Saturday, January 31, 2015

More fallout from the current PC debate

The fallout from Jonathan Chait's New York magazine article continues. Whether think Chait is a whiny white guy, that political correctness doesn't exist, or that he makes some good points unfortunately overshadowed by his being someone with a substantial platform and in no immediate danger of losing it, it's a good conversation to have on a large scale.

Freddie DeBoer, a writer on the left whose not afraid to criticize his own, wrote, I think, one of the best responses. Though he limits his examples to ones from academia, and to younger people, it's too easy to find some in the non-academic world. In the past few years, quite a few writers and bloggers, commenters, and people who'd gained a fair amount of respect in their communties have their names tainted because of some indiscretion. In a world where one can be accused of racism for criticizing Beyonce (yes, I've seen this happen), writing even a short comment on a blog becomes an exercise in ideological purity. And if the young people, potential allies, are leaving the left, what about older people and activists not tethered to academia and haven't read all the right things, or haven't kept up with the changes in vocabulary? Are they punished for not evolving quickly enough? Cohesion in nice, but what we're actually fostering is a very closed community where only those with the proper ideological framework are invited. Why is context irrelevant? There's a saying that's become a meme in the SJ world (and I'm paraphrasing here): it doesn't matter whether the person standing on your foot is a friend or an enemy; it still hurts. Well, it matters a lot if that person standing on your foot is also holding a gun to your head.

J. Bryan Lowder from Slate points out that it's also younger people who are eager to try out new skills that don't always translate outside the classroom:
Additionally, though it is impossible to say this without sounding condescending myself, a lot of the abuse of PC rhetoric comes from young college students who have not yet grasped the difference between a measuring tape and a sledgehammer. Of course, given that contemporary mainstream politics offers little for those hopeful souls who want to make truly radical change in the world, you can’t really blame them for gravitating toward a mode of critique that at least feels somewhat empowering. Here, first-year, is a framework by which you can reveal the (screwed-up) hidden structures of the world and use your newly honed textual close-reading skills to mount offenses against those structures—go for it. What works on a novel doesn’t necessary translate to a complicated, changeable human being, though, so it’s no surprise that the deployment of microaggression and cissexism and other social justice lingo can sometimes come off as strident and simplistic. It often is.
I wish the phrase "political correctness" would just die out already, or be replaced with something else. Self-censorship is apt. The stakes are much higher now, not because political correctness comes in waves, but because there are more venues in which to screw up. One tone-deaf tweet can cost you your job. A flip comment in a memoir and you're child predator. Some of it comes with the territory. Once you position yourself as a person concerned with social justice, the microscope is trained on you.

A certain degree of self-censoring is healthy and crucial for developing skills as a writer. But when feel as though you must parse each word for any possible transgression, it's a problem that merits a larger discussion

So is there a solution? Is there even a problem? Enough people think so, and I suspect more do and are afraid to say it, which kind of proves Chait's point.