In a widely praised piece for New York Magazine, liberal writer Jonathan Chait says the leftist language police are perverting liberalism. Chait is wrong. The politically correct language police don’t pervert modern liberalism; they embody it. And amateur leftist thought cop Jonathan Chait himself is proof.
In his piece, Chait catalogued numerous discussions within a large Facebook group called “Binders Full of Women Writers” to show the toxic effect that language and thought crime policing can have on basic political discourse. At times, members of the overwhelmingly liberal group would demand that certain sentiments not be shared. Sometimes, members declared that certain people weren’t even allowed to have opinions on a subject on account of their color, gender, or sexual orientation. Here’s a small selection from Chait’s piece:
On July 10, for instance, one member in Los Angeles started a conversation urging all participants to practice higher levels of racial awareness. “Without calling anyone out specifically, I’m going to note that if you’re discussing a contentious thread, and shooting the breeze … take a look at the faces in the user icons in that discussion,” she wrote. “Binders is pretty diverse, but if you’re not seeing many WOC/non-binary POC in your discussion, it’s quite possible that there are problematic assumptions being stated without being challenged.” (“POC” stands for “people of color.” “WOC” means “women of color.” “Non-binary” describes people who are either transgender or identify as a gender other than traditionally male or female.)
Two members responded lightly, one suggesting that such “call-outs” be addressed in private conversation and another joking that she was a “gluten free Jewish WWC” — or Woman Without Color. This set off more jokes and a vicious backlash. “It seems appropriate to hijack my suggestion with jokes. I see,” the Los Angeles member replied. “Apparently whatever WOC have to say is good for snark and jokes,” wrote another. Others continued: “The level of belittling, derailing, crappy jokes, and all around insensitivity here is astounding and also makes me feel very unsafe in this Big Binder.” “It is literally fucking insane. I am appalled and embarrassed.”
One of Chait’s main points — that speech codes are inherently corrosive and antithetical to a free society — is impossible to argue. He’s correct. They are. Speech codes are a widely used tool taken right out of the fascist toolbox. If they can’t control how you act, then they’ll control how you speak. If they can’t control how you speak, then they’ll control how you think. And if you act, speak, or think contrary to their demands, you will be punished. To the energetic little fascists of the online Left showcased by Chait, wrong thoughts lead to wrong words, and wrong words can incite wrong behavior. You will submit, or you will pay the price.
I’m glad Chait has suddenly decided that speech policing is a terrible idea. He’s only a couple hundred years behind the times, but better late than never, I suppose. Unfortunately, I don’t think he’s all that sincere about it. In fact, I think he just opposes speech codes when they’re used against him or his fellow travelers. And the reason I think that is because I’ve actually read what Jonathan Chait has written about people on the right who disagree with him. It’s one thing for Jonathan Chait to oppose the practice of using speech codes against Jonathan Chait and his friends, and another thing entirely for Chait to oppose speech codes used against his political opponents.
A person who thinks it’s wrong to otherize one’s perceived political opponents in order to make their opinions appear illegitimate would not write a piece with the headline “Sorry, Obamacare Denialists, You’re Insane.”
A person who doesn’t want charges of bigotry hurled around in order to delegitimize another person’s opinion would not deliberately and repeatedly use language that’s primarily hurled against Holocaust deniers (as an aside, who on earth denies that Obamacare exists or that climates change?). But Chait himself does that all the time. A writer adamantly opposed to the political prosecution of thought crimes would not write the following: “Why Climate-Science Denialism Should Disqualify Anyone From Holding Office.”
And yet Jonathan Chait wrote that piece. And he wrote it five days ago. Chait is guilty of many things, but self-awareness is not one of them.
Now, some have argued that I’m being too hard on Chait, that there’s a difference between ostracizing opinions you don’t like and using government force to punish those who hold them. That’s true. But Chait’s piece is not about an official government agency whose employees walk around fining those with the audacity to think wrong thoughts or to say the wrong things while being a member of the wrong identity group. His piece is about a Facebook group of random idiots who are trying to intimidate and otherize anyone who doesn’t look the right way or say the right words. Chait is rightfully bothered by that kind of nonsense. And he’s correct to note that political correctness forged by the fire of identity politics is a bludgeon used primarily by those on the Left:
Political correctness is a style of politics in which the more radical members of the left attempt to regulate political discourse by defining opposing views as bigoted and illegitimate.
But political correctness is not a rigorous commitment to social equality so much as a system of left-wing ideological repression. Not only is it not a form of liberalism; it is antithetical to liberalism. Indeed, its most frequent victims turn out to be liberals themselves.
And there’s the rub. There’s the answer to the question of why Chait is suddenly angered by the progressive thought police. It’s not because he thinks regulating speech through ostracization is wrong — we know he doesn’t, since he himself is an ardent practitioner. We know he’s not at all opposed to deliberately using loaded language to imply that his political opponents are bigots whose opinions do not deserve to be considered, yet alone debated out in the open.
Jonathan Chait isn’t mad that speech codes are being employed by the online left. He’s mad because he and his friends have been caught in the web. He says all the right things about why the speech and thought police have a corrosive effect on our politics, he just doesn’t practice what he preaches. Speech codes and identity politics are fine, you guys, just so long as you don’t use them against me.
I applaud Chait for finally coming to the realization that the language police have no place in democratic civil society. I just wish he’d apply it to Republican society, too.