Tuesday, January 27, 2015

Some Thoughts on Chait PC Piece

Twitter is predictably a-twitter with Jonathan Chait's latest in New York magazine on the scourge of political correctness.

It's an okay piece, as far as it goes. To generalize social media reaction: the Right is embracing it, the Left is annoyed. My reaction is: 4,700 words, really?

Chait conflates the censorious atmosphere and decisionmaking on many college campuses with the hyperbolic outrage that thrives in social media. He throws a lot of words trying to make them the same similar, but they're not.

Mute buttons, unfollows, blocks--these are all effective, defensive weapons at the disposal of any would-be commentator on social media. Yes, yes, the Left gets in a tizzy with trigger warnings (which are fine, generally, but can be taken well beyond their practical utility) and oversensitivity to comments about sexual, gender, ethnic or other differences. Sometimes they're justified, sometimes they just need to chill out. This is all true.

But say something about abortion rights or guns or God or whatever, and the Right does the same thing.

Self-righteous indignation about core values that others don't share is just how this whole social media thing works. It is at once the most democratic space and freest marketplace of ideas available. And it's extraordinarily messy.

Colleges that allow threats and intimidation of those who speak freely are curbing speech and they should be held accountable, but the general state of how colleges are run--from speech codes to rape investigations to how they invest their endowments--is a broader topic that I can't wade into here. Suffice it to say, caving to pressure to cancel a guest lecture is not a threat to free speech, broadly defined, and shouldn't be counted in the same category.

I assume some on the Right are embracing Chait's piece because they feel attacked and defensive about what they say and don't like being shouted down.

I could not care less.

The possibility of getting shouted-down is the one surviving, legitimate cost of coming into the public forum. So long as opponents are not banning books and using the government to silence or intimidate people--or tolerating violence or criminal harassment--it's their right. Indeed, the voting-with-your-feet/wallet is the entire premise of social interaction that libertarians say should guide the various decisions one makes in one's life. Don't like it? Turn it off!

There is a sense that self-selected social and traditional media consumption will make our (putatively) pluralistic society more fractured and segmented politically. Certainly, the decline of CNN and rises of more polarized media like MSNBC and Fox support this. I don't know if that's good or bad, or what the long term consequences of it will be on our political system--more gridlock and space between the major parties certainly seem likely--but this is what we all said we wanted: freedom (Right), democracy (Left), and the free exchange of ideas (libertarian).

No one said it was going to be pretty.

bellum medicamenti delenda est

UPDATE: A colleague suggested a fairer reading would say Chait was not so much feeling victimized here as he was calling for a discursive norm to reestablish itself on the political Left. I don't disagree with that, as I ascribed possible victimhood to some of the more pugnacious writers of the Right who have shared it approvingly, but I think my point holds. Lecturing the Internet on how we deal with each other is likely to have the same effect as talking at a wall.

The Internet is vast and there will always be shrill commentators on all sides. I don't find this quality particularly dangerous on the web, as social norms and associations will shift as practices either change or endure. I find Chait's piece mostly harmless, but the discursive equivalent of a longread about the crassness of blue jeans.

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