So I finally read the Jonathan Chait article about PC, which I think is excellent, though he overstates its systemic nature.
Back in the ’90s I used to opine that PC was as popular as it was on campuses because college students are mostly young and youth, as filled with passionate intensity as they are, are as prone to intemperance in politics as they are in other matters of the heart. The outrage, I said, wasn’t so much that young people were being so thin-skinned, or that they were blackballing and banishing each other (that’s what a lot of apolitical kids spend much of their time doing too)–it was the absence of a moderating “parental” point of view. When the Jewish kid at U Penn called that girl a “water buffalo,” for example, the school’s administration made things worse by reacting as if he’d burned a cross. A lot of the “trigger warning” and “micro-aggression” bullshit that makes people like Chait feel like they’re walking on eggshells is childish by definition–the valorization of hurt feelings.
As a mostly unread writer, I can attest that it’s sort of perversely gratifying to get trolled by my enemies, as when Glenn Beck roused his followers against me or when MRAs fill up the comment board at Hatewatch–it gives me the illusion that I’m having some kind of an impact, that people are reading and discussing me (even though most of them haven’t read past the headline).
At the same time, it hurts when my fellow travelers turn on me, as occasionally does happen. I was amazed by the leftish tone of some of the commentary on an article I wrote about Newtown Trutherism a couple of years ago at Truthout, and by the over-the-top nastiness of some of the trolls who showed up at a book group I moderated for Bill Press at Firedoglake.
A writer like Chait that people actually do read and talk about can’t but be a lightning rod; it’s got to hurt him when his smart peers like Joan Walsh and Ta-Nehisi Coates accuse him of being clueless and obtuse on the subject of race, as they did just a couple of weeks ago (Coates quite brilliantly and, I might add, graciously). But the Internet amplifies and equalizes everyone; when hundreds and thousands of nobodies pile on, their comments occupy the same virtual space as Coates’ and Walsh’s, and seem to have equal weight.
I read John Hodgman’s Twitter essay on the lessons you can learn from PC, privilege and the Internet before I read Chait’s article and at first glance it seemed a little like pandering to me. Now that I’ve read both and thought about them, I can see Hodgman’s wisdom. Leftist thought-policing, labeling, privilege-accusing, and racial and religious and sexual and classist demonizing and silencing are terrible things, but for most of us they are still mostly happening at the margins (it’s quite a different story for women, blacks and Muslims when you look at what’s coming from the right side of the spectrum). Yes they hurt, but they don’t kill, and sometimes they even carry a germ of truth. Some of us do pontificate from a position of privilege, and privilege can’t but distort or color or block our perspectives from time to time. “I’ve never had an exchange with the so called SJWs,” Hodgman wrote, “that I couldn’t shrug and move on from–sometimes smarter for it.”
Those “sometimes” almost make all the grief worthwhile. Almost.