There are few things in life as exquisitely pleasurable as watching the terminally silly fight among themselves, and, for those of us who have turned the practice into a spectator sport of sorts, this week certainly did not disappoint. On Tuesday, New York magazine’s Jonathan Chait decided that he was tired of watching people he dislikes use the tactics on which he himself likes to rely, and, with 4,700 words of deliciously biting criticism, set off something of a firestorm. “The language police are perverting liberalism!” griped Chait. “The new political correctness has bludgeoned even many of its own supporters into despondent silence.” And then, right on cue, came those knocks at the door.
Over at Crooked Timber, Bell Waring reacted precisely as her target had predicted that she would, proposing that Chait “has a skin so thin that he cries when someone gets the butter knife out of the drawer anywhere within six blocks of his apartment, and is also so allergic to his own tears that he then needs to use his EpiPen and ARE YOU HAPPY NOW BLACK FEMINISTS1/1//!” At Gawker, Alex Pareene lamented repeatedly that Chait was a “white man,” and, among other things, accused him of “operatic self-pity.” In the pages of In These Times, meanwhile, Sady Doyle leveled a charge of “blatant racism” and suggested without embarrassment that Chait’s begrudging call for a less totalitarian political culture represented little more than a cover for his “white male tears.” It was, as one might expect, drearily predictable and depressingly stupid — just one more blood-stained grudge match between the Judean People’s Front, the People’s Front of Judea, and, when he can be bothered to show up, the Popular Front as well. I loved every minute.
Providing a nice overview of the contretemps, the Wall Street Journal’s James Taranto wrote that he would primarily be “rooting for casualties.” This strikes me as being the correct approach. It is enormous fun for conservatives to write long essays that rail against and mock the scourge of “political correctness,” and yet, as I am coming to learn, it is also a monumental waste of our time. As a genuine “liberal” in the classical sense of the word, I have no particular objections if people wish to descend into surrealism and intolerance. But I am under no obligation to indulge them either. Rather, I think that the best way of responding to somebody who tells you that they are “offended” is to first ask, “so bloody what?” and then to go and do something else. The most effective means of dealing with those who want to talk about who you are and not about what you have said is to repeat your proposition clearly, and to ask kindly if they have an answer to it. The most sensible way of reacting to the sort of ridiculous word-salad that the Left’s sillier emissaries have now perfected is to cackle derisively in their faces. Most people are pretty busy, and they do not have time to start each and every discussion with a re-litigation of whether or not there is such a thing as objective reason, or with a knock-down brawl on the subject of whether the Enlightenment was a Good Thing. If your interlocutor’s opening gambit is that conversation itself is a tool of the oppressors, why not just go get a drink instead?
Indeed, one has to wonder how long it will be before a more substantial backlash begins. “I am out of ideas,” the socialist blogger Freddie DeBoer admitted yesterday afternoon, before inquiring rhetorically what he is supposed to conclude when he sees so “many good, impressionable young people run screaming from left-wing politics because they are excoriated the first second they step mildly out of line?” Among the things that DeBoer claims lately to “have seen, with my own two eyes,” are a white woman running from a classroom simply because she used the word “disabled”; a black man being ostracized for suggesting that there is “such a thing as innate gender differences”; and a Hispanic Iraq War veteran “being berated” for using the phrase “man up.” Worse for him and his interests, perhaps, DeBoer also claims to have under his belt “many more depressing stories of good people pushed out and marginalized in left-wing circles because they didn’t use the proper set of social and class signals to satisfy the world of intersectional politics.” What, he asks in exasperation, is he supposed to say to them?
I have a few suggestions here. How about, “Stop bullying my students with your nonsense, you insufferable prigs?” Or, “This is a place of learning, not a witch trial, and we do not treat people like that here. Capiche?” Or, “If you can’t tolerate people who don’t agree with you, why are you engaging in argument at all?”
I daresay that if I had been in any of the situations that DeBoer describes, I would have walked happily out of the class. Why? Well, because there is simply nothing to be gained from arguing with people who believe that it is reasonable to treat those who use the word “disabled” as we treat those who use the word “n***er”; because there is no virtue in arguing with people who refuse even to entertain the possibility that they might be wrong; and because there is no good reason for smart people to subject themselves to barrages of epithets, delivered by people who have not yet been taught to think critically. On rare occasions, people with extremely ugly views do need to be exiled from polite society. But such occasions are — and should by rights be — few and far between. If your first response to somebody’s suggestion that there are palpable differences between men and women is to shout the words “homophobe,” “transphobe,” or “misogynist,” you are no more deserving of attention than is, say, Alex Jones. “Answer not a fool according to his folly,” the King James Bible suggests, “lest thou also be like unto him.” Why, one has to ask, does DeBoer tolerate it?
Once upon a time, “political correctness” was little more than a benign left-wing version of old-church-lady tut-tutting. Today, by contrast, the designation is used to describe what has become a sprawling, unhinged, and invariably unfalsifiable conspiracy theory that can be used to dismiss anybody who violates this morning’s edition of the progressive catechism. “Gosh,” one can almost hear DeBoer and Chait asking themselves, “have we unleashed a brigade of poorly educated, parodically self-indulgent, and chronically illiberal morons into our movement, the better to destroy it from within? And, if we have, will we ever be able to rid ourselves of them?”
The answer to the latter question, one suspects, may well be “No,” for as Hollywood has taught us repeatedly over the years, it does not pay to unleash unpredictable viruses into the ecosystem — even if one gains temporarily by doing so. And make no mistake, “political correctness” is a virus — a nasty, cynical, destructive sickness that is akin in both theory and in practice to the sort of irritating malware that pushes endless streams of nonsensical dialogue windows onto your grandmother’s computer and prevents her from e-mailing her friends. In the “politically correct” settings that Chait and DeBoer are describing, no sooner has a freethinking person started to say, “Well, I think” — than a grotty little pop-up box has appeared to interrupt him with a stream of tosh. “Error 349xxf9: Privileges unchecked,” a typical response might read. Or, if we are dealing with a more serious case: “Error 948xxer11: Tolerance Level Low: Fault at LGBT Sector Cis*Trans*Kin: Intersectionality Improperly Allied.” As within computing, the genius is the panic that this provokes. Just as scareware thrives on the elderly’s touching belief that they can “break” the computer by clicking on the wrong buttons, so today’s young are so terrified of politically-correct bullying that they fail to do what is obviously necessary, which is rolling their eyes, clicking quietly on “cancel,” and uninstalling the problem completely. The Left is arguing about the right level of “political correctness”? A plague on all their houses. Want to go to the pub?
— Charles C. W. Cooke is a staff writer at National Review.