To say I stood up and cheered as I finished reading Jon Chait’s new essay on the resurgence of a toxic political correctness on the left would be an understatement. There’s some great reporting in it that really helps put into context what the new guardians of the identity politics left are up to. Here’s one nugget:
Last March at University of California–Santa Barbara, in, ironically, a “free-speech zone,” a 16-year-old anti-abortion protester named Thrin Short and her 21-year-old sister Joan displayed a sign arrayed with graphic images of aborted fetuses. They caught the attention of Mireille Miller-Young, a professor of feminist studies. Miller-Young, angered by the sign, demanded that they take it down. When they refused, Miller-Young snatched the sign, took it back to her office to destroy it, and shoved one of the Short sisters on the way.
Speaking to police after the altercation, Miller-Young told them that the images of the fetuses had “triggered” her and violated her “personal right to go to work and not be in harm.” A Facebook group called “UCSB Microaggressions” declared themselves “in solidarity” with Miller-Young and urged the campus “to provide as much support as possible.” By the prevailing standards of the American criminal-justice system, Miller-Young had engaged in vandalism, battery, and robbery. By the logic of the p.c. movement, she was the victim of a trigger and had acted in the righteous cause of social justice.
Chait has lots more where that came from. But the essay really deepens in the comparison between the early 1990s – when political correctness made its first appearance – and now. The difference is that the illiberal policing of speech, the demonizing of dissent, and extreme identity politics have now transcended the academy and arrived in social media with a vengeance. Twitter and Facebook encourage mutually reassuring groupthink, in which individuals are required to “like” anything that isn’t white, male, cisgendered etc., in which an ideology is enforced by un-friending those with other views instead of engaging them, and in which large numbers of Twitter-users can descend on a racist/sexist/homophobic etc miscreant and destroy his or her career and social life in pursuit of racial/gender/orientation “social justice”.
I’m an established blogger with an independent site and have witnessed several such campaigns now – and they cannot but exact a toll. I’m fine with being called a self-hating gay or homophobe or misogynist or racist or anti-Semite, but what of those with much less independence? People with media jobs in which any deviation from the p.c. norm renders them anathema to their peers, those in the academy who are terrified of committing a “micro-aggression”, those in minorities who may actually have a different non-leftist view of reality: what pressure are they being put under right now?
It seems to me they are being intimidated by an ideology that utterly rejects the notion that free speech – including views with which one strongly disagrees – can actually advance social justice, and by a view of the world that sees liberal society entirely in terms of “power” rather than freedom. And if you look across the non-conservative online media, this orthodoxy is now close to absolute. The few brave enough to take on these language and culture police – I think of Emily Yoffe’s superb piece on campus rape in Slate – will get slimed and ostracized or ignored. Once you commit a heresy, you cannot recover. You must, in fact, be air-brushed out of the debate entirely.
The right has its own version of this, of course. Many of us dissenters were purged and rendered anathema years ago. But look where that has actually left today’s GOP. It’s turned into this. And the left’s new absolutism on identity politics – now taken to an absurd degree – should, in my view, worry liberals more. Because it is a direct attack on basic liberal principles. Chait:
Politics in a democracy is still based on getting people to agree with you, not making them afraid to disagree. The historical record of political movements that sought to expand freedom for the oppressed by eliminating it for their enemies is dismal. The historical record of American liberalism, which has extended social freedoms to blacks, Jews, gays, and women, is glorious. And that glory rests in its confidence in the ultimate power of reason, not coercion, to triumph.
And reason is not constrained by gender or race or orientation or anything else.
One tip of this spear is related to sexual orientation, of course, in which some parts of the gay left are back to what they love most of all: “eliminating freedom for their enemies”. And you can see why.
If reason has no chance against the homophobic patriarchy, and one side is always going to be far more powerful in numbers than the other, almost anything short of violence is justified in order to correct the imbalance. The “victim”, after all, is always right. Gay beats straight; but queer beats gay; and trans beats queer. No stone must be unturned in this constant struggle against unrelenting aggression and oppression. In the end, they may even run out of letters to add to LGBTQIA. And all of the “hate”, we are told, is just as brutal as it ever was. And so the struggle must not ease up with success after success, but must instead be ever-more vigiliant against hetero-hegemony. So small businesses who aren’t down with gay marriages have to be sued, rather than let be; religious liberty must be scoffed at or constrained, rather than embraced; individual homophobic sinners must be forced to resign or repent or both, and there is no mercy for those who once might have opposed, say, marriage equality but now don’t. The only “dialogue” much of the p.c. gay left wants with its sinners is a groveling apology for having a different point of view. There are few things in a free society more illiberal than that.
And the paradox of this within the gay rights movement is an astounding one. For the past twenty years, the open, free-wheeling arguments for marriage equality and military service have persuaded, yes, persuaded, Americans with remarkable speed that reform was right and necessary. Yes: the arguments. If you want to argue that no social progress can come without coercion or suppression of free speech, you have to deal with the empirical fact that old-fashioned liberalism brought gay equality to America far, far faster than identity politics leftism. It was liberalism – not leftism – that gave us this breakthrough. And when Alabama is on the verge of issuing marriage licenses to its citizens, it is the kind of breakthrough that is rightly deemed historic. But instead of absorbing that fact and being proud of it and seeking magnanimity and wondering if other social justice movements might learn from this astonishing success for liberalism and social progress, some on the gay left see only further struggle against an eternally repressive heterosexist regime, demanding more and more sensitivity for slighter and slighter transgressions and actually getting more radicalized – and feeling more victimized and aggrieved – in the process.
Which reveals how dismal this kind of politics is, how bitter and rancid it so quickly becomes, how infantilizing it is. Any “success ” for one minority means merely that the oppression has been shifted temporarily elsewhere. Or it means that we dissenters in a minority have internalized our own oppression (by embracing the patriarchy of civil marriage, or structural hegemonic violence in the military) and are blind to even greater oppression beyond the next curtain of social justice consciousness. Or we find out in bitter debates about who is the biggest sinner, that in some cases, are actually more white than we are female; or more black than we are trans; and on and on. This process has no end. And almost as soon as it begins, many people in the gay rights movement or in feminist movement will soon find themselves under attack for not being sufficiently enlightened, and, in fact, for being complicit and even active in others’ oppression. Chait has a great dissection of what Michelle Goldberg has also observed among some contemporary feminists – an acrid, self-defeating, demoralizing and emotionally crippling form of internecine warfare that persuades no one outside the ever tightening circle of true believers.
Someone has to stand up to this, with more credibility with liberals than I will ever have. Freddie has; Yoffe did; Goldberg went there; and now Chait has written the liberal manifesto to fight back. Read it.
(Sidebar thumbnail by Cezary Borysiuk)