“You can’t get anyone to agree with you if they don’t even listen to you first.” –Sally Kohn
In the aftermath of the battle royale of articles, tweets, blog posts, and other responses to Jonathan Chait’s infamous (and more than a little hypocritical) rally against the sinistral arts of political correctness, I considered adding my own vernacular garrisons to the fray. However, a friend went ahead and offered a guest post employing most of the essential points I would have marshalled and spared me some trouble. But in maneuvering through the battlefield of what has largely been internecine wrangling on the Left, it may be worthwhile to offer some comment as one disadvantaged by the intersectionality, as progressives might say, of several measures of privilege.
There is the curious phenomenon of encountering white (usually heterosexual and often male) liberals from affluent backgrounds and elite educations who are all too willing to lecture me on the profundities of the multimodal oppression that black, gay, and working-class Americans face in this country. I will spare you, my audience, a Terri Lynn Land moment and just note that this recurring phenomenon tended to derail my attempts at having reasonable conversations with some people about how the Ferguson riots attacked black lives far more than the violence and vandalism “disrupted” any “paradigms” or “systems” of oppression. (Curiously enough, most of the black people in my social orbit somehow intuited this reality.)
To be sure, one does not need to be a member of a given underprivileged class to offer pragmatic insights into pertinent social issues. Indeed, non-members of minority-x might occasionally, possibly, maybe offer more insightful—dare I say, better—solutions than some (though certainly not all) members of minority-x in some circumstances, because societal groups and situations, liberal caricatures aside, are not monoliths. As such, though I have many disagreements with the first half or so of J. Bryan Lowder’s progressive attempt at an evenhanded critique of Chait, his broader analysis rang true on the following point:
“The problem with identity politics—in this particular manifestation, anyway—is that it assumes that just because a person claims a certain identity label, that person is necessarily empowered to be judge and jury on all issues pertaining to that category. The truth is, identity grants experience (and experience should be valued to a point); but it does not automatically grant wisdom, critical distance, or indeed, unassailable righteousness. To forget this is to turn individual people who possess a range of intelligences, backgrounds, self-interests, and flaws into two-dimensional avatars for the condition of humanity in which they happen to share. And, by corollary, to assert that it is impossible on some fundamental level for those who don’t share that condition to ever relate or speak to that person as merely another human being with ideas and opinions.
That logic is real, it is ridiculous, and it is truly tiresome. It deserves all the criticism it gets.”
But there is something insidiously unhinged about the self-aggrandizing fury in which many expressly “outraged” voices of “social justice” seem (perhaps ironically, if not surprisingly) more eager to comminate skepticism of progressively dystopian worldviews rather than seriously engage a broader range of perspectives and concerns (e.g. that #blacklivesmatter should extend to the black livelihoods immolated in the riots). In short, as even many progressives have noted, there seems to be a driving force underlying the worst abuses of P.C. culture that seeks to antagonize, conquer, and eradicate what are viewed as
insufficiently progressive “problematic” strains of thought, by whatever means necessary and possible, casualties be damned.
To put it more bluntly, there’s a whiff of vengeance and exploitative power-dynamics about the whole exercise that approximates a mockery of the fight against ubiquitous hatred, fear, and power-inequality that avatars of social justice purport to represent. In this regard, Michael Brendan Doughtery seems to have grasped a key reality (his emphasis):
“Political correctness conflates normal slights, sincere disagreements, thoughtless cracks, and the verbal miscues of the uninitiated with actual oppression. In extremely crude terms, political correctness engenders (or really, embodies) extreme sensitivity to status. The victims of historic oppression were accorded a low status by their oppressors. Imposing a low status on a group is a way of granting yourself permission to abuse its members. And so some of the normal rough and tumble of human interaction can be mistaken (or willfully misconstrued) as an attempt to replicate the very hierarchies that cause oppression and genocide. A real ‘P.C.’ blowup leaves one person crying and feeling misunderstood and ‘othered,’ while it leaves another person feeling both defensive and offended that the crying person appears to be trivializing real oppression.
Political correctness looks like grasping aspirational privilege. Related to the above. The right not to be offended, or the ability to punish those who offend your finely tuned sensibilities, is a form of privilege. Without having conducted a detailed sociological study, my anecdotal impression is that ‘politically correct’ styles of engagement are most popular among a class of people that is in a similar position to the old petite bourgeoisie:college students and strivers whose primary class consciousness is not their relative privilege over, say, Appalachian whites or people in the developing world, but their lack of power and status compared with the haute bourgeoisie, which is composed of everyone from crass GOP-affiliated lax-bros that want to go into finance to the polished and tamed ‘liberal’ graduates of Sidwell to the real inheritors of privilege like the Bush twins.”
It is a straightforward exercise in experience, empathy, or simple imagination to concede that an amorphous morass of systematic biases and (dis)advantages have accrued over time into what has come to be known as “privilege.” It likewise follows that the parameters of this privilege shift across various ethnic, cultural, geographical, socioeconomic, and other lines that impact different people in unimaginably complex ways. It is from this very complexity—and our avowedly universal belief in the value and dignity of individuals as such—that we ought to understand and accept that different experiences afford a broad array of perspectives that might not have occurred to us but perhaps should have. Some of these perspectives are more worthy of engaging than others, but where folks are wrong, it is generally worth considering that errors come from ignorance or misunderstandings than from malice. This is what is generally meant by the principle of charity, as my guest author noted.
A key ideological problem with the radical leftists whom Chait criticizes, some of Chait’s critics in turn, and even Chait himself is precisely this lack of charity—either in argument or in “live and let live” activism. You do not shout down or vituperatively impugn people whose views, motives, or reasoning skills you fundamentally respect. But once political opponents, or even skeptics, are deemed evil and perpetrators or abettors of evil—be it racism, sexism, classism, or whatever other forms of conscientious bigotry or stupidity are often ascribed to conservatives or the insufficiently progressive—then the desperate, venomous tactics of total-war activism become as natural and justifiable as the merciless socioeconomic quarantine we righteously impose on the most blatant antagonists of societal pluralism, from David Duke to Donald Sterling. Except, of course, people like Duke and Sterling are not remotely the norm.
In other words, the very folks who would have you believe that all their political or social theory critics—let alone actual opponents—are agents of animus, intolerance, and self-serving power dynamics (whether by pushing grannies off cliffs or promoting Taliban-style theocracy) are probably the same folks you should most suspect are projecting their own ignoble biases or motivations for their own agendas. Be wary of the activists and writers who demand that you heed their perspectives but have no use for anybody else’s. That is not to say that outrage is never good, reasonable, or worthwhile. Rather, those who demonstrate a sustained incapacity to refine rage at an ever expanding pandemonium of ills into a productive, conciliatory force that compels skeptics into constructive understanding instead of defensive recoil, are probably not going to be winning many wars you want to be part of.
Years ago, I wrote on the need to commit to the long-suffering project of tolerating those whose views we find abhorrent on even the most pressing issues of life and politics. In a similar vein, my friend Leah Libresco, a liberal Catholic blogger at Equally Yoked and The American Conservative, criticized the firing of Brendan Eich as a entropic salvo in a disturbingly segregationist trend of totalizing ideological warfare that threatens to transmogrify every aspect of our lives. That we are both openly LGBT people defending compassion for and patience with gay rights opponents whose views we would never want to see prevail is perhaps why those articles resonated across social and political divisions. The vast majority of Americans want to hear from and engage with those who manage not to believe the worst of them. The project of empathizing with sociopolitical detractors can at times leave even the best of us ineffably verklempt (to employ one of my boyfriend’s favorite words). Yet those situations in which empathy is the most elusive are precisely the ones in which it is most essential for all involved.
No, it should not fall on those afflicted by societal injustice to suffer the grating learning curves of those more privileged. Yes, engaging people where they are, defending the same colloquial liberties and philosophical charity for them that we would want for ourselves, and figuring out how to get them where we want them to be is the very mettle of social progress.
All that said, if you’ve read this post and happen to be an incorrigible progressive Democrat, feel free to ignore everything I’ve written here. Winning hearts and minds is probably racist anyway.