequent victims turn out to be liberals themselves.
Of course, Chait being Chait, he later has to let loose with a paragraph of nonsense designed to remind everyone that hey, he’s a good lefty too, not one of those awful reactionary rightwingers:
Political correctness appeals to liberals because it claims to represent a more authentic and strident opposition to their shared enemy of race and gender bias. And of course liberals are correct not only to oppose racism and sexism but to grasp (in a way conservatives generally do not) that these biases cast a nefarious and continuing shadow over nearly every facet of American life. 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.
Get that? “The mere absence of overt discrimination will not do.” Why shouldn’t we read that to mean that Chait is suggesting that it’s not enough if I am cordial to Al Sharpton and treat him in a way that is honest and fair; unless I eventually come to see things his way I cannot truly be considered to be a “good person.” What else could Chait possibly mean with his blandishments about a nefarious and continuing shadow and biases embedded in our subconscious minds other than the tired claim that unless you vote Democrat you are a racist.
That aside, this is by and large an honest and worthy exploration of a rather illiberal phenomenon that has been cultivated, protected, and advanced for far too long. One can only hope that more thinkers on the left – especially members of those cherished victimized groups – will join him in opposing the mindlessness of enforcing cultural orthodoxy. Again, it’s a long read, but the full article is worth the while. Read the comments too, if only to get your daily allotment of self-regarding leftists who make the “our opinions are the only moral ones, so it is perfectly fine for us to censor your amoral deviations from proper thought” argument that we have all come to know.