What New York Magazine’s Jonathan Chait Gets Wrong About Political Correctness

Does it really challenge "bedrock liberal ideals" — or just white men with platforms?

Jonathan Chait, previously a senior editor at The New Republic and currently a writer at New York magazine, spent a great amount of words last week espousing the virtues of freedom, liberty, and being able to say what you want. The New Republic is seen as something of an institution in journalism, though not without its problems, problems which have been discussed critically and ardently by prominent members of the journalism community, including The Atlantic’s Ta-Nehisi Coates. In December, the magazine suffered losses as many staffers resigned in response to a change in editorial direction. Chait was among those who resigned.

Now on solid ground at New York, Chait once a voice on the front lines liberalism at his old post, is using his new footing to push back on the criticism he and his colleagues received as editors at The New Republic. Chait’s missive is a challenge to liberal culture’s need for so-called political correctness.

Chait writes:

If a person who is accused of bias attempts to defend his intentions, he merely compounds his own guilt. (Here one might find oneself accused of man/white/straightsplaining.) It is likewise taboo to request that the accusation be rendered in a less hostile manner. This is called ‘tone policing.’ If you are accused of bias, or ‘called out,’ reflection and apology are the only acceptable response — to dispute a call-out only makes it worse. There is no allowance in p.c. culture for the possibility that the accusation may be erroneous. A white person or a man can achieve the status of ‘ally,’ however, if he follows the rules of p.c. dialogue. A community, virtual or real, that adheres to the rules is deemed ‘safe.’ The extensive terminology plays a crucial role, locking in shared ideological assumptions that make meaningful disagreement impossible.

Academic and social justice jargon aside, his opinion is a personal one, and this is his first misstep. What Chait argues seems to be less about his umbrage with the culture of political correctness and more about where he, as a white man — a white man with a platform — fits in a world where the voices of white men no longer control public discourse. Increased visibility of work from writers like Coates and others with non-privileged perspectives make those like Chait (and the publications they work for) seem like relics.

Chait defines P.C. culture as “a style of politics in which the more radical members of the left attempt to regulate political discourse by defining opposing views as bigoted and illegitimate.” In one fell swoop, Chait dismisses the idea that being politically correct has any value to anyone. He polarizes the possibility of opinion — one is either radical or reasonable; needlessly offended or pragmatic. This is a dangerous binary, one where the free speech of one comes at the expense or wellness of another. In the case of the Charlie Hebdo shooting — something that comes to mind in reading Chait’s argument — celebrants of the satirical imprint lauded the paper’s work in pushing the boundaries of free speech. But Charlie Hebdo also desecrated the boundaries of good taste. Free speech is not always good speech. A good newsman knows this.

Publications like TNR, or Philadelphia Magazine, or any other credible news organization have a responsibility to their readers to deliver content that is timely, authoritative, measured and balanced. That’s achieved through a balance of experience in the newsroom, something that’s attainable through newsroom diversity. It’s what prevents a piece like “Being White in Philly” or Rebecca Carroll’s piece about quitting the business entirely.

Unfortunately for Chait, the shape of news and public discourse will continue to change as more people of color, women, and those of the LGBTQ community have access to public platforms. The rules will change. The language will change. There’s a reason we don’t use slurs in newsprint anymore; because the framework for acceptable language and behavior changed.

Armed with language and platform, dissident voices are allowed to speak for themselves, and more importantly, speak back to offenses and micro-aggressions. It’s an idea that’s seems to elude Chait throughout his writing as he holds firm to the idea that political correctness is unreasonable and unfounded.

To be fair, as the language of social justice that Chait references begins to blend into the space of popular discourse, it can be distracting to the issues and have, in some ways, become so cliché within liberal spaces (particularly on the Internet) that they lose heft. Chait’s right; these conversations don’t have to be hostile, but it’s also ridiculous to want someone to be offended in a way that best suits the person committing the offense.

Disagreement does have value, and all the more so if one or both parties can concede to the idea that individuals experience the world differently on the basis of how they look and self-identify. That’s something anyone should be able to accept, without being offensive to others, even if one does not understand (or agree, entirely) with another’s point of view. If political correctness seeks to level the playing field of privilege that is afforded to white men as it is to no other group, surely that requires a level of concession within conversation and larger discourse, even if it’s to admit, “I don’t get it, but that doesn’t make it any less true.”

It would seem that for people of privilege, being identified as a person who discriminates probably has a more lasting effect than actually being a person who does. That is to say, it’s probably more socially damning to be labeled sexist publicly, than to actually be one, privately. And this is especially damning for writers and publications; their credibility hinges on the notion of whether or not they are trustworthy, fair and practical.

Chait, as many other self-identifying liberal whites do, triggers on the notion that someone will accuse him of something. “Liberals believe (or ought to believe) that social progress can continue while we maintain our traditional ideal of a free political marketplace where we can reason together as individuals,” he writes. “Political correctness challenges that bedrock liberal ideal.”

Except it doesn’t. Liberalism, like political correctness, is an ever-evolving concept, often furthered by discourse and new ideas, new boundaries, and new ways of discussing them.

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