Political Correctness and Free Speech

New York Magazine columnist Jonathan Chait recently published his argument against what he calls the “inversion of victim and victimizer” that occurs when political correctness reaches extremes. It is a piece that demonstrates the privilege–thoughtful as it is–underlying defenses of free speech from insensitive remarks. He compares the pain a white or cis man’s feels when their insensitive speech leads to repercussions, thus comparing it to the torment, suffering, even death that minority groups experience every day. And, of course, no article about political correctness is complete without Islam. The recent attacks on Charlie Hebdo act as Chait’s pinnacle example of political correctness run amok, inculcating all people reticent to lambaste Islamic culture in the horrors of that week in France.

Jonathan Chait, New York Magazine

Jonathan Chait, New York Magazine

His article paints a bleak picture of campus thought police, where seemingly anyone who criticizes Islam is protested and turned away. These include unsympathetic figures like Bill Maher and Condaleezza Rice. Maher, for example, who Chait thinks targets all religions equally, came under fire for his frequent roundtables where he and his conservative panelists take turns agreeing about how bad Islam is. Only when challenged did they retreat to the “not all muslims” corner.

Chait also mentions women’s rights activist and former muslim, Ayaan Hirsi Ali. She’s a fantastic, committed activist, to be sure, but when are white guys going to stop wheeling her out to agree with their problematic remarks on Islam?

He continues, blaming campus activists for perpetuating the central core of the PC movement: “that people should be expected to treat even faintly unpleasant ideas or behaviors as full-scale offenses.” This, I think, is perhaps a critical misstep in his thought process. First, there is no “PC movement,” just people who think being thoughtful is worth the effort. It’s worth it not because we like being offended, or being offended on another person’s behalf. It’s worth it because if we wish to let more people into the fold, and truly live up to the goal of increasing diversity and eliminating systemic privilege, it helps to reduce the amount of potentially offensive language that can drive away minorities.

The arguments against this line of thought must wallow in the extremes, however. This is why the recent events in Paris have reignited this debate. When the backlash wasn’t immediately anti-Islamic, or people expressed disinterest in denouncing one of the world’s largest religions, the champions of freedom of speech compared us to those who felt that the journalists at Charlie Hebdo deserved it–or worse, compared us to the extremists themselves. Chait knows better and is arguing from good faith, so he instead uses less-extreme examples, like a theater group at a small liberal arts college moving on from The Vagina Monologues because it excludes women without vaginas. (Check out the link. It’s actually a much more interesting story than Chait’s use indicates.)

Moreover, by his definition, political correctness has flowed outside of the academy because it’s a useful tool for controlling the narrative beyond one’s numeric capacity. Thus, social media activists picked it up, and now political correctness flourishes on places like Twitter and Facebook. On the internet, according to Chait, it drives a shadowy profit machine, “making identity politics a reliable profit center in a media industry beset by insecurity.”

Cartoon satirizing the attitude of many redditors toward free speech and feminism.

Cartoon satirizing the attitude of many redditors toward free speech and feminism.

Why is this a problem? Because it drives hashtag armies to harass him and his friends, like Hanna Rosin, whose argument was misconstrued and not taken as in good faith, leading to a twitter assault. At the core, Chait is deeply offended when others get offended at him for what he deems the wrong reasons. This is an unfortunate line of argumentation for someone who just a few paragraphs before argued for people on the internet to wear thicker skins, and learn to ignore microagressions. Why can’t he learn to ignore misconstrued aggression?

His article is complicated, and done in good faith. It is worth the read. But nothing in it is new. He casts Tumblr outrage culture in the same light as your average redditor, and thus lays out rehashed problematic arguments. “Radical PC leftists” exude some undefined, yet inherent tragedy in the left that prevents equal thought expression. Free speech for cis white dudes, then, is more important than trying not to hurt someone who may be engaged in an internal conflict with their sexuality or their place in society as a person of color. Comparing real suffering to not being able to crack racist or sexist jokes is a sad calculus. Chait himself doesn’t lower himself to that, but instead discusses a handful of esoteric incidents that he claims are “neither isolated nor marginal,” but which very much are.

The straw men that Chait and others against political correctness create can exist because everyday triumphs of political correctness don’t make the news, whereas the extremes are bandied about as if a mainstream problem. Indeed, Chait fails to even establish that there is some new form or frequency of political correctness that deserves attention. A professor told him that his students are quicker to offend today than before. Two years ago, his friend Hanna was the target of a social media assault. We are to believe that, because of these anecdotes, political correctness is a growing problem that only the recent events around the terror attacks in France have brought to the general public’s attention.

For your average person who will read this article and cheer on Chait, it’s the everyday expressions of racism and sexism that are at stake in this argument. The Charlie Hebdo media kerfuffle is a case in point. The incident served as an opportune moment for anti-Islamists to take their hate from marginalized white supremacist message boards to gilded reddit comments. After all, they seemed vindicated. Journalists died for free speech–lives taken for cartoons drawn. How fair is that? When people rushed in to demonstrate that the journalists in question may not be the saints we understandably wanted them to be, to contextualize their comments, and–perhaps most importantly–to contextualize the actions taken by the religious extremists, it became every anti-PC warrior’s “I Told You So” moment. Political correctness warriors can’t even condemn terrorists for fear of being labeled anti-Islamic!

A 2012 cartoon in Charlie Hebdo depicting Mohammad. According to Scott Sayare of The Atlantic, "One particularly vulgar cartoon showed Muhammad as a sort of porn star, naked, prostrate on his knees, his buttocks spread, his testicles and drippy penis dangling between his legs, with a star over his anus. The caption read, 'Mahomet: a star is born!'"

A 2012 cartoon in Charlie Hebdo depicting Mohammad. According to Scott Sayare of The Atlantic, “One particularly vulgar cartoon showed Muhammad as a sort of porn star, naked, prostrate on his knees, his buttocks spread, his testicles and drippy penis dangling between his legs, with a star over his anus. The caption read, ‘Mahomet: a star is born!'”

But those arguing against anti-Islamism in such a moment aren’t arguing that violence is OK, or exculpating the perpetrators. They are merely arguments against the hero-worship of Charlie Hebdo‘s editors, whose offenses against Islam emerged from nation that, like the United States, has a troubled history with Islamic imperialism and national prejudice against Islamic culture and customs. By pointing this out, writers weren’t defending extremist violence, they were explaining it. The journalists were a symbolic target of Islamic oppression by the West and were murdered for it. But they weren’t tragic defenders of our free speech. There are no heroes in this telling. That fact makes their murder all the more tragic, but it does not make them martyrs. Indeed, if they were heroes, would we want to valorize people perpetuating the hegemonic mockery and subjugation of Islamic people that flirted with outright religious intolerance? I don’t.

Indeed, rather than asking what about Islam drove terrorists to such extreme violence, your average leftist might first consider a different question. “Is fierce criticism of Islam by westerners something the world lacks at the moment?” Even before the attack this was not the case. In his article about this question, Andrew March put it most poignantly: “For my part, I doubt that future historians will look back at the period between 2001 and 2014 and remember it for its culture of appeasement, excuse, and apology toward Islamist terrorism.” By pushing our thinking beyond knee-jerk isms that emerge from such horrifying events, is it so bad that we seek to understand the complicated causal effects that resulted in such bloodshed? Why is it so bad that we go beyond blaming Islam for terror, and ask what we, westerners, can do to prevent such attacks in the future beyond profiling and further restrictions on Muslim religious expression?

Chait’s argument facilitates the reduction of a complicated process of understanding like March’s into a simple calculus involving free speech, privilege, and outrage channeled through a binary, simplistic fight over political correctness. Guess who wins every time when you remove so many variables? Free speech for white dudes.