It was only a matter of time before the culture of complaint known as the social-media world would collide head-on with one of the great phantom menaces of the past generation in American public debate, political correctness. The occasion for the Internet’s I Love the ’90s revival this week was Jonathan Chait’s epic effort in the pages of New York magazine to resurrect long-moldering lamentations against p.c. culture and its free-speech-stifling ways. The faux-daring thrust of his argument is neatly conveyed in the piece’s coy subhead, “Can a white, liberal man critique a culture of political correctness?” “And live to tell the tale” is unstated, but strongly implied throughout the body of the piece.
What’s striking about Chait’s litany of p.c. offenses is how genuinely thin and unthreatening it is. A conservative columnist was dismissed at the University of Michigan’s daily paper for composing a p.c.-baiting column in a rival conservative weekly; a mob of aggrieved, presumably leftist students vandalized his apartment doorway. A series of controversial speakers drew petition drives from left-leaning campus groups protesting their appearance. (Most of the controversial speakers proceeded with their scheduled talks, an inconvenient truth that Chait neatly finesses in his parade of horribles.) Some campus activists and professors speak, irritatingly, of triggers and microaggressions contained in commonplace written texts and social interactions and erect predictably self-defeating campaigns to warn innocent readers and speakers against any discomfiture they may encounter. A California professor of feminist studies seized and destroyed some graphic fetus-displaying posters wielded by anti-abortion protesters — and then nonsensically cited her hurt feelings as justification for her thuggish behavior. And some of Chait’s writer friends, together with members of a closed feminist Facebook group, have felt put upon by social-media campaigns targeting their work and, in some cases, their identities.
That’s pretty much it. And yet in Chait’s telling, the resurgent threat of runaway political correctness is nothing less than an existential peril for American liberalism. “While politically less threatening than conservatism (the far right sill commands far more power in American life), the p.c. left is actually more philosophically threatening,” he argues. “It is an undemocratic creed.”
There is, by the way, a fairly straightforward empirical test for such hair-on-fire alarms: If p.c. insurgencies indeed represented such a dire threat, one might readily have observed their mortal fallout leaching through the institutions of American life via the lockstep-coordination of all those p.c. zealots who matriculated a generation ago amid the ’90s culture wars. Instead, those ultra-radical recruits to the p.c. cause appear to have destabilized liberalism by growing older and settling into the sort of neoliberal complacency preached by thinkers like Jonathan Chait. But never mind that; just look at the thing’s insidious reach! “In a short period of time, the p.c. movement has assumed a towering presence in the psychic space of politically active people and the left in particular.”
For something so towering, though, today’s p.c. inquisition is weirdly leaderless and is armed with nothing resembling an intelligible agenda. There are also no prominent institutions underwriting p.c. crusades today — despite Chait’s half-hearted effort to indicate that purist-leftist furors are profitably ginned up by online content aggregators such as Buzzfeed. (Much greater quantities of ad revenue, and social power, are deployed in the service of Fox News’ liberal-baiting fantasies about Obama-sanctioned mass-relocation plans and Islamist “no-go zones” — or for that matter, to spur Chait’s own traffic-spiking complaints in the luxe lifestyle pages of New York.)
Grizzled veterans of the 1990s p.c. contretemps can at least summon to mind dim, ominous memories of academic grandees Stanley Fish and Catharine McKinnon making the case for university speech codes, of student protests pushing to overthrow a “dead white male” canon, and of firebreathing Oberlin undergrads wielding draconian dating protocols. Today, though, there are just the ill-defined hordes of Facebook and Twitter monitors, who exert a form of social control so total and immobilizing that one of Chait’s informants — his former New Republic colleague Hanna Rosin — has been driven to “avoid committing a provocation, especially on Twitter.” In practical terms, Chait’s account of this destabilizing philosophical threat to liberalism translates into the possibility that if you publish a book or float an essay-length argument (about, say, the dire-yet-diffuse threat of political correctness), lots and lots of people will mouth off to you on social media. (Meanwhile, for a sample of how truly toxic social-media abuse can get if you happen to be a female critic of online misogyny, see the testimony of feminist gaming critic Anita Sarkeesian.)
This is no doubt a nuisance, but it’s far from a clear and present danger to free speech, let alone to the liberal creed. Then again, the original ’90s agons over political correctness were distinctly content-challenged; they tended to fuss over the finer points of canon construction and self-presentation in decidedly elite campus preserves such as Stanford and Yale or concern the considerably less than urgent question of whether transgressive art made overwhelmingly by duly credentialed MFA graduates should qualify for federal government grants. (Short answer: Sure, but who cares, really?)
At a time when the American economy was climbing slowly out a crippling recession and Bill Clinton was presiding over a boom in the paper economy, the sudden furor over who and what might be derided as politically correct was flat out bizarre. One might even go so far as to note that the anti-p.c. crusade was a passing symptom of a much larger culture bubble — part of a decades-long American drive to sublimate class disparities in the wider economy into innately insoluble and tail-chasing controversies over legitimate cultural expression.
One of the only edifying ways to track a debate about political correctness is to pay close attention to what is, quite pointedly, never under serious or sustained discussion: the workaday oppressions of social class. Academic leftists of ’90s vintage dismissed class analysis as so much dour materialist folderol; culture was the great forcing bed of resistance, which is where the revised elite-university canon and the tediously topical art installations came in. Meanwhile, right-wingers and anguished liberals such as Chait would bemoan how literary and philosophical radicals have used the crude materials of identity to hammer away at the foundations of our social order — “a system of left-wing ideological repression” that, as Chait contends, “has bludgeoned even many of its supporters into despondent silence.”
But the real silence in all this recursive debate over identity-based exclusion concerns the material forces that could actually bind together the otherwise scattered and infighting constituencies of leftish reform. The whole drive to convert broad-based economic grievance into personalized, identity-based cultural complaint is precisely what fueled the 1990s p.c. bubble and all manner of structurally identical culture crusades on the American scene. It is far from accidental, after all, that the 1920s — the first golden age of culture warfare in modern America, with the heyday of Prohibition, anti-evolutionist courtroom battles and anti-immigrant red scares — also set what is still (just barely) the high-water mark of wealth inequality in modern American history.
We talk about campus propriety, social-media etiquette and the ever-fungible American identity, in other words, because we lack the most basic framework and vocabulary to discuss the economic ills of our daily lives — and the genuine public scandals that issue from them. Political correctness poses no threat to liberal order, but the fact that almost no American from anything less than an upper-middle-class background can pay extortionate college tuitions without entering into debt peonage certainly does. Put-upon writers and professors can ignore Twitter assaults and Facebook tantrums, but minority victims of predatory mortgage brokers are largely condemned to go underwater with their properties (and were almost three times as likely to have subprime loans blow up in their faces than their white counterparts). You can mount all the hashtag campaigns you want on Twitter, but try to launch a union drive in your workplace nowadays, and you’re pretty much screwed.
No one is asking for either the apostles of linguistic campus purism or their dogged liberal critics to shut up and go away — no matter how repressive one party fancies its antagonists may be. It would be nice, though, if American political savants could instead talk about something that mattered.