Enlisting a philosophical argument that peaked in the ’90s, Jonathan Chait brought it back to 2015 with an article in New York magazine published earlier this week with a lukewarm punch: The PC movement is leading to the downfall of the liberal social agenda in the United States. In one of the most “This isn’t about me at all or personal whatsoever” personal essays in recent memory, a White, liberal, middle-age, cisgender male journalist declares the rise of tone-policing and trigger warnings as bad for democracy and just plain bad for the United States.
It’d be easy to dismiss Chait’s oddly outdated, half-thunk think piece, which conveniently blames women of color for complicating the social liberal landscape with their demand to be treated as equal stakeholders. But to overlook Chait’s self-appointed superiority complex as the work of one anachronistic guy would be to ignore the growing litany of complaints emerging from straight White men – claiming their own marginality.
Reflection and analysis in social movements have bred hard-earned truths about oppression and power. A close examination of systemic powers shows that a person can experience marginalization in one area of their life and simultaneously perpetuate those very same dynamics in another. Herein lies the complexity of social justice and personal liberation. Privilege and power are often tangled for those living in the margins.
However, we must not confuse this complicated tangle of hegemony and oppression with the position of Chait and other critics in his vein. Many of these folks have actually enjoyed uninterrupted systemic privilege and boon. Thus, they often mistake personal discomfort caused by social power shifts for backlash and persecution. Chait is not the first and unfortunately not the last of White-identified straight men to bemoan “PC” culture and blame identity politics for ruining his vision of a liberated America.
By skewering “PC” culture to make his case, Chait stumbles into an argument usually reserved by the right: The powerless are threatening the powerful.
The p.c. style of politics has one serious, possibly fatal drawback: It is exhausting. Claims of victimhood that are useful within the left-wing subculture may alienate much of America. The movement’s dour puritanism can move people to outrage, but it may prove ill suited to the hopeful mood required of mass politics. Nor does it bode well for the movement’s longevity that many of its allies are worn out.
Critiques like this – centering on the comfort of allies – ignore the much larger obstacles the “movement” is up against. Its longevity faces much greater threats than “call-out culture” (an apparently hazardous trend of being held accountable for one’s thoughts and beliefs when shared in public fora) or “pile-ons” (the accumulative effect of more than one individual participating in the criticism of a single person’s work or ideology). It’s true that these practices carry potentially adverse impacts for the lone person on the receiving end of criticism, but it is worth noting that they are often only labeled problematic practices when the person critiqued is someone with protective layers of clout, prestige and privilege. And when the vociferous critique comes from marginalized dissenters, the conversation quickly turns into a debate of ethos and respectability. Plus, we must ask whether marginalized communities, who were born into state-sanctioned violence, discrimination and injustice, should really be held responsible for shielding privileged allies from the “alienation” or “exhaustion” of working against oppression.
The welfare of “worn out” allies is not a progressive concern; it’s an elitist’s preoccupation. Prioritizing the emotional and cognitive safety of those already in power or privilege is not a sign of health or political savvy; it is a sign of fearful regression.
Chait and his contemporaries profess a preference for reason, not “coercion,” to be used as a tool for social progress. Yet this call for “reason” is, in itself, suspect: Those who have historically defined what is reasonable have also been the ones who write legislation, history books, newspaper columns and behavioral science books that define normalcy and acceptability for the powerful, not the disenfranchised. The primacy of “reason” alone does not always bode well for the unjust.
And so, amid a national groundswell of organized national protests, marches, die-ins, fundraisers, smartly penned articles by activists of color, some white liberal critics are proclaiming a dearth of “hope” in this country, because of hurt feelings and loss of personal high ground. They monitor their own exhaustion levels as a sign of a healthy movement, rather than working to understand that the pain associated with social progress may be a lifelong symptom of earned humility, learning and improving the world for those most gripped by oppression.
Unfortunately, mainstream media often prefer to offer laments of lost privilege and prophesies of a liberal Armageddon than to uplift the very hopeful realities that surround us. Social media have introduced some of the finest thinkers and activists of color on identity, economy, health care, reproductive health, education, entertainment, politics and power to a broader audience. These vibrant online communities are driving concrete action and transformation. However, their contributions are too often stolen, appropriated, warped and pegged “toxic” to the (White) liberal organism.
All this raises the question: What kind of organism is being protected in the first place? Perhaps Chait and like-minded progressives who rail against “toxicity” should consider that when disempowered voices demand a wider definition and an expansion of freedom, and a chorus of more powerful voices attempt to suppress them, it becomes clear which voices are truly “toxic” – and which voices are prophetic.