Political Correctness Is Not What You Think It Is

The Rude Pundit is going to talk about Jonathan Chait's article on political correctness and speech in New York magazine. It is an alternately fascinating and frustrating piece, but you should totally read it before reading commentary on it because that's what you fucking do if you don't wanna seem dumb when talking about something. So go do that...Done? Yeah, it's kind of long and makes the same point repeatedly, but pretty interesting. No? Well, maybe this will be.

Let's get a couple of things out of the way here: The Rude Pundit believes that you are not allowed to go through this life without being offended, probably on a daily basis. Of course, this comes from a white male; of course, this is a type of mansplaining (a term that Chait finds useless, but that the Rude Pundit thinks is hilariously accurate). So what? Read the white guy if you want, even at risk of being offended. Or click over to something else. That's how much power we both have right now in this discursive space.

The Rude Pundit thinks the notion of microaggressions is bullshit. Most are either blatantly offensive, which means "micro" diminishes them and how seriously they need to be dealt with, or they are meaningless. (Yeah, yeah, whitesplaining/mansplaining.) He thinks speech codes are oppressive and that it is almost always wrong to fire someone for what they write or what they speak because the rules are so arbitrary and change from place to place. He thinks that the way to assure that hate continues is to attempt to silence hatred and drive it underground. He wants it out in the open, where everyone can confront it and deal with it.

It's how you deal with offense on a personal basis that counts. The Rude Pundit despises Rush Limbaugh and finds much of what the anthropomorphic white balloon says offensive, so he has never bought a Snapple product because Limbaugh was key to making the brand popular when it first started. He had beer bottles thrown at him by dudes yelling, "Faggot" in the parking lot of the gay bar in Louisiana where he'd go dancing. He walked past the assholes and had a great time because fuck those repressed shitheels. And, when someone he despised came to speak at his campus, he always went to listen rather than protest because he wanted to see the other side for himself. (Of course, not being a woman or non-white, the Rude Pundit doesn't want to presume how he would handle the accretion of slights, insults, and bullshit. But he's also talking about something bigger than individual reactions.)

However, here's what the Rude Pundit puts on every syllabus for every class he teaches: "As we will be dealing with contemporary literature and subject matter, some of the text selections will contain potentially offensive and disturbing language, imagery, and subjects. Additionally, class discussions will involve controversial topics, including religion and politics. Should you have a problem with this sort of material, you should find another class." He was doing this long, long before "trigger warnings" became a thing because, frankly, it was just easier to be up front than deal with an upset student later in the semester. Honestly, though, college is a place where you should be offended, where your beliefs should be challenged, where you should have to defend and strengthen your viewpoint or abandon it. But you should also be dealt with fairly by others, especially professors.

Chait locates much of the debate over political correctness on college campuses (although we don't really use the term "politically correct" much anymore). And while the Rude Pundit agrees that many of the examples he cites are frustrating and, perhaps, oppressive, often the whole story has a great deal more to it. For instance, Chait cites one case: "UCLA students staged a sit-in to protest microaggressions such as when a professor corrected a student’s decision to spell the word indigenous with an uppercase I — one example of many 'perceived grammatical choices that in actuality reflect ideologies.'" The problem there is that the 2013 protest was over more than just grammar. Rather, the grammar incident (on its own, sorry, bullshit) was a camel back-breaker for graduate students.

Chait also leaves out that much of the debate over political correctness comes straight out of the war over multiculturalism in college curricula, especially in the general education courses that all students take. The opening up of education to include learning about many, many more people of color and women seems today a no-brainer. But in the late 1980s, it was explosive. Here, the Rude Pundit was clearly and always on the side of the multiculturalists - and he's been in the thick of the debate. He remembers looking an elderly Shakespeare scholar in the eyes during a discussion over changing course requirements and saying, "No, students don't need to take a Shakespeare course" as the old professor's face turned several shades of frightening red. The notion that there was one and only one Eurocentric way to become an educated person is now seen as ridiculous and outdated by most in academia, and, indeed, by most people outside who think about this stuff (yes, of course, there is a conservative guard that keeps a flame lit to the Dead White Male canon).

Inside and outside the college campus, one reason why people dig in and call out every instance of potential offense is that it's a way to have some power in a time when power is being consolidated by fewer and fewer members of society. You might not be able to vote some sexist asshole out of office because you can't afford a Super PAC, but if, say, Todd Akin says something about "legitimate rape," you can make his life a living hell, for good reason. Speech in this way is an equalizer. Hashtag advocacy may seem facile, but its potency cannot be denied. And if you have carved out a space where your voice matters, like the classroom or a Facebook group (one of which Chait describes), then you are going to defend that, sometimes even to excess. The solution would be more power in general going to a more diverse and larger group of people, in our politics, our business, our lives.

And you cannot leave out that much of what Chait sees as the upsurge in political correctness policing on the left has been instigated by the overwhelming tide of blatant, horrific, and threatening misogyny, racism, and homophobia on the internet. If you are a woman online who routinely is told how she is going to be raped and gutted because she dared to say she didn't like a video game, then you might be a little more attuned to where such sentiments spring from in your daily life. You might retrench as a reaction to the attacks and call out the hatred, and sometimes that will tilt to excess by its very nature.

Speech is a tricky damn thing. It's a dangerous thing, too, as the Charlie Hebdo staff learned. What offends you may be perfectly innocuous to someone else. Who gets to win that? The Rude Pundit thinks word-policing is offensive. You might think certain words are offensive. If you think it's okay to ban a play on campus because it might offend, say, Native Americans (as in one case Chait cites), are you cool with banning a movie because it offends Christians (which is something the Rude Pundit was involved in fighting)? If you think someone should get away with ripping up a graphic anti-abortion sign she took out of the hands of a protester because it triggered something in her, then are you cool with someone tearing down your pro-choice sign because that person was triggered by past events? Chait limits the circular firing squad of speech to the left, but it goes across all lines. And it gets back to the Rude Pundit's first point: You cannot go through this life without being offended. He'll add: And through being offended, we often learn.

The point is that both get to keep speaking. It's when silencing happens that everyone loses. How do you know who the real assholes are if they just keep it to themselves?

(Note: There's a lot of shit the Rude Pundit didn't cover in here. There will probably be updates. The best outright rejoinder to Chait comes from Angus Johnson.)