Progressives Eat Their Own in a Battle Over Political Correctness

Liberalism is finally, albeit slowly, beginning to realize that their increasingly militant culture of “political correctness” is corroding their ideological moorings. The awakening is most visible in a recent essay by liberal writer Jonathan Chait in New York magazine. In the piece, Chait calls out a slew of modern-day tactics and trends used to silence debate and shout down those who disagree, among them, “speech policing,” “microaggressions,” “trigger warnings,” “mansplaining,” “tone policing” and “check your privilege” warnings.”

Don’t know what any of those are? Congratulations, your life is spent in places other than Twitter, Facebook and the blogosphere. But for many they are the tools of censorship increasingly being wielded against people who challenge, in sometimes imperceptible and unintentional ways, the arch-liberal biases that have pervaded academic thought.

“Under p.c. culture, the same idea can be expressed identically by two people but received differently depending on the race and sex of the individuals doing the expressing,” Chait explains. “If a person who is accused of bias attempts to defend his intentions, he merely compounds his own guilt. It is likewise taboo to request that the accusation be rendered in a less hostile manner.”

This no-win situation doesn’t just stifle debate, it makes it disagreement nearly impossible. That outcome should be tragic to anyone, regardless of where they fall on the political spectrum, because it conflates honest disagreement with willful ignorance. Worse, it creates a situation in which each side of the argument huddles with only those who agree with them, no knowledge or nuance having been gained or transferred, only a hardening of opinion.

As fellow progressive blogger Andrew Sullivan wrote in defense of Chait, “It seems to me [journalists] 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.”

Sadly, Chait’s column was not met with agreement or even reflective critiques by many on the left. Instead, as if to prove his point, the thesis was quickly labeled “masplaining” and derided by his colleagues.

Gawker’s Alex Pareene dismissed the column, saying it was little more than the musings of a “sad white man” facing down “the difficulty of being a white man in the second age of ‘political correctness.’” Pareene trivialized Chait as a writer trying “to prove that he’s still the important political thinker – and good liberal – he knows he is.”

Other colleagues lampooned Chait for “being hypersensitive,” for doing nothing more than “picking the scab of his suffering,” for “discuss[ing[ how hard it is to be a white man these days,” and attempting to use his “position of privilege to silence debates raised by marginalized people.”

The theme of the reaction cast Chait as being a false victim, a writer who can dish out slights with aplomb, but can’t take the heat of criticism. But it seems to me that Chait’s mission is larger and nobler. Sure, there elements of the piece that come across as lashing out against his online detractors who sum up thousands of written words with one powerful one: “mansplaining.” But the larger point is that he loves the social and political progress that liberals have made and he doesn’t want to lose those gains by becoming so defensive and aggressive that it turns off would-be adherents.

New York Times’ columnist Ross Douthat (a conservative) explains why Chait’s concern is more than an internal philosophical struggle, it could have real political impacts in 2016:

[O]riginal Clintonism, in its Sister Souljah-ing, Defense of Marriage Act-signing triangulation on social issues, is a big part of what the new cultural left wants to permanently leave behind. . .

Can Hillary, the young feminist turned cautious establishmentarian, harness the energy of the young and restless left? Or will the excesses associated with that energy end up dividing her coalition, as it has divided liberal journalists of late?

New York magazine teased Jonathan Chait’s column with another important question: “Can a white liberal man critique a culture of political correctness?” It’s clear that many progressives think the answer is no. The question now is whether they understand the political consequences of that answer.