The Rebirth of PC

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.


4 thoughts on “The Rebirth of PC

  1. In the current climate of accusation over conversation, I worry that we’re losing the space to be in error. Sometimes I arrive at the most evolved, humane view of a situation immediately, but more often not. If ignorance or confusion is always met with fierce condemnation, you stop talking about issues where you’re less than 100% certain of the “rightness” of your opinion. Hence you never learn. Hence the strident, ungenerous tone of so much public debate.

  2. Thanks. I read the Chait article thanks to you. One paragraph, in particular, is striking and explains a lot:

    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.

    Was/is this a deliberate strategy? And if so, far left adherents who consume marxist literature have surely been greatly influenced by it, perhaps without realizing it. Also, many of the right wing arguments I find myself agreeing with hint that this is going on but I’ve yet to see it stated so bluntly.

  3. After the Bolshevik revolution, or maybe I should say after Trotsky’s ouster, the “Marxist Left” was a state-driven enterprise. Blasphemers and deviationists were subject to a lot more than verbal chastisement at home; abroad they were purged and disgraced. Today’s university Marxism is a lot less rigid in its doctrine and a lot more improvisational in practice. As often as not when someone talks about cultural Marxism, they’re speaking from the far right, and the rubric is broad enough to include everyone between Hillary Clinton and Chairman Mao.

    Campus PC isn’t driven by any deliberate strategies, I don’t think, except self-aggrandizement, anger, arrogance, and in some cases the “narcissism of small differences.” It’s the arrogance and condescension that’s hardest to take. If you haven’t read Freddie DeBoer’s rejoinder to Chait, you should–it’s very powerful.

    1. DeBroer has a point, ideologically depended as he is. I just thought that Chait came as close to identifying where exactly the far left pc mindset actually comes from as I’ve ever come across. I’m sure he could cite marxist tomes to back up this assertion – “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?” – but I’ll just take him at his word. His next sentence after the cited paragraph sums up how these teachings morphed into pc: “The modern far left has borrowed the Marxist critique of liberalism and substituted race and gender identities for economic ones.”

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