The Case Against the Case Against Chait’s Case Against Political Correctness

Jonathan Chait wrote an instantly famous criticism of the rising tide of political correctness, which he defined 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.”

Amanda Taub at Vox counters by claiming that political correctness does not exist. You might expect that this would mean she denies that there is an attempt on the left to regulate political discourse by defining opposing views as bigoted and illegitimate. How could she deny such a thing? She never does.

Instead, she argues that political correctness does not exist because the term “political correctness,” she says, “has no actual fixed or specific meaning.” The logic is easy to follow: The phrase does not refer to anything. Therefore, there is no thing the phrase refers to. Therefore, the thing it refers to cannot exist! QED.

Taub’s approach, then, tackles the question at an ontological level, not an empirical one. Instead of taking Chait’s definition of political correctness and examining the world to see if she finds anything conforming to it, she denies us the ability to form such a concept in the first place.

(This reminds me somehow of Douglas Adams’ advice for dealing with a Ravenous Bugblatter Beast of Traal: just wrap a towel around your head. “A mindbogglingly stupid animal, it assumes that if you can’t see it, it can’t see you.”)

When she says PC has no fixed or specific meaning, she perhaps means that different people use it in different ways. There also isn’t an agreed upon meaning for the universe. (Poof!) What might hit closer to home for Vox readers, there’s no agreed upon meaning for fact or evidence- or even reality, around which an entire community is based. There is no agreed upon meaning for thought or consciousness. There is no agreed upon meaning for life; some pro-choice doctrine holds that it doesn’t begin until birth.

But then, it turns out that for Taub, everybody does use the phrase “political correctness” the same way. Indeed, “What defines it is not what it describes but how it is used: as a way to dismiss a concern or demand as a frivolous grievance rather than a real issue.” The definition of a word is based on how the word is used, sure, but “what it describes” and “how it is used” are not mutually exclusive. Words are used to describe. Unless, again, Taub decrees that something must not be described, must not be discussed; and that the important thing about a word is how it is used, in the sense of used as a weapon. Then the only question is whose weapon it is; “politically correct” is a critique used by the oppressor against victim groups, therefore it is an illegitimate critique.

Chait anticipated all this in his article: “I am white and male, a fact that is certainly worth bearing in mind. I was also a student at the University of Michigan during the Jacobsen incident, and was attacked for writing an article for the campus paper defending the exhibit. If you consider this background and demographic information the very essence of my point of view, then there’s not much point in reading any further. But this pointlessness is exactly the point: Political correctness makes debate irrelevant and frequently impossible.”

One can, in theory, argue forever and never penetrate the PC intellectual bubble. If someone argues evaluating truth or morality based on something other than group power relations, the response can always be “you’re only saying that to entrench group power.” If he then urges the evaluation of his approach and the PC approach by some neutral criterion, the response can still always be the same: “you’re only saying that to entrench group power.” Ultimately, considering other people’s arguments is a choice.
Taub argues that it is opposition to PC that closes minds: “Chait identifies a long list of disputes that he describes as examples of ‘p.c.’ demands that are hurting mainstream liberalism. But calling these concerns ‘political correctness’ is another way of saying that they aren’t important enough to be addressed on the merits.” And, “Chait clearly believes that ‘microaggressions’ aren’t important enough to merit his concern, and that ‘trigger warnings’ are a foolish request made by over-sensitive people. But he doesn’t spend much time considering why the people who demand them might think they do matter. The open communication offered by platforms like Twitter has brought Chait into contact with ideas that he clearly finds weird and silly. But rather than considering their merits, or why they matter to the people who put them forward, he dismisses them as political correctness, and concludes that their very existence constitutes ‘ideological repression.’”

This argument is wrong in an obvious way: if it is okay to label the existence of some ideas as “microaggressions,” why isn’t it okay to label other ideas “ideological repression”? On the other hand, this conclusion creates a moral equivalence between p.c. and anti-p.c., suggesting that neither one truly values open communication.

But demonstrating this requires us to define the concept of open communication. The difference between rejecting as wrong and defining as illegitimate is key to Chait’s thesis. If p.c. people merely tried to refute opposing arguments, that would just be participating in political discourse, not regulating it. On the other hand, to define yourself as right (as Taub does when he defines political correctness as not existing) and opponents as illegitimate is an approach that rejects the possibility or value of open discourse. So the question is which approach to discourse is better, the liberal or p.c. approach. Chait attempts to give arguments for his; Taub does not for hers.

Demonstrating that Chait is guilty of narrow-mindedness also requires examining his arguments to see if he is guilty of this. Taub does not do this, instead making unsupported assertions about what he is saying.

For instance, Chait does evaluate trigger warnings on the merits, referring to evidence that they aren’t a good way to deal with actual trauma. Moreover, Chait isn’t judging p.c. by whether its demands are important or unimportant, or weird/silly or normal. These are categories Taub imposed on his essay. Rather, he evaluates them by the standards of liberalism and openness, the assumption being that the importance of a cause does not justify shutting down opposing ideas.

And Chait looks in detail at the theory and justifications for p.c., quoting its adherents both in general terms (“Freedom of speech is a constitutional guarantee, but who gets to exercise it without chilling restraints of censure depends very much on one’s location in the political and social cartography…the wisdom of a true freedom is inexorably tied to who exercises power and for what ends.”- Bettina Aptheker, feminist studies prof at UCSC, cited by Chait) and their justifications for specific grievances. In fact, he examines politically correct ideas more seriously than Taub who, again, denies that they exists (“political correctness is not a creed at all.”)

Now, let’s look at some of Chait’s examples, in light of Taub’s claim that they are a long list of disputes where he thinks marginalized people’s concerns aren’t important enough to be evaluated on the merits. Chait cites case where a UCSB feminist studies professor stole an anti-abortion sign from two young women on campus, took it to her office to destroy it, and shoved one of them on the way. He cites another where students vandalized a fellow U of M student’s apartment for a campus newspaper column making fun of the school’s offense-taking culture.

Now, what exactly is the concern that Chait is refusing to consider on the merits? And what are these merits? What is so meritorious about stealing a sign from a 16-year-old girl and her 21-year-old sister, and pushing one of them? Chait has explained in detail the professor’s ideological justification for her action, and the deeper theory behind it which holds that the forms of free speech only entrench power relations, and the reasons he rejects these things. It is really up to Taub at this point to say why he is wrong, why (and whether) the feminist studies professor was justified.
Another criticism of Chait, by one Gene Demby, does not suffer from the vicious circularity of the Vox piece. Whereas Taub argues that Chait is wrong by defining political correctness as non-existent, or because he is a voice of privilege, Demby argues that p.c. is good on empirical grounds while entirely ignores the need to define it.

He argues Chait is unpersuasive because he doesn’t present evidence on how political correctness affects the way people exchange ideas, and that someone did some study showing that p.c. improves the creativity of diverse groups.

“Here’s how the study worked: The researchers asked hundreds of college students to brainstorm new busienss ideas for an empty restaurant space on campus. But first, they separated the students into groups and instructed some of the groups to discuss an instance of political correctness they’d heard or personally experienced….Other groups got no such instruction.
“Researchers found that groups that had both men and women and had been exposed to the PC norm went on to generate more ideas – and more novel ideas – for how to use the vacant lot than the mixed-gender groups that hadn’t discussed political correctness.”

So that’s it? That’s his whole argument? Not at all, there’s a whole bunch more, but that’s the whole empirical part of it. We know, quasi-pseudo-scientificishly, that talking about political correctness causes mixed-gender groups to come up with more novel ideas for how to use a vacant lot. How do we get from there to “p.c. improves creativity”? That’s where the story-telling, interpretive, non-empirical stuff our brains are so good at comes in.

The idea is that discussion of political correctness instilled p.c. norms in the group. These norms then reduced uncertainty about how to communicate with someone of the opposite sex, thereby making it easier for men and women to speak their minds in mixed company. Creativity doesn’t come from anarchic rejection of norms; rather, norms provide a framework for society to function, and thus for creativity (at least in group settings) to flourish. Further, (the non-empirical portion of the argument continues), we can expect that this effect holds true not just in the specific instance of groups of people coming up with business ideas, but in other spheres, such as allowing people to communicate politically in “productive ways.”

Now, while we’re in the business of making up interpretations for our poor, helpless data, let me try my hand: people were asked for instances of political correctness, and they immediately thought of cases of someone being hypersensitive. If they had been asked to think of examples of bigotry or insensitivity, or maybe even political incorrectness, they would have come up with examples of things they thought were wrong, and maybe it would have made them more likely to follow p.c. or other norms. But political correctness has negative connotations, and even if it didn’t, being asked to think of an example naturally draws you toward noteworthy examples, and examples are likely to be noteworthy because they are dubious or questionable, or anti-p.c. people have drawn attention to them. It makes political correctness, not political incorrectness, the focus of any criticism.

Another possibility: political correctness is an interesting topic, and discussing how stupid it is made people feel comfortable with each other, and put them in a frame of mind to come up with interesting ideas. Business plans for a vacant lot is a boring topic, and people coming at it cold naturally don’t come up with anything interesting.

Now, evidently neither of us can get anywhere with empiricism without imposing our preexisting theories to the data, let’s go ahead and consider the merits of Demby’s theories and Chait’s theories. Demby’s theory is again that norms are necessary for social functioning, and can enhance creativity. That’s true, but what norms should we have? Can’t the wrong norms, overly restrictive norms, also quash creativity? If so, how do we know how restrictive we should be?

And if “political correctness” is the correct answer, then what is political correctness? To refute Chait’s thesis, you have to show that he is wrong about PC as he defines it. His definition, again, is “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.” He specifically notes that many people overapply the term “to describe politeness (perhaps to excess), or evasion of hard truths, or…liberalism in general.”

So if we’re grappling with Chait’s argument, we aren’t just talking about any politeness norms. In fact, p.c. violates politeness in the cases of vandalism Chait mentioned, and broadly speaking in its refusal to listen respectfully to certain ideas, and its inclination to get bent out of shape in order to gain advantage, are impolite by some cultural standards.

Let’s consider more fully Demby’s claim that Chait does not present sufficient evidence.
“Chait offers little in the way of hard evidence to back up his warnings. He gives a lot of weight to comments lifted from a Facebook page and an incident in which a feminist studies professor shoved a protester….But when we’re worrying over the future of human communication…anecdotes and isolated incidents…aren’t enough on their own. And…Chait doesn’t present research on how political correctness may or may not affect the way people exchange ideas.”

Why does Chait need more empirical evidence? What points does he make for which he does not offer sufficient evidence? Demby doesn’t ever really say. Somehow, he thinks the “scientific” study he cites is more empirical than the anecdotes Chait cites, but even if that’s the case, it doesn’t mean Demby has used the evidence to effectively contest any of Chait’s claims.

Chait doesn’t give weight to a feminist studies professor pushing a protestor, he gives weight to her ideological justification for doing so, and the reaction to it in the academic community, where professors wrote letters to the judge arguing for leniency on ideological grounds. He also notes 2 million hits for a Buzzfeed article about instances of microaggression, which should count as hard evidence.

And hard, quantitative evidence isn’t the only kind there is. Chait quotes the Harvard Crimson as follows: “If our university community opposes racism, sexism, and heterosexism…why should we put up with research that counters our goals simply in the name of ‘academic freedom’?” Strictly speaking, that’s an anecdote, but it’s the Harvard Crimson, a pretty qualitatively important bellweather.

Meanwhile, even if we accept Demby’s interpretation of his evidence, we still have the enormous problem of cross-applying p.c. in a business-type setting to p.c. in the world of ideas and politics. Maybe keeping people from being rude to each other, or giving them clear norms so they don’t have to worry about whether they’re being rude, allows people to be more creative and productive, but how would you apply this to the world of discourse? As Chait points out, the result is “endlessly litigating the fraught requirements of p.c. discourse” (to find evidence for this proposition, consider every ideological movement that has ever existed.) Does preventing exposure to threatening ideas improve people’s thinking? Especially I’d actually say that’s impossible; even if that’s going to far, it would take some pretty impressive empirical evidence to convince me. Kant did his best work after Hume awakened him from his “dogmatic slumber” and he set out to create a philosophy that could withstand him. That’s only an anecdote, but it is qualitatively important.