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The truth about "political correctness" is that it doesn't actually exist

Jonathan Chait speaks at an event in 2012
Jonathan Chait speaks at an event in 2012
(Bryan Bedder/Getty Images for New York Magazine)

Jonathan Chait has written an article for New York Magazine about his concerns that political correctness threatens free debate by trying to silence certain points of view.

Political correctness, in Chait's view, is a "system of left-wing ideological repression" that threatens the "bedrock liberal ideal" of a "free political marketplace where we can reason together as individuals." He writes, "While politically less threatening than conservatism (the far right still commands far more power in American life), the p.c. left is actually more philosophically threatening. It is an undemocratic creed."

But political correctness isn't a "creed" at all. Rather it's a sort of catch-all term we apply to people who ask for more sensitivity to a particular cause than we're willing to give — a way to dismiss issues as frivolous in order to justify ignoring them. Worse, the charge of "political correctness" is often used by those in a position of privilege to silence debates raised by marginalized people — to say that their concerns don't deserve to be voiced, much less addressed.

That's a much bigger threat to the "free political marketplace" that Chait is so eager to protect.

"Politically correct" is a term we use to dismiss ideas that make us uncomfortable

First things first: there's no such thing as "political correctness." The term's in wide use, certainly, but has no actual fixed or specific meaning. What defines it is not what it describes but how it's used: as a way to dismiss a concern or demand as a frivolous grievance rather than a real issue.

Chait identifies a long list of disputes that he describes as examples of "p.c." demands that are hurting mainstream liberalism. But calling these concerns "political correctness" is another way of saying that they aren't important enough to be addressed on their merits. And all that really means is that they're not important to Jonathan Chait.

An example from outside of Chait's article makes it easy to see how that technique works in practice. I, personally, think that the name of the Washington Redskins is racist and hurtful to Native Americans, and should be changed. So if someone asks me what I think of the debate about the team, that's what I say. By contrast, Virginia legislator Del Jackson Miller likes the name and wants the team to keep it. But rather than making an argument on the merits of the name, he referred to the entire debate as "political correctness on overdrive." In other words, he's saying, this is a false debate — just another example of "political correctness" — so I don't have to even acknowledge concerns about racism. (Miller, in fact, claimed that it was literally fake, an issue trumped up by a "rich member of the Oneida tribe.")

That's a failure of communication and, arguably, of basic respect. Miller isn't engaging with critics of the Redskins name by considering why they find it hurtful, and offering his basis for disagreement — he's dismissing the whole conversation as unworthy of discussion.

Likewise, Chait clearly believes that "microaggressions" aren't important enough to merit his concern, and that "trigger warnings" are a foolish request made by over-sensitive people. But he doesn't spend much time considering why the people who demand them might think they do matter. The open communication offered by platforms like Twitter has brought Chait into contact with ideas that he clearly finds weird and silly. But rather than considering their merits, or why they matter to the people who put them forward, he dismisses them as political correctness, and concludes that their very existence constitutes "ideological repression."

It's tempting to dismiss uncomfortable criticism

It's understandable that Chait, and the many others who agree with him, find it so upsetting to be on the receiving end of what he refers to as "P.C." criticism. These critiques basically accuse their targets of being oppressors, or perpetuating injustice, and that's a deeply hurtful accusation. Indeed, that kind of criticism hurts most if you are someone who cares about social justice, or do think that discrimination is harmful when it's implicit as well as when it's explicit.

But avoiding that discomfort by dismissing criticism as mere "political correctness" is no way to protect the marketplace of ideas whose fate so concerns Chait. At best, it replaces a relatively weak burden on free speech (Jonathan Chait has to listen to people scolding him on Twitter) with a similarly weak one (other people have to listen to Chait and his supporters scolding them for their "political correctness").

But the reality is that the burdens are not equal, because the arguments that get dismissed as mere "p.c." nonsense are overwhelmingly likely to be raised by people who are less privileged, and to concern issues that are outside the mainstream.

Look at Chait's own examples. Trans women who protest definitions of "women" as "people with vaginas" aren't merely bellyaching about terminology — they're people on the margins of a group making legitimate demands for inclusion. Women of color who point out the many ways in which white feminists overlook issues that affect minority women aren't engaging in race-based arguments just for the fun of it, they're pointing out that the feminist movement had promised to protect their interests, but was in fact ignoring them.

And while I personally don't think that trigger warnings are a workable solution to the problem of trauma, and have not used them in my own writing or teaching, I think that our society does generally struggle to take women's safety into account, and I do not feel that shutting down that conversation is the appropriate solution to the problem of harassment of women.

Discrimination and safety are serious matters that actually do affect people's ability to participate in public discussion — yes, even more so than the degree to which people in positions of privilege have to hear arguments they dislike. Writing them off as frivolous disputes over what is or isn't "politically correct" makes those problems much harder to address.

There's a difference between pointing out real problems and "tone policing"

Take, for instance, a phenomenon that actually and demonstrably restricts the free exchange of ideas: the harassment of women online. It is a depressing fact of life that women who discuss controversial subjects publicly are often targeted by harassers who want to silence them. (As are many other groups, of course.) And yet, bizarrely, women's requests for safety online are often dismissed as "politically correct" threats to free speech, rather than as a way to promote it.

Last January, Amanda Hess wrote about the "trolls" who pursued her in response to her writing, including one account that had been set up for the express purpose of tweeting death threats at her. Anita Sarkeesian posted a list of the harassing tweets she received during an ordinary week last December, a never-ending mishmash of the words "kill," "whore," "bitch," "fuck," and "slut." Megan McArdle has written about her experiences with this kind of vitriol. So has Lindy West. And Jill Filipovic. And me.

We’re all still writing; none of us have been silenced. But online harassment causes real fear and stress, and for others, that has been a form of ideological censorship. Programmer and game developer Kathy Sierra, who used to write a popular blog, stopped after she was targeted with a sustained campaign of violent threats. Sarkeesian had to cancel a public speaking engagement last year after threats of a mass shooting.

Conor Friedersdorf has written in the Atlantic that women often rejected his requests for articles on controversial topics, citing "an understandable reluctance to subject themselves to the vitriol that too often accompanies being a woman who writes publicly, especially on certain subjects."

How dismissing problems as "political correctness" hinders efforts to solve them

But when women protest online harassment, their concerns are often dismissed as a politically-correct attempt to censor the views of people they disagree with. This dismissal is also often used to reject the premise that measures might be needed to make women safer.

During last year’s "Gamergate" campaign, which involved large-scale campaigns of online threats and harassment directed against women, harassers referred to their targets as "SJWs" — short for "social justice warriors." Although Gamergate's core dispute nominally concerned the way that video games are reviewed (hence the name), it quickly became clear that the online "movement" was more alarmed about women gaining power within the gaming community. Describing women's goals as merely being about "social justice" was a way to dismiss their contributions, ideas, and even personal safety as superficial grievance politics.

Nor was that attitude limited to Gamergate. Blogger Andrew Sullivan wasn't part of Gamergate, and says that he "actively support[s] suspending abusive, stalking tweeters or those threatening violence." But when Twitter announced its decision to partner with the nonprofit WAM (Women, Action, & the Media) in order to combat harassment online, Sullivan denounced the move, referring to women as social justice warriors and warning that they were going to have a "censorship field day," before dismissing WAM’s past work as crude "identity politics."

The phrase "politically correct" is a way to say an issue has no value

Chait's article does not mention Gamergate, and there's no reason to believe that he's anything other than appalled at online harassment. Likewise, Sullivan did not use the phrase "politically correct."

But their arguments are fundamentally the same: that marginalized people's demands for inclusion are just a bunch of annoying whining, and that efforts to address their concerns are unnecessary. They also betray the deeper concern: that listening to the demands of marginalized groups is dangerous, because doing so could potentially burden the lives, or at least change the speech, of more privileged people.

And you know what? They're probably right. Chait proudly praises the "historical record of American liberalism" for extending rights to "blacks, Jews, gays, and women," but Americans used to be able to refer to members of those groups as "coloreds," "kikes," and "fags," without fearing the consequences. But doing so now would result in serious social censure — exactly the kind of "coercion" that Chait looks upon and despairs in his article.

Likewise, it is possible that efforts to address online harassment will put some sort of burden on the Andrew Sullivans of this world. (Although at this point those efforts are so feeble that it's a little hard to imagine.) There is a legitimate argument to be had about how the "freedom" of social media platforms with few restrictions but lots of threats ought to be balanced against people's "freedom" to participate in online debates without having to fear for their lives or safety. But the way to deal with that is to actually have that argument, not to suggest that the people asking for protection are just trying to censor free speech.

That kind of offhand dismissal is a problem for the ideals Chait seeks to protect. Just ask Jonathan Chait:

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.

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