Token Dissonance

Black & gay, young & conservative. A Southern gentleman writes about life and politics after Yale

Guest Post: In Defense of Tone Policing

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The following is guest post from a friend who has opted to remain anonymous for professional reasons. If you’re interested in adding your own voice and perspective to Token Dissonance, get in touch with my by email, and we can chat.

“Even rich, privileged people need and can learn good manners.” –Noddy

By Billy Goat
People who who are wrong about things matter, too, I guess.

People who who are wrong about things matter, too, I guess.

Left-wing twitter has been in a tizzy recently after New York Magazine‘s Jonathan Chait published this piece, in which he contemplated the possibility that political correctness was doing real harm to liberalism. It was not the best writing I’ve seen on the subject, and I don’t think it’s a must-read; conservatives have been saying things like it for years. But it made a stir because Chait is a widely read liberal writer. Predictably, people like Vox’s Amanda Taub disagreed strongly. People like Gawker’s Alex Pareene disagreed much less politely.
If anything, the less polite critics probably proved Chait’s point. But a better-written critique of political correctness on the Left came a few days later, from Fredrik DeBoer, a left-wing blogger who is genuinely concerned that his movement drives too many people away. Two paragraphs stood out to me.

I have seen, with my own two eyes, a 20 year old black man, a track athlete who tried to fit organizing meetings around classes and his ridiculous practice schedule (for which he received a scholarship worth a quarter of tuition), be told not to return to those meetings because he said he thought there were such a thing as innate gender differences. He wasn’t a homophobe, or transphobic, or a misogynist. It turns out that 20 year olds from rural South Carolina aren’t born with an innate understanding of the intersectionality playbook. But those were the terms deployed against him, those and worse. So that was it; he was gone.

I have seen, with my own two eyes, a 33 year old Hispanic man, an Iraq war veteran who had served three tours and had become an outspoken critic of our presence there, be lectured about patriarchy by an affluent 22 year old white liberal arts college student, because he had said that other vets have to “man up” and speak out about the war. Because apparently we have to pretend that we don’t know how metaphorical language works or else we’re bad people. I watched his eyes glaze over as this woman with $300 shoes berated him. I saw that. Myself.

DeBoer concludes:

I want a left that can win, and there’s no way I can have that when the actually-existing left sheds potential allies at an impossible rate. But the prohibition against ever telling anyone to be friendlier and more forgiving is so powerful and calcified it’s a permanent feature of today’s progressivism. And I’m left as this sad old 33 year old teacher who no longer has the slightest fucking idea what to say to the many brilliant, passionate young people whose only crime is not already being perfect.

What this reminds me of is that ridiculous trope from old-time movie where the everyman protagonist is at an absurdly fancy dinner, and he doesn’t know which of the seven forks to use from the comically-wide place setting. That trope is silly, yes, but it tells us something about the exclusivity of cultures that have too many arbitrary-but-ironclad rules. In the cloistered communities of Wesleyan and Sarah Lawrence and Haverford and other $50,000-a-year private colleges, one of those cultures has been created. It is a a class marker. A patois, a special language that only people of their cultural milieu can speak. It’s no coincidence that DeBoer’s examples above are obviously not from upper-class backgrounds. They don’t speak the language.
Here’s the thing: I do speak that language. Fluently, even. Not because I think it’s an important priority generally, but just because I went to Yale and I pick up the stuff I hear around me. I’m even fond of some aspects of that language. At times, it’s a code of manners that promotes courtesy and empathy for certain kinds of people—like black Americans, or transgender individuals—who are frequently starved for empathy and courtesy. I’m a conservative; I love manners. But the radical left has made the code of etiquette so complex and so exclusive that one needs to take a critical theory course just to understand it. And the left reacts with vituperation towards anyone—no matter how well-meaning—who transgresses that code.
There’s an old story (almost certainly apocryphal) about Queen Victoria. She was hosting a colonial dignitary in London for one of the fancy dinners I described above. The dignitary had never seen a finger bowl before, and instead of washing his hands with it, he drank the contents of the bowl. Most of of the dinner attendees were aghast at the awkwardness of the situation. The Queen simply lifted her own bowl, and also drank its contents.
Yes, there are plenty of race and class undertones to this story to interest the Left, but that’s not what it’s about. It isn’t about how cisgendered white women should react to persons of color. This is a story about manners. And yes, manners are important. But in a proper, well-adjusted understanding of empathy and courtesy, we react kindly to honest, well-meaning transgressions of manners. DeBoer’s point is that the Left does not react that way – and that it should. It often lacks the principle of charity even among people who should be allies.
DeBoer is concerned by “the prohibition against ever telling anyone to be friendlier and more forgiving” because he wants “a left that can win.” To be honest, I don’t really want that, but I see where he’s coming from. But I think he fails to make an additional, broader appeal: friendliness and forgiveness aren’t tools to get what we want. They are what we want. Holding to the principle of charity isn’t a means to an end. It is an end in itself. Charity is literally a virtue. Now go read some Aquinas, and stop being mean to each other.

About the author:

By day, I’m a spokesperson for fiscal conservatism. Some issues I don’t cover in my writing; they’re not part of my job description. But I do spend a lot of time reading, and sometimes I feel compelled to comment on things outside of my area of professional work. This is one of those things.
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Author: Rek

A gay Southern conservative with a fondness for God, guns, and gridiron. I'm a veritable pocket full of sunshine.

One thought on “Guest Post: In Defense of Tone Policing

  1. Pingback: Rage Against the Correctness | Token Dissonance

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